Empowering Youth Voice to Enhance Positive Child Welfare Outcomes

Chasidy grew up in foster care. Now 18 and having aged out of the system, her focus is shifting to building a life of her own with the support of The Relatives, a non-profit organization based in Charlotte, N.C.

She recently secured independent housing through the group’s On Ramp program. For so many years, I was living in other people’s houses and following their sets of rules,” she said. Now I come home and move at my own pace … I’m building my life, and I’m not depending on others. Today my dream is to have peace and stability for the long term.” 

Trish Hobson, executive director of The Relatives, describes On Ramp as a drop-in resource center for teens and young adults, ages 16 – 24, who could benefit from a partner in the evolution from childhood to adulthood. Through case management and structured support, clients find employment, education and housing opportunities, ultimately leading to independence. 

Hobson said the program was created in 2010 based on feedback from judges and attorneys who kept seeing kids age out of foster care and end up in the justice system, often because they were committing survival crimes.’ 

In the On Ramp program’s first year, The Relatives thought it would serve about a dozen clients, but 127 kids showed up, Hobson said. The Endowment supports the program through a three-year, $205,000 grant that helps provide a transition specialist to work solely with young adults aging out of care. It also supplies short-term rental subsidies and a year of ongoing case management. Since 2017, 96 percent of clients receiving a scattered-site housing subsidy through the Endowment’s funding did not return to the streets or shelters within a year. 

Chasidy, who entered foster care at 15, is one of those success stories. But reaching independence wasn’t easy. It just seemed like there was no hope with me being 18 and not meeting all the requirements to be independent, like having a credit score or the correct income to qualify for housing,” she said. Speaking with (The Relatives’) caseworker was a blessing — an amazing opportunity — it was my way out.” 

Chasidy works as a teacher’s assistant and has achieved stable housing for herself and her 3‑year-old son. She is setting longer-range goals. I’m reaching now for something higher than I was before. I have a lot more motivation and I’m more productive. I’m not hopeless or stuck anymore.” 

Much of her newfound direction was grounded in the sense of partnership she experienced with her caseworker, Desmond Rushing, whom she simply calls Mr. Des.” At my age, I know when an adult is downplaying me,” Chasidy reflected. It’s degrading when that happens — almost like I’m not even here. I’ve had lots of those experiences, but not with Mr. Des. He worked with me and we planned together. When I talked, he took notes. It was so motivating. He reassured me when I needed clarification and was patient. He was honest and open, telling me that it might not always be easy, but that I could get through it. I knew I could call him and ask questions because we were working as a team.” 

This sense of empowerment and partnership is one of the goals of The Relatives, Hobson explained, adding that special care is taken to ensure youth voice is valued and considered in goal-setting and planning. Our model for case management is client-driven. We help clients build plans by asking questions like, What are your dreams, goals and needs?’ We believe in meeting kids where they are and we believe that they are the experts in their own lives.” 

This approach is also incorporated into organizational practices, Hobson added, with the feedback and guidance of an eight-member youth action board consisting of clients who have firsthand experience to share. They meet monthly to inform our work and the work of the community. One member also sits on our board of directors,” she said. 

When The Relatives sought a new location for its On Ramp resource center, it chose the Freedom Drive area after young board members said it was a convenient bus ride away for many clients; showers and laundry facilities were also added after feedback from the young advocates. In addition, their input led The Relatives to offer budgeting and cooking workshops, and a donor-supported fund to supply free Uber rides to job interviews. 

Chasidy said that her experiences in foster care have shaped her in ways that will take some time to understand and move beyond. The support she received from The Relatives was critical. Today, as an independent adult, her advice to others walking a similar path is simple. Keep pushing, it’s going to be OK. You’re going to look back on this years from now and think, I did it. I made it past that point, and now I’m going to achieve.”

For More Information

To learn more about the importance of prioritizing youth voices in child welfare initiatives, read this briefing paper from the Child Welfare Information Gateway. For resources for N.C. children aging out of foster care, visit: NC DHHS: Independent Living Services for Foster Children. South Carolina residents: S.C. DSSChaffee/​ETV program.

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