CASA Deep Dive: Youth Voice

In this CASA Deep Dive, we’re delving into how advocates can help ensure that a child or youth’s voice is heard and meaningfully incorporated in court, service planning, meetings and other important proceedings that affect their future.

Why Is Youth Voice and Engagement Important?

In 2015, an American Bar Association study showed overwhelmingly that “foster youth want to participate in decisions affecting their lives.”

This probably sounds like common sense. Kids know themselves, what they’ve been through, and what they want and need, so of course they should have a voice in all this, right? The reality, though, is that it’s not that simple. The adults who are deeply involved in a child’s case can get caught up in the actions of casework and advocacy, causing the child’s voice to fall by the wayside. Plus, there are a number of other considerations and priorities in these cases that must be balanced – we’ll get into some of them later.

Despite the challenges, the fact remains: kids in foster care deserve to have a say in decisions affecting their future, and to be able to express their needs, wishes and desires to the people involved in their case, such as judges, attorneys, caseworkers, caregivers and CASA volunteers. Besides showing that the adults in their lives truly value and respect them, youth voice and engagement allows youth meaningful involvement and control in an otherwise unpredictable and scary time in their lives. It also contributes to social and emotional development and health. And the fact is, having age-appropriate, trauma-informed conversations with these youth and empowering them to speak for themselves can make all the difference in ensuring positive outcomes. For a real-life example of this, check out this blog post from our CEO Vicki Spriggs.

Additionally, the Texas child welfare system is undergoing major reform as Community-Based Care (CBC) rolls out across the state. As state-employed caseworkers go away and private contractors step into that role, protecting and prioritizing the voices of the children caught in the middle of the transition will become even more critical.

What’s Been Done So Far?

Increasingly, the child protection and legal systems are better recognizing the importance of youth voice and evolving towards more meaningful involvement of not only youth, but their families as well.

First, Chapter 263 of the Texas Family Code mandates all children in conservatorship of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to attend their permanency hearings. Even so, participation and engagement by youth in court is still the exception, not the norm. A national survey conducted in 2006 by Home At Last found that “an overwhelming majority of youth respondents stated they attend court only some of the time (73%), followed by never (29%), most of the time (20%), and always (18%).”

The state and federal push to utilize child, youth and family voice in child welfare cases has also made its way into recent Texas reform initiatives. In 2015, many regions around Texas began blending the separate child service plans by Child Protective Services (CPS) and the Child Placing Agency into one cohesive service plan. The so-called Single Child’s Plan of Service is meant to increase collaboration; better incorporate child, youth and family voice into service planning; and to help clarify and unify everyone’s goals for the child.

More recently, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 3390, a bill Texas CASA supported that will take effect Sept. 1, 2019. It requires guardians ad litem, attorneys ad litem and caseworkers to ask children, in a developmentally appropriate way, about any adult who could be a caregiver for them. It also requires judges to ensure that children are being asked about the relationships in their lives at every permanency hearing. By formalizing these sorts of conversations, HB 3390 will contribute to more youth and family engagement, which we know leads to brighter outcomes.

Despite these steps in the right direction, we continue to see challenges in fully integrating youth voice in the court and service planning processes across the state.

What Are Some of the Barriers to Making Sure Kids’ Voices Are Heard?

There are many challenges, both personal and system-wide, that can keep children’s voice from being heard in court and other proceedings. Some of them include:

  • Communication: As mentioned before, the adults involved in CPS cases are juggling many priorities, and even the most well-meaning of them can forget the importance of looping youth in. In fact, many children and youth report not even knowing about their court dates.
  • Accessing transportation: This can be an especially prevalent issue in placements with multiple children.
  • Schedule conflicts: Children in care are already predisposed to falling behind in school, so the idea of missing yet another class can be a real issue. Plus, school, jobs and extracurriculars are great opportunities for normalcy – while attending a court date is quite the opposite.
  • Trauma: Some fear that allowing youth to attend their court dates could be traumatic for them, and to be fair, this is true in some cases. More often than not, though, these children are more resilient than we sometimes give them credit for, and can be active participants in their hearings with enough compassion and preparation.

What Can Advocates Do to Help?

Start by operating with a foundation of respect for the child you serve and their lived experience. Regardless of their age and circumstances, we need to remember that kids are the experts on themselves. They are in the best position to describe what they’ve been through, how they are feeling, and what and who is best for them.

Prepare them for attending their court hearings. Court is a scary prospect, even for many adults. Have conversations with the child leading up to their court date, and make sure you run through what they can expect. Do what you can to make them feel prepared, and help them understand the importance of their voice in the court process. Ask them if they’d prefer to speak with the judge privately – the safer they feel, the more likely they’ll feel confident voicing their needs and wishes.

Eliminate barriers to getting to court. Make sure appropriate school personnel know about the child’s foster care status. Inform children, caregivers and teachers that attending court is an excused absence under the Texas Education Code. If transportation is an issue, Child Placing Agencies are contractually obligated to provide transportation for children to court hearings. CPS and CASA may also be able to help. If a youth cannot attend in-person, it is easier than ever before to stream youth directly into the courtroom with video conferencing technology.

Finally, if the youth cannot attend a court date or conference in, encourage them to write a youth court report to give to the judge so that their voice is still heard.

Build a relationship with the child’s attorney ad litem. The attorney ad litem (AAL) is appointed to represent the voice of the child before the judge. Informed by the findings from the Children’s Commission’s 2018 legal representation study, CASA volunteers can help ensure these attorneys are held accountable – that they are meeting with the child before hearings as required and providing the highest quality representation.

Help youth to use their voice beyond the courtroom. Encouraging kids to speak up not only helps them in the courtroom, it also helps them practice everyday communication skills and build their self-confidence. Validate them when you notice them speaking up for themselves, whatever the situation – and help them see the ties between it and positive outcomes.

The children and youth we serve are strong, creative and deserving – and more often than not, they know best what they need, and what and who makes them feel most safe. When we meaningfully include them in court and other proceedings, it can contribute to their continued healing from trauma, resilience, getting them more relevant services, and setting them up for success beyond their time in care.

The Honorable Darlene Byrne, presiding judge of the 126th Judicial District Court in Travis County, puts it wonderfully in this Texas Network of Youth Services video (emphasis ours):

“This case is about their life. That’s the biggest thing going for them. And if they don’t have a seat at the table and a voice at the table, what are we really doing?”

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