Written By: Michelle Vance
My story began in the child welfare system, where it is known that resources are often scarce. I felt I did not have a voice and so now, as an advocate for youth, I am invested in sharing information that could have made my journey a lot easier.
Traits of the child welfare system can include moving from your biological family to different foster families or professional parent placements to live, intervention services, transition planning, goal setting, team planning and reunification efforts. I would like to share tips that can help to give youth a voice and feel in control of their life, even when the options for them are limited.
One set of foster parents I received became my adoptive parents and they were my advocates. They made space for me to share my story in art form when I couldn’t deal with those strong emotions as a child, they spoke up about abuse, they made sure that I understood why my things were being moved, why they legally couldn’t drive me certain places, why I went to a different babysitter than my siblings and other things that were new in my life.
I encourage those working with youth and young adults in any system to create space for them to share their voice in different modes. Different people have different communication styles and it is important to meet them where they are at. Written, art/visual representation, text, conversation or presentation style, survey format, etc. Be creative. Consider how a team meeting could be helpful or anxiety provoking to a young adult, is this something that can be done differently? Are there multiple ways to include the youth’s voice in the team process?
An impact of trauma is having a hard time asking for help (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US); so if a youth is seemingly resistant, understand this could be something they are not ready to verbalize. To further this thought, before you conclude someone is being “difficult” or “resistant” ask yourself how their experiences could be impacting their ability to be an active participant in the work and the discussion. How can you be someone who slows this process down? How can you make the process more conducive to how the youth naturally communicates? How does your power dynamic affect the relationship?
Not every decision can be made within the time limit of a typical team meeting, I encourage you to make space for a youth to decide what they would like and how they want to go about achieving that desired result, as much as possible. Allow time to come back to any discussion. Connect them to peers and near-peers who are doing well and can relate to them about the experience of being involved in the foster care system.
Through my work as an advocate, I have heard time and time again from youth in the foster care system how it hurts to lose a strong case manager, peer mentor or other system appointed role due to turn-over, understaffing concerns or other types of transitions. Many of these situations are unavoidable but what these young adults said helped them when these transitions did happen were the following things:
- An in-person transition meeting, when possible an introduction to the new person they would be working with or a solid explanation of what would happen next.
- A voice in resources being provided, sometimes a case manager, foster family or peer provider doesn’t match our personality and it is helpful to know we can change, if desired.
- Consistent communication, not during school hours as much as possible.
In conclusion, as an advocate, I also encourage you to involve yourself in policy discussions surrounding the child welfare system. Concerns regarding pay, under staffing and bandwidth of those providing services are most effectively addressed by those who understand the system and its intricacies from the inside.
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/