Children and youth are experts on their own lives, but often they are not engaged meaningfully in their own child welfare cases by court professionals. They frequently have little or no power over important aspects of their lives that are impacted by court involvement. Court professionals need to engage authentically, meaningfully, and directly with children and youth to determine what they want and which options will work best for them and their families. Children and youth who are involved in child welfare proceedings are not always able to communicate fully what they need. As a result, engagement strategies need to be tailored to each individual’s age and level of development. Even though the roles of stakeholders vary, everyone on the court team needs to work to ensure that children and youth feel empowered to have a voice and a choice about their futures. Following are four ways that court professionals can engage children and youth of all ages authentically and can ensure their involvement in all decisions being made about their lives.
1.Use court hearings as opportunities to build relationships with children and youth.
Depending on the court’s structure, hearings may be the times when court professionals and children and
youth have the most contact with one another. To encourage and to set the expectation that all children
and youth attend their own hearings, the court should create a policy requiring this and should
schedule hearings after school hours so that the children and youth will not have to miss school in order
to attend. In court, professionals should ensure that the voices of children and youth are heard. All stakeholders need to engage and to build relationships with children and youth in hearings by acknowledging their presence and thanking them for attending. Court professionals should introduce themselves and allow Use court hearings as opportunities to build relationships with children and youth. children and youth to do the same. Judicial officers need to provide an overview of the child welfare case process and the purpose of the hearing in plain language. When speaking to and about children and youth, professionals should be respectful and give them ample time to speak and to ask questions. Additional engagement strategies include speaking directly to children and youth by referring to them by their chosen names, asking if they understood the proceedings, and explaining the next steps in the legal process for them. Judges and court professionals should engage children and youth in age-appropriate conversations about their overall well-being, including their education, current placements, family time, physical and mental health, and normalcy.