Flipside: Engaging Youth, Partners, and Stakeholders

This is turning the table on the previous post, Advocacy 101. Administrators, legislators, and other decision-makers, this one is for you. Foster parents, youth, advocates, and others who read Advocacy 101: A Practical Guide For  Those Who Care in Foster Care, you might want to share this with other child welfare professionals in your life.

In order to write laws and develop policies that will improve outcomes in the child welfare system, it is imperative to listen to those most directly impacted by those laws and policies, those on the ‘front-lines’. This includes youth, foster parents, advocates who work directly with children and youth in care, and others who interact with the most vulnerable in the child welfare system. After all, who has a better understanding of the foster care experience than those who live it 24/7, 365 days a year?

Lately there is an emphasis on engagement, especially in regards to youth in care. Unfortunately, often an invitation to meetings is mistaken for engagement. As is the case with most things in life, engagement is easier said than done. True engagement is much more than attendance at meetings; and it requires time and effort on the part of all involved.

So where do you begin? Where are there opportunities to engage youth, those who care for and about them, and other stakeholders? My observation is that often child welfare agencies start at the ‘big picture’ activities, such as Performance Improvement Planning meetings or Governor-appointed councils. These types of activities generally occur because something has been identified as ‘broken’ and in need of ‘fixing’. I would argue that, while engagement at this level is necessary, it can and should begin at the individual case level, local level, and throughout the system rather than waiting for the ‘photo-op’ events. I would further posit that engagement should include (non-child welfare system) community members, with appropriate safeguards to protect confidentiality. As I have previously suggested, I believe there is great value in engaging the community in protecting and nurturing children/youth. (See my blog post, Domino Effect, A Child Welfare Fable, for more on this topic.)

Since lists seem easier to digest, here goes with my Top 10 Rules of Engagement:

1) Engagement begins at the case level. Children and youth capable of comprehending and contributing to discussions about their futures have a right to be included in case staffings, IEP meetings, court hearings, foster care review board meetings, and other conversations about them. ‘Nothing about me, without me’ is a wise guide to follow.
This rule also applies to foster parents, CASA workers, and others involved in caring or advocating for a child. As a CASA volunteer, I once learned after the fact that not only had I *not* been invited to a significant discussion about the future of a young man I had known for 3+ years, the youth himself had not been invited to the meeting. I was even more appalled to learn that, of the people at the meeting, only one had ever met him and their contact occurred less than once every 9-12 months. Hence, no one at the meeting heard how much this young man cared for and wanted to live with his grandmother or the herculean efforts the grandmother had gone to in an effort to obtain custody.
The only acceptable reason that a child/youth should *not* be at such meetings is when there is a well-documented potential for emotional harm. And even then, I would suggest that efforts can be made to minimize potential harm, such as having a trained therapist known to and trusted by the child present at such meetings.

2) Presence at a meeting and engagement are not the same thing. The old adage, ‘children should be seen but not heard’ has no place in the child welfare world. Children and youth have a right to express their feelings about matters that could impact them the rest of their lives.
This applies to foster parents and other advocates as well. The fastest way to breed mistrust, suspicion, and limited cooperation is to fail to provide a voice to the people who represent critical pieces of the child welfare puzzle.

3) Preparing for participation is just as important as physical presence at the meeting/staffing/hearing itself. As an adult, one thing I dislike most is going into a situation unprepared, not knowing why I am involved, or not understanding the purpose of an event beforehand. If an adult feels anxiety regarding such scenarios, imagine how a 14-year-old must feel. It is extremely disconcerting to be blind-sided by an important conversation, one that can have long-term consequences. Whether it is a child/youth in care, a foster parent, or child advocate; everyone deserves to know the topic of conversation, who will be present, and the anticipated outcome of meetings, at the minimum. Ideally all participants will have detailed background information including relevant policies and practices in order to be fully prepared to speak to the issues at hand.

4) Professionals need to be respectful of emotions when talking about major life occurrences, disruptions, challenges, or other emotionally charged topics. This refers primarily to children and youth but also to foster parents and others that have poured their hearts and souls into caring for vulnerable children. It is important to understand and respect that people have different ways of expressing emotions that do not make them more or less capable of actively participating in planning activities or more or less important to the process. Some may be uncomfortable with emotions in a professional setting. My advice–get over it. Emotional expressions do not mean that the content of the message should be disregarded.

