How can we better engage youth? The question comes up a lot in the child welfare system as professionals search for the elusive silver bullet to support, stabilize, and motivate youth in care. Like most things in social services, professionals need an array of techniques and skills to be proficient at youth engagement.

One Voice IMPAACT (OVI) has researched this topic extensively and held numerous focus groups with foster youth to learn about the do’s and don’ts of youth engagement. What we have learned is that the most important element of youth engagement is “authenticity”. Foster youth can smell insincerity from a mile away. They have developed this sense from years of adults making promises and not coming through. They all know that “we are getting paid” to care for them. From their foster parents to their therapists, youth often see our attempts to engage as transactional. This dynamic inhibits trust and attachment.

For the past 20 years, the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative has been researching, testing, and refining youth engagement concepts in partnership with 16 states. They have found that authentic relationships, defined by mutual trust and working as co-equals in decision-making, help young people recognize their strengths, leverage their expertise, assess their level of understanding, address their knowledge deficits, and assert their leadership skills.

“What keeps me going are the relationships with system professionals; knowing that these professionals are going above and beyond what their job requires to help you.”

You can build authentic relationships with youth through active listening, developing boundaries, working though conflict, being genuine and vulnerable, remaining curious and withholding judgment and advice.

Dr. Elizabeth Wynter is the Executive Director for the Selfless Love Foundation, whose mission is to enrich and transform the lives of current and former foster youth through raising awareness, strategic partnerships, and advocacy.

For more than 20 years, Dr. Wynter has worked on behalf of abused, neglected, and abandoned children, providing leadership for local, state, and national efforts to improve the child welfare system. Dr. Wynter’s expertise in strategic planning and systems building have supported her transformative work in the areas of independent living and adoptions.

Selfless Love Foundation’s youth voice initiative entitled One Voice IMPAACT provides current and former foster youth opportunities to develop skills for leadership and life, advocate for changes to policy and join a network of youth leaders across the state of Florida.