Engaging the Child

 “It’s my life you’re talking about and no one tells me what’s going on or even listens to me.”

Most of us spend a large part of our lives trying to get others to do what we want them to do. This applies to children as well as adults, especially those children in foster care. Being in a strange and uncertain situation, a foster child will seek and crave control. The adults in charge would be wise to engage the child at an appropriate level in helping plan for his or her future.

At any age, foster children may act to defeat the strategies of those who are trying to help them. If they are not invited to participate in a positive way in the planning, they can and do sabotage placements. They may do so with mean or angry disruptive behavior. They may be sullen, uncommunicative and passive-aggressive. In hopes of finding a placement with fewer chores and controls, a teenage girl can engineer a change of placement by accusing her foster parent of inappropriate touching.

Teens may perceive emancipation and independent living unrealistically. “I will be free of adult control, free to do whatever I want.” As they look to life after foster care, they may need to be gently reminded that no one truly can live independently.

Children lack the wisdom of experience. They are apt to resist control and advice. And they may have an unrealistic confidence in their own unaided ability to achieve a happier life. Foster parents, case managers and counselors need to be sensitive to the child’s desire to have things his own way and still engage him in planning for his present and future. Foster children may distrust adults, but, however naïve, they know what they want.

Like it or not, children are players in the implementation and outcome of case plans. In most states, the consent of a child age 14 and older is required for an adoption.

Breaking down communication barriers

To get someone to arrive at where you want them to be, you must start where they are. You cannot provide a friend with directions to your home without first knowing where she is coming from. And even before that, you must help develop a comfortable ambience between you and your friend, one where she is open to communication and wants to get to your place.

Don’t assume you and the foster youth are on the same page. Before you can engage him or her in a meaningful discussion about the future, you must first gain their trust. You do that by listening. Minimizing the foster child’s distrust of adults may take time. How can you communicate that, unlike others he has known, you have his best interests at heart and are willing to hear what he has to say?

The National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections[1] has attempted to give voice to a foster child’s desire to be heard. Here are a few wishes a foster child might express to their case manager about involvement.

“I need to take ownership of my future by helping to create my case plan. Ask me if the plan works for me before implementing it. Allow me to be active and involved, using my expertise and knowledge about my own life and relationships.”

“Communicate with me frequently. That will help me learn to trust you. If possible, plan our meetings outside of the child welfare agency office or school setting, which will allow me to feel more at ease. When you meet with me at my foster home, make time to talk to me privately and ask me about how things are going at home.”

“Please stay open-minded and actively listen to me and my opinions. Do your best to understand where I am coming from. Sometimes I feel like I am dismissed, treated like a piece of paper, or judged unfairly because I am in foster care. Don’t just tell me that you can’t help. Try to incorporate my ideas and opinions into our work together.”

“Be patient with me. I make mistakes just like everyone else. I am more than what I do wrong. Talk about my problems with me and in front of me. Include me in the conversation.”

“Let me know as early as possible about any changes that will affect me. Help me to plan how to manage those changes.”

Understanding permanency

Permanency may not mean the same thing to a younger child or teen as it means to an adult. If you ask the foster child what he or she thinks that permanency means, you may be quite surprised at their answers. What is the foster child’s notion of permanence? A return to his birth family? Adoption? Independent living? Very possibly, he or she has not thought much about it.

Their ideas may include the attraction of doing whatever they want, having no chores or being able to stay out as long as they wish. They are less likely to consider the necessity of finding and keeping a job, paying bills or budgeting their time. Their concerns may seem inaccurate and short-term to you, but they are real to the young person. Listen to them.

Because foster children have their own ideas about permanency, or lack of them, they need to be a part of the permanency planning discussion. Finding a family is a youth-driven process. Often the youth themselves are the best at identifying permanent connections that may lead to legal permanency and/or lifelong relationships.

Here are some questions a thoughtful older foster child might wish to ask his counselor or case manager about permanency planning, once trust has been established.[2]

“I need you to explain to me in detail what you mean when you talk about a permanent home. Why is it so important? What are the different possibilities? Can I go back to my birth family? Are my foster parents an option? Please listen to my ideas and suggestions.”

“Don’t push or rush me. Help me to understand and explore the pros and cons of all the choices, including adoption. I may need time to make up mind. Allow me to change my mind if I don’t immediately tell you that I want a permanent home.”

“Identifying and choosing a lifelong connection may be scary for me! There are so many things that are unknown and out of my control. Help me think about the future.”

Pat O’Brien and You Gotta Believe in New York City have worked to place more than 450 older youth with permanent parents over the years.  They focus on those above age 10, but specialize in older teens (16-21) getting close to aging out of care.  Teenagers are hard to place in adoptive homes.  YGB’s success is due to a reverse strategy.  They start with the young person rather than the parent in search of a child.  YGB asks the foster teen: “With whom do you get along?  Who seems to like you?”  It may be a neighbor, a coach, the boss in a part-time job, a teacher, probation officer, the parent of a friend, or someone else.  Then YGB invites that person to stop by their agency. They begin by saying that “Johnny likes and respects you.  He will listen to you.”  And the situation may progress from there, to increased casual contact and sometimes to a permanent home.

Bridging the gap

Most teens look to an idealistic future free from adult constraints. Don’t discourage them. Instead, indicate that you are there to help them realize their dream. To achieve any important goal, they need to get real. Avoid lecturing and offering advice unless asked for. You can help them think the journey through, beginning with the first practical steps.

The purpose of education is not to give people answers, but to help them learn to ask the right questions. (Mortimer Adler) Nowhere is that point more important than in helping a foster child think realistically about his or her future. Here are a few realistic questions which all young people should be asking:

  • Everyone needs a job? How will I go about finding one?
  • Where will my money come from?
  • Where and what will I eat?
  • Where will I sleep at night?
  • What about school? Do I need to finish high school or go to college?
  • How can I get my laundry done?
  • Where will I go for holidays?
  • Who are my special friends?
  • Who will be there when….?


Too often ignored, the most important player in achieving a permanent home may be the foster child. For any plan to work, the school-age child or youth needs to be actively involved. Otherwise, they are likely to sabotage the plan with detachment, negative behavior or simple non-compliance.

The first step in engaging the child is to break down the barriers of distrust. This is best done by listening to the foster child’s opinions and concept of permanency. Then help them think about some of the immediate and realistic problems that are very important when one becomes an adult without a permanent home.

Chapter 12 Engaging the Child Notes

[1] Ten Things that Youth Want Child Welfare Professionals to Know, at www.nrcpfc.org.

[2] op.cit.


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