Involving Teens in Permanency Planning
Written By: Angela K. Neal
Permanency Specialist, Baltimore City Family Find Project
As a Permanency Specialist who works primarily with teenagers, I have developed some useful skills for effectively involving teens in permanency planning. But, before I delve into a discussion about permanency and teens, I think it is beneficial to first define what I mean by permanency.
Within the context of child welfare, permanency is achieved when a child or youth has a life-long connection with an adult who assumes a caregiver role. Some child welfare practitioners define permanency as simply a “forever home”. By definition, permanency is not transient, and arguably the most important component of permanency is an unconditional commitment to a child or youth.
Initially, permanency planning efforts focus on reunifying children with their birth parents; however, if it becomes evident that the birth parents are unable to consistently provide a safe home for a child, the focus becomes identifying another adult, preferably a relative or kin of the child, who is able and willing to assume this responsibility. Finding a relative or kin to provide permanency is ideal, but this is not always possible, and some children achieve permanency within a new family.
When involving teens in permanency planning, it is important to remember that each teenager is unique and deserves to be treated accordingly. Creating an exhaustive list of “do’s and don’ts” when working with teens is impossible. Nevertheless, the youth with whom I have worked have taught me that keeping in mind some universal guidelines can be useful.
First and foremost, achieving permanency is nearly impossible without the youth’s participation. In other words, involving teens in permanency planning is a must! This is not as straightforward as simply asking the youth to participate. Often, motivating any teenager can be difficult, and I have discovered that genuine “buy in” is much more likely when adults not only take the time to develop a relationship with the youth, but also understand the importance of truly listening to what is on his or her mind.
Relationship building is an on-going task that does not happen overnight. Permanency planning should always be done with a sense of urgency, but it is much more effective when a youth trusts his or her permanency team. Trust cannot be rushed—it takes time and commitment. I think that adults sometimes make the mistake of assuming that a teenager wants nothing to do with grownups and is only concerned with his or her peers. But, in my experience, when it comes to permanency, teens are looking for someone they can trust. Preparing for permanency as a teenager can be extremely scary. Having someone who supports a teen through the peaks and valleys of permanency planning is more important than having someone who watches the same TV shows or listens to the same music.
Another important skill when involving teens in permanency is the ability to listen with both your ears and your eyes. Getting a teenager to talk about emotions can be like pulling teeth–especially, if the teenager’s experiences with adults have been overwhelmingly disappointing. Nevertheless, teenagers are always communicating to us. Even silence is a form of communication. The task becomes deciphering what a teenager really means when he or she does or does not say something. For example, “I’m not interested in being adopted” may really mean “I’m afraid nobody wants to adopt me”. Silence is not always a sign of disrespect or lack of interest. It may mean, “I’m too scared to talk about this right now”. Not taking the time to figure out what a youth really means can make permanency planning much more challenging.
Although permanency may look different depending on the situation, all children and youth deserve permanency. As a child gets older, the need for permanency does not go away. I believe youth who are about to age out of the foster care system need permanency as much as a newborn child who just enters the foster care system. Achieving permanency for a teenager may require more effort, but with a little creativity and a lot of commitment, permanency is possible.