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Policy & Practice

It’s Time for Our Wake Up Call: We Need Youth-Driven Care in the Child Welfare System

Written by
Mark Nickell, Guest Author
Executive Director - Building Bridges Initiative, Inc.
November 22, 2021

For almost 20 years, I’ve worked closely with the youth and families who interact with our child welfare system. My work has taken me across the country, but it has always kept me in close contact with youth.  

Everyone working in child welfare has a responsibility to care for youth. But more importantly, we have a responsibility to listen to youth, hear their voices and help them make their voices heard.  When we listen to youth, and let youth direct us in how best to care for them, we learn what they need and truly provide it.

That’s why I was at once heartbroken and inspired when I read Away From Home: Youth Experiences of Institutional Placements in Foster Care, the newly-released report from Think of Us in partnership with The Annie E. Casey Foundation. 

I was heartbroken because Away From Home reveals the trauma, hurt, abuse and emotional turmoil that so many of the nation's youth are experiencing in the foster care system. These youth are torn from their families and put under the authority of strangers. All too often, they end up in institutions that our foster care system mistakenly treats as a replacement for family care: congregate care facilities.

But as Away From Home shows, congregate care facilities fall woefully short of the mandate of child welfare to provide an environment that cares for youth well-being. 

Yet I was inspired because, for the first time, youth voices were being put front and center in how we talk about and address child welfare and foster care. This report was done by youth, on behalf of youth; it was guided by input from youth, and crafted to elevate youth voices. It’s never easy to hear the voices of youth speaking about their trauma, but it is always important to listen.

The best way to hear these voices speaking about their struggles is to read the report for yourself. But to me, the harm that’s already been done isn’t the full story; we need to focus on what we can do to change our foster care and child welfare systems to prevent this harm from continuing.

Currently, our child welfare system doesn’t prioritize youth voices and perspectives. In fact, more often than not, youth have almost no say in how they are cared for by the foster care system. And neither do the people who love these youth.

No other form of care service works this way. When you get sick with an illness and have to be hospitalized, that is when you need family most, and our hospital system allows family to see you, visit you, comfort you and help you. You can decide whom you want to see and how much you want to see them. But in foster care, the moment a youth falls victim to any number of problems, they are cut off from family support, separated from their loved ones and put through the emotionally taxing process of adjusting to an entirely new situation, all while being alienated from networks of natural, familial support. 

A big part of the problem is that we lack the services that could proactively work with families before intervention and separation occur; we just haven’t built out our continuum of care enough. 

But there are still steps we can take to follow through on the inspiration provided by Away From Home and put youth first in how we make care decisions. And while taking these steps won’t fix everything that’s broken, they can help us to hear hurt as it is experienced and respond in real time to the needs of those we’ve dedicated ourselves to caring for.

One of the simplest and easiest ways to get started is with youth advisory boards for our welfare system. You can get a lot of real and meaningful information from youth just by formalizing the feedback process. Get youth together, and get them talking. 

The next step is to start involving youth in hiring decisions, staff training and other parameters of the welfare system. Youth can and should become a part of how things are run in the systems and institutions that determine how they will live. 

Finally, you can even hire youth as peer partners to work alongside other staff members and provide valuable insight and perspective on how to reach, engage and care for youth.

All but this last step come with zero financial cost. There’s no reason not to implement them. And if we truly want to prevent youth from suffering unnecessary harm as they interact with our child welfare system, we need to start involving and incorporating youth voices now. The best way to get better child welfare outcomes for youth is to make child welfare genuinely youth-driven. 

There’s a lot to be done, but I remain optimistic. Ultimately, listening to and helping youth is the most rewarding thing we can do in child welfare. 

Mark Nickell is the executive director of Building Bridges Initiative, Inc.