Barriers to Authentic Youth Engagement in Permanency Planning

The Quality Improvement Center on Engaging Youth in Finding Permanency (QIC-EY) is a cooperative agreement, funded by the Children’s Bureau, which is charged with advancing child welfare programs and practice to ensure that children and youth in the child welfare system throughout the United States are authentically engaged in finding permanence. It is expected that the work of the QIC-EY will bring about systemic changes in how children and youth are authentically engaged as reflected in intentional
policy, practice, and culture shifts in the pilot sites. We believe ensuring that children and youth in care are authentically engaged, particularly as it relates to permanency, requires a paradigm shift in how the child welfare system understands and views their involvement in decision-making. Interviews were conducted with 15 people with recent lived expertise in the child welfare system (Wollen et al., 2022), 15 child welfare professionals (Vanderwill et al., 2022), and 11 court professionals (Peters & Vesneski,
2022). In addition, the QIC-EY Youth Engagement Advisory Council compiled a report of the most common barriers council members with lived expertise had experienced while in care (Gagnon & Santiago, 2022). These groups are referred to collectively as “stakeholders” throughout. Researchers conducted a qualitative analysis of these four reports, which identified the following
barriers to authentic children and youth engagement:

  1. Time constraints, worker turnover
  2. Policy, laws, or regulations
  3. Lack of resources or training
  4. Youth lacks psychological safety
  5. Worker bias
  6. Youth not prepared or informed
  7. Workers don’t listen to youth
  8. Workers and adults retain power

Across all the interviews, the most common barrier to youth engagement was a combination of time constraints, staffing challenges, and legal regulations. Child welfare is an under-resourced field, and overloaded caseworkers report they rarely have the time required to build trusting relationships, elicit information from the child or youth, and advocate for their preferences. People with lived expertise shared that they often felt pressured to accept a “one-size-fits-all” plan developed by their worker because it was presented to them as the only option. All stakeholders explained that child welfare and court professionals often lack training, resources, and scaffolding to teach them how to engage with children and youth and support their relational and cultural permanency in practice. All of the stakeholder groups expressed a sense of disempowerment. People with lived expertise shared feeling like they had no control over the outcome of their case. Workers felt a similar sense of disempowerment due to federal,
state, and agency policies, as well as large caseloads, resulting in limited time and ability to do the “fun” parts of the job and meaningfully engage with children and youth. Court professionals struggled to think of tangible ways to make court a child and youth-friendly space where children and youth feel comfortable sharing their story in an empowered manner. It is the research team’s hope that addressing the identified barriers may result in an enhanced perception of voice and choice among children and youth, child welfare staff, and legal staff.


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