Enhancing engagement with children and youth requires assessing agency capacities and practices.

The Quality Improvement Center on Engaging Youth in Finding Permanency (QIC-EY) is producing a series of Lessons Learned to share fundamental insights about engagement of children and youth, especially in relation to permanency decisions. Each lesson brings to life insights and knowledge gained as the QIC-EY project progresses.

The Lesson

Enhancing engagement with children and youth requires assessing agency capacities and practices.

System change in a child welfare agency means altering conditions throughout the agency to achieve improvements. For the purpose of the QIC-EY, the goal is improvements in engagement with children and youth. Efforts to facilitate system change need to begin with a thorough assessment of current organizational capacities and practices.

Organizational capacities include concrete resources, organizational structure and processes, knowledge and skills, culture and climate, and engagement and partnership. A thorough assessment process involves multiple stakeholders: child welfare professionals in different functions and at various levels, youths or young adults who have lived expertise, agency partners and others who engage regularly with children and youth. This assessment also includes exploration of each organizational capacity in search of strengths, gaps, opportunities and challenges related to current practice and to improvement of engagement with children and youth.

Application of the Lesson

The following prompts illustrate how to explore each area of an agency’s capacity as it relates to authentic engagement with children and youth.

1. Concrete Resources (Time, Money, Technology)

  • Do the agency’s personnel include people whose roles and responsibilities focus exclusively or primarily on engagement with children and youth?
  • Has the agency allocated funds for its workers to spend on activities that let them share high-quality time with children and youth (e.g., to treat young persons to lunch or to attend events with them), or do workers have to spend their own money for such activities? If workers spend their own money, can they be easily reimbursed?
  • Do the agency’s information systems track the process of authentic engagement with children and youth and the documentation of such engagement?
  • Are resources sufficient resources, technology and transportation for children and youth to connect with important people in their lives?

2. Organizational Structure and Processes

  • Do agency policies and prescribed procedures underscore the importance of authentic engagement with children and youth? Do they provide expectations and processes that support ongoing efforts to achieve it?
  • What training do workers and their supervisors receive about the value, importance and process of engaging authentically with children and youth in permanency planning?
  • What are the structural and procedural barriers to ongoing, authentic engagement with children and youth?
  • Are sufficient services and resources available and accessible to give children and youth a choice about the best way to meet their needs?
  • Do the agency’s quality improvement systems monitor engagement with children and youth, and do staff members use the findings to make improvements?

3. Knowledge and Skills

  • Do policy developers understand the fundamental principles of authentic engagement with children and youth and the implications of these principles for their work?
  • Do workers know and implement strategies for promoting cultural permanency for children and youth?
  • Do workers understand how to inform, prepare and partner with children and youth in ways that are trauma-informed and appropriate for each young person’s developmental level?
  • Do workers consistently listen to and advocate for the preferences of children and youth in all aspects of their work?
  • Do supervisors have the requisite knowledge and skills to coach their workers successfully regarding engagement with children and youth?

4. Culture and Climate

  • What are the agency’s assumptions, values, beliefs, norms and behaviors concerning engagement with children and youth?
  • Do leaders, managers and their workers believe in empowering children and youth to use their own voices and to express their preferences related to their own permanency?
  • To what extent do workers explain to children and youth the permanency planning process, their permanency options and the implications of each option?
  • Do leaders, managers and their workers believe in embracing children and youth as experts on their own lives, sources of solutions and partners in decision-making?
  • Are child welfare professionals at all levels accountable for the authentic engagement of children and youth and ensuring children and youth have voice and choice in permanency planning? Are these responsibilities included in professionals’ job descriptions?

5. Engagement and Partnership

  • Do youths or young adults with lived expertise make meaningful contributions to the agency’s policies and procedures through an advisory board or similar structure?
  • Are youths or young adults with lived expertise meaningfully involved in the development and delivery of training?
  • When youths or young adults with lived expertise participate in partnership activities, does the agency treat them respectfully and compensate them for their time and contributions?
  • Does the agency provide children and youth with resources that explain their rights and opportunities for voice and choice? Are these resources delivered in formats appropriate for each young person’s age and developmental level?
  • Does the court process allow children and youth to engage meaningfully in pursuit of their own permanency?

In Addition…

In addition to exploring the status quo in each of the areas above, the assessment process needs to encompass supplemental questions such as:

  • Why are circumstances the way they are?
  • How long have they been this way?
  • Why haven’t they been different?
  • Why can’t they be different?
  • What would it take to make changes?

The agency staff can use the responses to such questions to generate ideas for potential strategies to effect change. Some findings may require deeper analysis in order to identify promising solutions.

Though the primary value of a system assessment is to uncover strengths and opportunities for improvement, it has other noteworthy benefits as well. Dedicating focused staff time to this specific topic elicits conversations that might not happen otherwise. Assumptions and norms are questioned. History is explored to understand current conditions. Knowledge and resources are revealed. The collaborative approach leads to a shared understanding of how matters look now and how they could look in the future. Identification of strengths is a rewarding experience, and seeing opportunities can inspire motivation for change efforts. Finally, the discussions during the system assessment and resulting written summary capture institutional knowledge that otherwise easily could be lost over time. The assessment findings support the planning and monitoring of next steps. All of these assessment outcomes can help an agency to maintain momentum for broader systems change.

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