5) The environment speaks volumes about the degree of importance attributed to the conversation and people involved. Hosting meetings in uncomfortable, poorly furnished, too large or too small rooms can serve as painful reminders that the child/youth/family are often viewed as second-class citizens.
I have worked in public and non-profit settings and fully understand that these organizations often have limited resources. I also know that often there are alternative meeting spaces available, libraries, schools, or businesses in the community willing to support the important work of protecting and nurturing children and youth. If you can ask yourself, ‘would I invite the Governor/Mayor/Legislator to meet with me at this location?’ and honestly answer yes, then the location is likely acceptable. If you hesitate in answering the question or know that you would be embarrassed to invite professional colleagues to meet at the location, you might think about seeking more suitable accommodations.

6) Speaking of environments, time and location sends a clear message regarding whose presence is most valued. Again, I understand the limitations. I also understand that often professionals expect others to accommodate their schedules. Expecting kids to miss school, foster parents to travel great distances without compensation, or otherwise schedule meetings at inconvenient locations and times sends a clear message about the value placed on their participation.
Much as I dislike that this can be an issue, it’s also important to think about ‘turf’. A meeting held at the local child welfare office requires that some people travel while others have the convenience of walking down the hall. It also implies that the agency/host location holds the most power in the conversation. Attending to these details can make a huge difference in perception, and ultimately, the level of engagement.

7) Personal presence can contribute to or distract from the conversation at hand. Wearing a newly purchased, dark blue, pinstriped suit and red tie may be totally appropriate attire for testifying before Congress. However, it will do little to imbue a sense of empathy and collaboration with most 16-year-olds. I am not suggesting that a total change of wardrobe is necessary for some meetings. I am suggesting though, that one be aware of the effect their attire and demeanor can have on the collaborative process. If possible and reasonable, it may be best to dress less formally if the goal is to make children/youth comfortable with participation in administrative meetings.
Similarly, it is important to recognize that a roomful of ‘suits’ can be daunting to youth and others unfamiliar with your office milieu. Awareness of the balance of power and number of persons representing an organization (or point of view) and appropriate adjustments can contribute to a sense of being a valued (and equal) partner in a process. Consider whether it is absolutely necessary to have several people from one agency in the meeting, especially when that agency has a degree of control or power over other participants. An adoptive parent once compared walking into an educational planning meeting to walking into ‘enemy territory’, with 10 educators ranging from teachers to the superintendent of the school ‘waiting to pounce’. Needless to say, she did not come away with the sense that her concerns were heard.

Note: These last three refer specifically to those ‘big-picture’ meetings mentioned earlier; policy or legislation discussions, quality improvement processes, or long-term ‘systems’ planning meetings.

8) Avoid having a ‘token’ representative from a given population. If you want feedback from foster parents, consider inviting several foster parents who collectively represent a variety of perspectives. The same applies to youth, perhaps more so. The ‘token’ youth is not as likely to speak up and be engaged if they do not perceive that they have peers, and support, among the participants.

9) When youth are involved, ensure there is a trusted adult accompanying them. This may be their caseworker, foster parent, CASA worker, school teacher or coach, or some other adult that plays a prominent role in their life. This person should also be advised of the purpose of the meeting and their expected role in the process. It would be best to ascertain their degree of comfort with the process as well. For instance, a caseworker may be intimidated by having their bosses’ bosses’ boss evaluating their every move at a highly charged political meeting.
While other populations such as foster parents or CASA volunteers may be more comfortable in high level meetings, it is best to make sure of this beforehand. If they prefer and it is possible, consideration can be given to including other persons that represent their interests as well. For example, including someone from the local or state foster parent association or staff with the CASA program can provide a sense of ‘balance of power’ in meetings or events.

10) This goes without saying (I hope): treat all youth, foster parents, and other stakeholders with the same respect afforded other professionals at the table. Make it clear that their time, perspective, and opinion are valued in the process. In most cases, professionals are ‘on the clock’ when participating in work-related meetings. Often stakeholders, especially youth and foster parents, are expected to volunteer their time. If possible, compensate them for their time, expertise, and contributions. Gift cards or other ‘perks’ from local businesses are an alternative if direct payment for time and expense is not an option.
Include participants in mailing lists before and after meetings. Inviting stakeholders once and then moving forward without on-going communications sends the message that their involvement is more about ‘show’ than it is about meaningful collaboration.

This is my top-10 list. You may have other suggestions–please do feel free to add to or comment on the list.
As always, you are welcome to share this with your colleagues. I would be most appreciative if you note the source when doing so.

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About ckhayek

I am a Child Welfare Advocate, Data-geek, Writer (and Reader), Cheesecake Baker, and Stunt Kite Flyer .... balance is important! 8-)
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