By Maura King Scully
Young people in foster care often don’t feel they have choice and voice in making decisions about their lives. Studies show that when they age out of the foster system, they are less likely than their same-aged peers to participate in community service, trust the government or vote in a national election. Recognizing this reality, federal legislation over the past 20 years has supported youth participation in case planning, program evaluation and policy development, including statewide youth advisory boards. But are these boards effective in elevating youth voices? Researchers at BUSSW studied one unique and successful youth advisory board—the New England Youth Coalition (NEYC)—examining how it engages and empowers foster youth to help multiple states create better policy.
Formed in 2008, NEYC is a group of current and former foster youth and adult supporters from the six New England states who meet regularly to discuss best practices and advocate for systems-level change. “To our knowledge, NEYC is the only multi-state foster care youth coalition in the U.S.,” says Assistant Professor Astraea Augsberger, who coauthored the study with Associate Professor and Chair of Macro Practice Linda Sprague Martinez, Clinical Professor Julie Sweeney Springwater, who is also executive director of the New England Association of Child Welfare Commissioners and Directors (NEACWCD), along with BUSSW MSW student Kelsey Barber and Grace Hilliard Koshinsky from NEACWCD. Their study results appear in the journal Children and Youth Services Review 107 (September 2019).
The researchers found that NEYC employed a handful of effective strategies to engage foster youth in community advocacy and research. Topping the list was involved leadership: the fact that child welfare commissioners and directors from six states regularly attend NEYC meetings, where they actively seek youth opinion and input. The coalition also employs a youth-adult partnership model, where adults step back and allow the youth to lead, and provides ongoing training in community organizing, policy process and civic engagement.
Multi-tiered mentoring is another of its highly effective practices, which includes both formal and informal opportunities for youth-adult relationship building and skills development. Lastly, NEYC youth leaders are involved in meaningful policy projects across multiple states, including developing the Normalcy Definition and Normalcy Bill of Rights as part of federal legislation under the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014. Adopted by all six states, this policy outlines the rights to decision making around developmentally “normal” activities such as sleepovers, driver’s licenses, and school trips. NEYC youth leaders have shared this know-how with youth advisory boards in other states, including Nevada and Arizona.
While previous research has focused on state-based youth advisory boards, “our study is the first to describe the key elements of youth engagement in a regional youth coalition,” Augsberger explains. “Unlike previous studies, we also report data from multiple stakeholders, including current and former foster youth, NEYC staff, adult supporters and commissioners and directors from multiple states.” The degree to which NEYC impacted actual child welfare practice in each state was beyond the scope of this study, but in need of further examination. “It would be useful to know if efforts like this are changing the system to make it work better for all children,” Augsberger concludes.