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National Adoption Month: Engaging the Foster Youth in Your Life

Too often, conversations about adoption focus on birth or adoptive parents. But, for National Adoption Month 2020, the Children’s Bureau is turning the tables.

This time, it’s all about the child at the center of the adoption or foster care journey.

National Adoption Month’s theme this year is “Engage Youth: Listen and Learn.” The campaign aims to amplify the voices of youth in foster care — giving them the chance to share their stories and thoughts — as an avenue for improving child welfare and adoption systems in the U.S.

“Youth have ideas about what they want and need for their life and likely have questions and concerns they must discuss in order to move forward with permanency planning,” Jerry Milner, associate commissioner at the Children’s Bureau, says. “As you pursue permanency for older youth, it’s vital that each young person is able to inform the process and make decisions about their life.

“Consider ways you and your agency can create a culture in which youth partner with professionals not only in permanency planning but also in educating prospective adoptive families and community members and informing child welfare practices and policies.”

The Children’s Bureau offers a wealth of information on how you can engage the current and former foster care youth in your life. Check it out, as well as our tips below on how to help your foster child’s voice be heard in their own permanency planning process.

1. Foster trust and honesty with the foster child.

Before a child can share their personal journey, they have to feel safe doing so. And that means trusting you.

It can take a while for a foster child to open up when placed with a new family. Be open and honest with your foster child from the moment they enter your home; keep your promises, and support them through the hard times. Give them the time to feel comfortable in your home, and be patient if it takes longer than planned.

When your foster child begins to trust you, they’ll often naturally open up to you with personal thoughts and feelings.

2. Encourage creativity in telling their story.

Not all children want to talk about their story in person — but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to share it. Empower them to explore their thoughts and emotions however they feel most comfortable.

Some options:

  • Diary and journal entries
  • Stories
  • Poems
  • Drawings
  • Music
  • Videos

Show that there’s an interest for their stories with other work from foster children. Give them the chance to read through and watch the narratives from the Children’s Bureau, and encourage them to express their own thoughts as inspiration comes to them.

3. Make their permanency plan a constant conversation.

Permanency plans are constantly changing and evolving. Conversations surrounding them shouldn’t just be “one and done.”

Make conversations about their birth parents and/or permanency plan a regular occurrence. Your child’s feelings will change over time; check in with them often to see what they’re thinking and what they want in their own permanency plan.

Always gauge your foster child’s interest first. Not all will be interested in talking about these intimate details, and some may even be triggered by trauma from their past.

Give your foster child time to change their mind. Don’t accept a “final answer” on permanency when so many factors are constantly changing in their life. Your foster child should have the space to evaluate their feelings and consider all their options.

If a foster child shows interest in their birth parents or permanency plan, welcome that conversation and see where it leads. It may be uncomfortable at first, but it will get easier with time. Showing interest in a foster child’s thoughts and opinions will empower them to speak up to their caseworker when it matters most.

4. Recognize how important their voices are.

Your foster child has probably spent the majority of their time in care being shepherded from one home to another, with little to no advocacy in their own placements. Along the way, adults and caseworkers often unintentionally exclude foster children from these important conversations to “protect” them from the tougher aspects of the journey.

But it’s important to remember that these children are living these challenges. They are the experts of their own lives and should be treated as such.

If you’re a foster parent, make an active effort to include your foster child in these discussions, as much as possible. Ask for their opinion and listen to what they have to say. Make sure your conversations are age-appropriate, but don’t fall into the trap of prioritizing your own opinions because you’re the adult. Remember that your decisions and suggestions will have a lifelong impact on the child in your home. They can’t be made in a void.

5. Be the foster child’s advocate.

Because of the trauma associated with caseworkers and other officials in the foster care system, it can be hard for a foster child to speak up and make their voice heard. That’s where you, as a foster parent, must step in.

As you earn the trust of your foster child, they will likely share some intimate thoughts and opinions with you. However, they may be too shy or scared to do the same with their caseworker. Take notes of your foster child’s preferences for their permanency plan, and communicate those to the caseworker when the child cannot.

You may have differing opinions on what you think is best for your foster child, but you owe it to them to make their voice heard and acknowledged. Their permanency plan will change the rest of their life; shouldn’t they have a say in it?

For more suggestions on empowering the foster youth in your life, check out these resources from the Children’s Bureau.