“I just want to know that I have a voice”: Learning what matters in the relationship between youth and their caseworkers

By Barbara Ball, Ph.D., LPC-AT

In our first blog from our February 2021 update, we shared the experiences of teens who were participating in child welfare court meetings. We discovered that they valued having their judge listen to them, take their perspective into account, and issue directives and decisions based on these conversations to move their case forward. In this blog, we share insight about the relationship between youth and their caseworkers, which for many youth is the most important person to help them navigate the child welfare system.

Terry* summed it up succinctly, “If you have a good relationship with your caseworker and you ask for something, you’re a lot more likely to get it. It probably makes your life a lot easier to have a good relationship with your caseworker because she is making a lot of decisions for you.” Alexandra added, “ I think caseworkers are supposed to make decisions for you based on what you want.” Therefore, a lack of connection or conflict with the caseworker can make case planning much harder, especially at the transition into adulthood.

In our interviews, we wanted to better understand how to strengthen the relationship between youth and their caseworkers, especially with older youth in care. We heard over and over again that youth valued knowing what was going on and having a sense of control. For example, Jesse liked feeling prepared. “So, [my caseworker] always lets me know what she’s doing on her side. So, I’m not just blindly just talking to her, seeing her once a month, but I just see her, and I know before court what she’s working on.” And Alejandra stated, “I was a person who did not like to not know where I was going, I did not like to not know stuff like that, and she always kept me up-to-date with my personal information. She was just very loving. “

Being fully informed about case planning, placement decisions, and permanency planning were critically important for the youth. They also wanted to have their voices heard and validated. Whenever youth encountered caseworkers who did not appear to listen and understand, they struggled with the relationship. Monique said of her caseworker, “That was my biggest thing. I just want to know that I have a voice and my voice will be used, but he never wanted to listen to anything, and I really didn’t appreciate it.” Feeling like they were not being heard was aggravating and upsetting, sometimes inducing a crisis. Sometimes, in situations such as these, youth like Nicole have had to learn to assert themselves because, “They start listening to me whenever I start getting really serious about it.”

Older youth need to practice decision making and independence as they transition into adulthood. Jose described it like this: “She thinks I can handle it myself. So, I like that. I like that trust, like the ownership of myself, like doing what I need to get done without somebody kind of like bossing me or telling me what to do. I think I have a really good relationship with her, and when I’m leaving, I’m gonna have to leave my caseworker. That’s gonna suck. She sees a lot in me and that’s what kept me going like having someone believe in you and knowing you can do it on your own.”

Deciding whether to stay in extended care or emancipate at age 18 is a particularly important choice youth have to make and youth wanted to learn about their options early on. Tanya recognized that having the correct information and getting feedback from her caseworker were important factors for planning her future. “I told [my caseworker] that soon after I turn 17, I wanna start looking into, not applying yet, but learning about extended foster care. And she said that she could have a sit-down conversation with me about it and help me go over some of the things,” shared Tanya.

Youth wanted to be able to make an informed choice, but sometimes felt that caseworkers were biased toward keeping them in care. “I think she kind of thinks I’m naïve that I wanna leave. Everybody thinks I’m in a good placement. It’s good, but mentally, I’m just tired of being here. I just feel like [she could have a better] understanding where I’m coming from, and understanding my point of view, and kind of like maybe try to put herself in my shoes.” In this example, Joe’s desire to leave the foster care system behind conflicted with his caseworker’s concerns about leaving the system, especially during the COVID 19 pandemic. However, Joe was articulating his feelings and ideas openly and discussing his options with his caseworker.

Vanessa, on the other hand, felt strongly that her caseworker wanted her to stay in care, and she didn’t have the heart to talk about her own plans. “My caseworker really wants me to stay in care. But I’m really just waiting to be 18 so that I can move out. I didn’t tell her that. So, just the fact that she suggested that without knowing what I was gonna do, I guess she probably assumes that I intend to stay here for a long time even after I age out. But that’s not really the case. I’m just waiting for the seasons to change.”

These examples show the importance of transparency and information sharing necessary for caseworkers and youth to both experience more harmonious case planning. The transition to adulthood is an especially pivotal time for youth in care to know that they are surrounded by caseworkers who prioritize supporting youth voice, providing choices, and engaging genuinely with youth. As we have seen in previous studies, strong relationships with caseworkers promote a sense of continuity and relational permanency for foster youth at the transition out of care.


*All names used in this blog are pseudonyms and are meant to protect the privacy of Texas Youth Permanency Study participants.

This blog was originally posted on the TYPS website. View it here.