The American child welfare system is one of our nation’s greatest civil rights crises. It fails to meet its fundamental obligation: to protect abused and neglected children. Instead, it needlessly separates families – particularly black families – simply because they are poor and puts their children into foster care, where they often experience actual maltreatment.
Some child welfare leaders have come to understand that the voices of those directly affected by foster care must be included in the work to fundamentally reform the system. Organizations have invested heavily into youth engagement: training young people and flying them to Washington, D.C., for advocacy events. But too often, these young people are merely used to advocate for lukewarm policy proposals that fall far short of the big, structural changes they want to see.
I believe that if we reimagine how we include people with lived experience in all aspects of child welfare, from policy to technology, we can build a new system built on equity and justice, child protection and family preservation.
After my college graduation, I moved to Washington, D.C., to advocate for foster care reform, alongside my college friends who are also professional advocates informed by their lived experience in other fields. My queer friends fight for marriage equality at LGBTQ organizations spearheaded by queer people, and my undocumented friends fight for DACA under the leadership of undocumented leaders. They demand revolutionary change because their lives depend on it.
The child welfare reform movement is different. It is led primarily by well-intentioned advocates who have never experienced foster care, and who advocate for incremental change that will never deliver the type of bold reform that it so desperately needs.
At times, alumni of the foster care system are flown to Washington for advocacy events. Too often, they are treated simply as spokespeople for sad stories. The power dynamics are clear and uncomfortable – those who “invite” former foster youth to the table set the stage, having already developed the agenda and crafted the policy ideas. Instead of empowering the young person to lobby for the bold ideas they genuinely believe in, they often give the young people pre-written language in support of incremental changes. The advocates aren’t brought to Washington to demand a revolution, they are only used to “pull the heartstrings.”
I saw this firsthand. Alumni of foster care, like myself, demanded that Congress invest in supporting families in crisis, instead of separating them. In response, Congress introduced the Family First Act. The first legislative proposal created meaningful pathways to family preservation by addressing the root cause, poverty, with anti-poverty measures. Congressional Republicans balked at the notion of giving cash assistance to the poor. Child welfare organizations should have organized foster care alumni to advocate for the original proposal. Instead, the organizations settled for a water-down prevention policy that some experts think won’t do much prevention at all.
Foster youth weren’t present during the crucial conversations that led to the bill being stripped of its original intent and of foster youth voice. But they were flown back to Washington once the bill had been finalized and given talking points in support of a bill that was no longer their own.
That’s not authentic youth engagement – that is exploitation masqueraded as opportunity. Perhaps that’s why other movements are achieving monumental change – like the legalization of marriage equality and the inception of DACA – we’re still settling for legislation that allows for the separation of families whose only crime is being poor or sick. And that’s unacceptable.
After spending a few years working in child welfare policy, I pivoted to a career in civic tech. I help the government use technology to improve how it serves Americans. In my work, we use a methodology called User Centered Design to make sure we address the pain points of the people we are designing a solution for. In User Centered Design, that person is involved all the way from developing the idea, to testing it, to deploying and implementing the solution.
For example, if we were to develop a wheelchair, we would not assemble a team of able-bodied people and design the wheelchair on our own. Instead, through the entire process we’d actively engage people who use wheelchairs. We would design a prototype based on their needs and get their feedback as we test, re-test and then deploy a final product.
The child welfare field should embrace User Centered Design, not youth engagement. Youth engagement is infantilizing. By mere use of the word “youth” it establishes an inherent imbalance of power between them and the “adults” in the room. And not all advocacy comes from young people – adults who have lived in foster care and parents who have been separated from their children are also experts. User Centered Design shifts the power to the people being served, allowing them more influence and ownership over the solution being crafted.
Youth engagement typically means bringing in young people at critical junctures, like a Congressional hearing, when they need a sad story to help pass legislation. User Centered Design is agile, pausing to invite feedback at all steps of the development process and tweaking based on the feedback received.
If you’re a child welfare professional, I’d like you to pause and consider how you are engaging people with lived experience today. Are they hired and working on your team? Are they a part of an advisory board with real decision-making power? Do you put their interests ahead of what is convenient or comfortable?
If you answered no to any of the above, you may be unwittingly replicating the structural inequalities you are trying to solve. And you’re not alone – many organizations struggle to do this kind of engagement right. By switching from youth engagement to User Centered Design, we can begin to imagine a child welfare system built on equity and justice.
Lexie Grüber is a public service management consultant and child welfare advocate.