External Communications

Families and Youth Served

Public child welfare agencies have an obligation to establish effective, empowering, two-way 

communications with the families and youth who are receiving public child welfare services. The 

field recognizes the value of inclusive and respectful practices with these families and youth. It 

is important for all practices, service delivery and communications to be easily understood, fully 

explained and as transparent as possible. Youth and families who are engaged in the public child 

welfare system need to be heard and be active participants in decision-making. They also need to 

know that their input, questions, concerns and especially complaints about service delivery are 

recognized, valued and addressed.


Youth and families are more apt to actively participate in planning and decision-making, be open to 

assistance and share responsibility in outcomes, if they feel informed. Anxiety and distrust can be 

alleviated by effectively educating children, youth and families about what to expect and who does 

what in the system – the policies, practices, legal requirements and timelines.


As much as possible, families and youth should be consulted before developing educational and 

communications pieces for and about them. They are in the best position to guide the crafting of 

what messages are important to them and how best to deliver these messages. In addition, through 

the use of individual interviews, or, where a larger sample or quick turn-around is needed, focus 

groups, youth and families can provide valuable feedback about the effectiveness of draft 

communications pieces.

Consideration should be given to offering incentives to participate in focus groups, as active 

participation may require a considerable time commitment. Additionally, such input-gathering 

sessions should be scheduled at times and in locations that are convenient to the families and 

youth surveyed.


Written materials for those served should employ good communications standards that would be 

recommended for any audience: the use of plain language and short sentence structure and the 

avoidance of jargon. Tone is just as important as readability. Just as more effective case 

practices are strengths-based rather than deficits-based, messages should focus on benefits rather 

than be couched in punitive or fear-engendering terms. And since illiteracy might be an issue with 

some individuals, important information may need to be relayed orally as well as in written form.


Racial, ethnic and cultural perception should be taken into account in both oral and written 

communication. Materials should be developed with input from families and youth to eliminate biases 

and stereotypes. Written materials may need to be translated into other languages and translators 

may need to be made available to assist with oral communications. Sensitivity should also be given 

to those with physical and cognitive disabilities, remembering that agencies need to be compliant 

with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.


While most communications with families and youth take place face-to-face during service delivery 

and therefore fall outside of Communications, much can be done to improve the quality of these 

interactions. Professional trainings can improve communications competencies of line staff and 

employees who interact directly with families and youth. Communications might also be engaged to 

review drafts of ‘boilerplate’ written materials destined for families and youth. For example 

–standard letters to families, notices of hearings and other such pieces are rarely developed by 

Communications and yet could benefit from a review so that the pieces are understandable, 

culturally accessible and are clearly written. In addition, Communications may be able to assist in 

identifying creative outreach strategies designed to engage families and youth reluctant to 

participate. Letters are one of the least effective ways to engage youth and families involved in 

public child welfare. More creative ways can be devised by linking to community events and trusted 

non-traditional communications venues such as churches, recreation venues and retail 



Families and youth who volunteer to interact with the media on behalf of the agency need to be 

prepared by Communications for such encounters. The agency must ensure these interviews are done 

with full and informed consent. Likewise, media need to be sensitized to parameters that may need 

to be set around such interviews, either by the agency or those interviewed. Resources to guide 

media include:


Education about Rights and Responsibilities

Given how difficult the public child welfare system is to understand - let alone navigate -serious 

consideration should be given to developing a specific educational publication for families served. 

Likewise, a separate piece could be developed for youth under the care of the agency. Each 

publication should provide clear information about the agency, the courts and the larger child-and- 

family-serving system. It should also outline respective responsibilities of ‘all parties’ and the 

rights of children, youth and families served. Care should be given to develop such pieces in 

collaboration with families, youth and stakeholders - asking for their input prior to draft 

development and holding focus groups to refine those drafts. It is equally important to survey 

families and youth prior to reprint and to incorporate suggestions for improvement. A periodic 

review by the law department is important so that the publication stays abreast of changes in 

public child welfare law. Furthermore, involving stakeholders in the development process will 

increase the likelihood that they will assist in distributing such a publication and possibly even 

underwriting the costs of printing. A number of county and state agencies across the country have 

developed such ‘rights pieces’.


Complaint/Concern Mechanism

It is important for an agency to establish a simple mechanism for youth and families to communicate 

with the agency to voice their concerns, questions or complaints about services provided, inquire 

about grievance procedures or request dispute resolution. At a minimum, explicit information in the 

form of written material should be given to all families and youth, outlining ‘chains of command’ 

within the organization, contact information for their caseworker and supervisory staff and 

grievance procedures for agency oversight bodies. The establishment of a well-advertised 

complaint-resolution telephone line (‘Director’s Action Line’) or Ombudsman should also be 



While such complaint mechanisms clearly benefit families and youth, they also assist the agency by 

pinpointing problem areas and identifying workers or units that need additional training. Aggregate 

findings can be used ultimately to refine operations. In addition, worker compliance with agency 

policies, procedures and the law are reinforced with such formal mechanisms in place.


Strategies for Youth

Agencies may want to develop specific strategies to engage youth and improve communications efforts 

with them.


As with adults involved with public child welfare, youth want to feel included and respected. They 

need affirmation that their input is incorporated. As important individuals in the public child 

welfare system, their feedback should be given serious consideration and used to make improvements 

in services. Ways to involve youth include engaging them through focus groups, web sites, 

online/email surveys and direct mailings. Focus groups can be conducted at places where youth 

receive services, such as group homes or after school groups, as well as other sites such as the 

YMCA/YWCA and the Boys and Girls Club.


It is important that youth receiving services are aware of their rights and understand the proper 

mechanism for making complaints.


Other resources valuable to youth may be accessed best through a web site. These include but are 

not limited to: education and scholarship information, information about housing, employment and 

transportation and social networking opportunities. Social networking sites and other e-based 

communications channels allow youth living outside of the home, including those in foster care, to 

remain connected with their biological family, including siblings, if appropriate and desired. 

Youth may value support from other youth involved in public child welfare and benefit from support 

groups and related web sites (such as www.fosterclub.com).


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