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American Public Human Services Association
American Public Human Services Association
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Families and Youth Served


Public child welfare agencies have an obligation to establish effective, empowering, two-way communications with the families and youth who are receiving public child welfare services. The field recognizes the value of inclusive and respectful practices with these families and youth. It is important for all practices, service delivery and communications to be easily understood, fully explained and as transparent as possible. Youth and families who are engaged in the public child welfare system need to be heard and be active participants in decision-making. They also need to know that their input, questions, concerns and especially complaints about service delivery are recognized, valued and addressed.

Youth and families are more apt to actively participate in planning and decision-making, be open to assistance and share responsibility in outcomes, if they feel informed. Anxiety and distrust can be alleviated by effectively educating children, youth and families about what to expect and who does what in the system – the policies, practices, legal requirements and timelines.

As much as possible, families and youth should be consulted before developing educational and communications pieces for and about them. They are in the best position to guide the crafting of what messages are important to them and how best to deliver these messages. In addition, through the use of individual interviews, or, where a larger sample or quick turn-around is needed, focus groups, youth and families can provide valuable feedback about the effectiveness of draft communications pieces. Consideration should be given to offering incentives to participate in focus groups, as active participation may require a considerable time commitment. Additionally, such input-gathering sessions should be scheduled at times and in locations that are convenient to the families and youth surveyed.

Written materials for those served should employ good communications standards that would be recommended for any audience: the use of plain language and short sentence structure and the avoidance of jargon. Tone is just as important as readability. Just as more effective case practices are strengths-based rather than deficits-based, messages should focus on benefits rather than be couched in punitive or fear-engendering terms. And since illiteracy might be an issue with some individuals, important information may need to be relayed orally as well as in written form.

Racial, ethnic and cultural perception should be taken into account in both oral and written communication. Materials should be developed with input from families and youth to eliminate biases and stereotypes. Written materials may need to be translated into other languages and translators may need to be made available to assist with oral communications. Sensitivity should also be given to those with physical and cognitive disabilities, remembering that agencies need to be compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.

While most communications with families and youth take place face-to-face during service delivery and therefore fall outside of Communications, much can be done to improve the quality of these interactions. Professional trainings can improve communications competencies of line staff and employees who interact directly with families and youth. Communications might also be engaged to review drafts of ‘boilerplate’ written materials destined for families and youth. For example –standard letters to families, notices of hearings and other such pieces are rarely developed by Communications and yet could benefit from a review so that the pieces are understandable, culturally accessible and are clearly written. In addition, Communications may be able to assist in identifying creative outreach strategies designed to engage families and youth reluctant to participate. Letters are one of the least effective ways to engage youth and families involved in public child welfare. More creative ways can be devised by linking to community events and trusted non-traditional communications venues such as churches, recreation venues and retail establishments.

Families and youth who volunteer to interact with the media on behalf of the agency need to be prepared by Communications for such encounters. The agency must ensure these interviews are done with full and informed consent. Likewise, media need to be sensitized to parameters that may need to be set around such interviews, either by the agency or those interviewed. Resources to guide media include:


Education about Rights and Responsibilities

Given how difficult the public child welfare system is to understand - let alone navigate -serious consideration should be given to developing a specific educational publication for families served. Likewise, a separate piece could be developed for youth under the care of the agency. Each publication should provide clear information about the agency, the courts and the larger child-and-family-serving system. It should also outline respective responsibilities of ‘all parties’ and the rights of children, youth and families served. Care should be given to develop such pieces in collaboration with families, youth and stakeholders - asking for their input prior to draft development and holding focus groups to refine those drafts. It is equally important to survey families and youth prior to reprint and to incorporate suggestions for improvement. A periodic review by the law department is important so that the publication stays abreast of changes in public child welfare law. Furthermore, involving stakeholders in the development process will increase the likelihood that they will assist in distributing such a publication and possibly even underwriting the costs of printing. A number of county and state agencies across the country have developed such ‘rights pieces’.

Complaint/Concern Mechanism

It is important for an agency to establish a simple mechanism for youth and families to communicate with the agency to voice their concerns, questions or complaints about services provided, inquire about grievance procedures or request dispute resolution. At a minimum, explicit information in the form of written material should be given to all families and youth, outlining ‘chains of command’ within the organization, contact information for their caseworker and supervisory staff and grievance procedures for agency oversight bodies. The establishment of a well-advertised complaint-resolution telephone line (‘Director’s Action Line’) or Ombudsman should also be considered.

While such complaint mechanisms clearly benefit families and youth, they also assist the agency by pinpointing problem areas and identifying workers or units that need additional training. Aggregate findings can be used ultimately to refine operations. In addition, worker compliance with agency policies, procedures and the law are reinforced with such formal mechanisms in place.


Strategies for Youth

Agencies may want to develop specific strategies to engage youth and improve communications efforts with them.

As with adults involved with public child welfare, youth want to feel included and respected. They need affirmation that their input is incorporated. As important individuals in the public child welfare system, their feedback should be given serious consideration and used to make improvements in services. Ways to involve youth include engaging them through focus groups, web sites, online/email surveys and direct mailings. Focus groups can be conducted at places where youth receive services, such as group homes or after school groups, as well as other sites such as the YMCA/YWCA and the Boys and Girls Club.

It is important that youth receiving services are aware of their rights and understand the proper mechanism for making complaints.

Other resources valuable to youth may be accessed best through a web site. These include but are not limited to: education and scholarship information, information about housing, employment and transportation and social networking opportunities. Social networking sites and other e-based communications channels allow youth living outside of the home, including those in foster care, to remain connected with their biological family, including siblings, if appropriate and desired. Youth may value support from other youth involved in public child welfare and benefit from support groups and related web sites (such as www.fosterclub.com).


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