What is Youth Engagement?


Written by Courtney Canova, 2020 ACF All-In Youth Engagement Team Member & Member of the National Foster Care Youth & Alumni Policy Council

 Over the past several years the child welfare system has shifted some focus to preserve and strengthen families. This shift can be attributed to data collection or even changes in policy or funding streams for services. However, the largest impact many recognize is the overwhelming amount of youth with lived experience speaking on panels and fishbowls, authoring articles and op-eds to “share their story.”  This is important as many decision makers do not have that experience of navigating systems firsthand to inform policy and practice. It is no question that these advocates and their experiences have moved mountains. 

Yet, when is authentic youth engagement border lining tokenism? Many advocates can reflect on a time where they were brought into a discussion last minute and their recommendations overlooked. Where their story was used as a “keynote” for a staff board retreat, a fundraiser for an organization or even at the legislature where the host organization saw a significant financial gain. Bringing lived experience to the table is something that the child welfare field no longer debates as best practice. It is best practice. But the question remains, what is meaningful and authentic?  

Spending nearly ten years in advocacy work, I have witnessed this firsthand and observed countless peers dance the thin line between tokenism and meaningful engagement. We’ve shared our stories, relived the trauma and continuously been vulnerable to all who will listen for the better of the system. Some organizations have taken an intentional approach to defining what engagement means and really put the insight of youth voice at the forefront of decision making. Groups that stretch across that nation, serve various jurisdictions and even come from the highest office in child welfare, The Administration of Children and Families (ACF) are great examples. Working with ACF was not just about sharing experiences to inform best practice, it was beneficial because of the structure. Easily, we could have been given a small stipend and asked to speak without much context or preparation as the team had experienced as individual advocates in the past. However here, that was not the case. ACF partnered with other large child welfare stakeholders such as FosterClub and Casey Family programs to not only compensate and hear the voices of the team members in this group, but to empower professional development in this space. All three organizations recognize that advocacy is not just a passion, it is a purpose for many who engage in it long term and they see the value lived experience brings to their practices. They work to dignify experiences through using international and inclusive language, providing compensation at an industry standard and delegating tasks to the members to help manage their own levels of engagement. This trend, of dignifying and engaging advocates with a level of professionalism is spreading across child welfare. Not just advisory groups such as this with ACF, but also with the National Foster Care Youth and Alumni Policy Council, also supported by FosterClub, Foster Alumni of America and Casey Family Programs. The Council keystone to the work is policy priority recommendations which are collectively drafted and published with youth experience. Another group setting the standard for meaningful engagement is the National Association of Council for Children, where members are engaged across all operations of the organization including various committees for the board of directors. It doesn't stop there, many requests for proposals that have been published through the Children's Bureau requires that those with lived experience are meaningfully engaged in the work.  

This all goes to show two important things.

One, that lived experience brings a value to the policy and practice of child welfare that data alone cannot. Secondly, that simply asking youth advocates to share their story with minimal dignity, minimal compensation and minimal thought is no longer acceptable.

It is a breakthrough for youth who have these experiences to know that their recommendations matter, their time matters and importantly their voice matters as they continue to give their whole selves to the work. The ACF team, FosterClub, and various other organizations are pioneering this space for advocates so great work like that of the Policy Council and the All-In Initiative are yet to come.  


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