NACAC, like many organizations, is committed to ensuring that those affected by laws and rules have a voice in shaping those policies. Engaging youth and parents in advocacy is both the right thing to do and an effective way to achieve your goals. NACAC has experienced success at state and federal levels when we’ve partnered with youth and parent advocates who share their stories with policymakers. We’ve found the most powerful communications are those that pair a constituent who tells a well-prepared personal story with an advocate who can share data and extrapolate the story to hundreds or thousands of children and families affected by a policy.
Last October, we brought 11 foster and adoptive parents from around the U.S. to meet with congressional staff. Our goal was to emphasize that children and youth—even those with challenges—can be cared for in families as long as families are prepared and have support. As many as 55,000 children and youth are in group foster care, and we want policymakers to know that family care is preferable and possible.
In one meeting with key staff members from the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, four parents talked with love and compassion about the challenges their children face and how having a family has made a huge difference for their children. Committee staffers immediately began to talk about how the government might be able to help ensure that other children have the same opportunity to be cared for in families.
Below we outline a process we’ve found effective in advocacy efforts like these.
Establish Your Goals
First, you need to determine your goals and how a personal story might relate. In October, our objective was to encourage policymakers to think about how to support family-based placements rather than congregate care. We brainstormed the types of children and youth who are often placed in group care, such as those who need emergency care, teens, pregnant or parenting youth, and children with serious disabilities. Then we developed talking points to communicate:
- Children who face a variety of challenges are being raised in families.
- Families are the best place for all children and youth.
- There’s a family for every child.
- Families need training and support to help ensure they can meet the needs of children and youth.
Identify Youth and Parent Participants
Once your goals are in place, it’s time to find individuals who can communicate your talking points. First, you’ll want to consider whether the message should be communicated by youth who’ve been in care, adopted youth, foster parents, adoptive parents, kinship caregivers, or some combination. We typically find that having a mix of youth and parent advocates is most effective. Each has a different side of the story to tell, and it’s often the combination that paints the most compelling picture.
When seeking individual advocates, we recommend you:
- Find people who are constituents of the people you hope to influence. First identify key policymakers to target. Policymakers are elected to represent constituents’ interests, so the best advocates are those that live in the specific district.
- Ask for recommendations. We rely on our network of parent groups and agencies to make suggestions and introductions to individuals. If you’re working on a local level, you may ask for ideas from your staff or volunteers or other local agencies.
- Ensure diversity in your participants. It’s ideal to look for all sorts of diversity, including race/ethnic background, gender, age, and experience, especially if advocates will be presenting together. By highlighting varied stories, you help ensure that policymakers see the issue as a global one, affecting many people.
- Prepare for tough choices. Sometimes we have more possible speakers than we need. To narrow the field, we talk to each person about her story. Then we look at which stories mesh well and best fit our talking points. We try to be clear from the beginning that we will not be able to work with everyone. We tell those we talk to how much we value what they do and emphasize that our choices are often based on very specific needs and how various stories fit together.
Prepare the Advocates
We begin by reminding the advocates that they are the experts. Policymakers need their input. We also let the advocates know that meeting with a policymaker’s staff is just as beneficial as meeting with the policymaker.
Next, our staff work with advocates to ensure they are well prepared. During phone calls and in-person trainings, we:
- Explain the advocate’s role. We let each person know who he’ll meet with, how long he’ll have to talk (usually five minutes or so), and how the meeting is structured. If there will be other meeting participants to handle questions or make a policy ask, we make that clear.
- Help advocates think about things they should and should not say. We work carefully with each advocate to help identify the parts of her story that will have the most impact. Typically, we start with a phone call where we explain our goals and key points we’d like to make. Then the advocates share their relevant foster care and adoption experiences. Our staff note the points of the story we think fit best with the advocacy goal, while checking to make sure we have the story right. We ask the advocate to emphasize these key points when telling the story.
A second piece of this work involves making sure advocates share only what they are comfortable with. In written pieces, for example, we typically ask youth not to disclose specifics of abuse. We ask parents not to share intimate details of their children’s lives unless there is a specific link to an advocacy message.
- Offer specific tips related to the goals. At a recent meeting, we offered a mix of general and topic-specific advice for parents:
- Talk about your children as individuals — Use their names or nicknames and talk about things they like to do. Talk about joys as well as challenges.
- Use child-first language — When you talk about disabilities, put the child first (say “my daughter was diagnosed with ADHD” rather than “my ADHD daughter”).
- Emphasize things you do as a family that might not happen in group care — Talk about family dinners or events, sibling relationships, and how you help your children with school or other challenges.
- Speak about the challenges you face but emphasize that meeting challenges is what parents do — Remind policymakers that you are like other parents committed to meeting their children’s needs. Let them know you just need support to help your child thrive.
- Be respectful of your child’s birth family members and social workers.
- If your children have been in group care, talk about challenges they had or how they do better in a family. Point out various ways a family can support a youth after age 18.
- If you were foster parent to a youth who aged out, talk about how the youth is still part of your family. Speak about special occasions such as holidays or a wedding or challenging times where you have still been there for the youth.
- Ask advocates to make notes and practice. Experience has shown us that advocates do best when they’ve gotten comfortable telling their story to others. Before any of our meetings, we work with advocates by phone and at an in-person training where they practice in groups.
- Encourage advocates to bring family photos. Pictures can help make the case that children in care are just like any other children. Showing a youth surrounded by siblings and family reminds policymakers what we’re all trying to accomplish.
Meet with Policymakers
Whether at an individual meeting with a policymaker and staff or a briefing in front of many leaders, we’ve found several things contribute to success:
- Prepare written materials. Verbal communication is important, but it’s also good to leave information behind. We prepare a packet with written stories (see very brief sample below; names have been changed), a brief fact sheet highlighting key messages, and data points that help make the case. The packet lets the person you meet with easily share your points with others.
- Make sure the meeting is carefully planned. Identify who is doing introductions, what order people are speaking in, and who will facilitate questions. In case those you meet with don’t have questions, think about how you can get conversation going. Prepare questions you may ask the policymaker or staff about child welfare.
- Make links from stories to policy goals. Identify someone who will highlight how the stories relate to your policy goals. At our congressional meetings in October, after a parent spoke about his family’s needs, an advocate talked about the number of children in out-of-home care and how many youth were in group care. He then talked about the role the federal government might have in creating incentives for well-supported family placements.
- Make connections with the people you’re meeting with. It’s great to be able to start the meeting by expressing gratitude for recent legislative or administrative accomplishments in child welfare. The constituents can talk about their home community and look for common ground or mutual acquaintances.
- Leave time for discussion. Make sure you leave time for people to ask questions. This gives you an opportunity to figure out what their priorities are, which can guide future advocacy efforts. If you don’t know an answer to a question, just say so. This can provide you with an excellent opportunity to follow up and build on your connection.
Always be sure to ask if the staff or policymaker has any personal connection to the issue you’re discussing.
After the meeting, have the constituents and any others in the meeting send a follow-up email. You can offer to answer questions, arrange future meetings, or otherwise help ensure they can meet their child welfare goals.
Parents and youth make excellent partners for child welfare advocacy. We believe building a strong cadre of advocates with compelling stories will help you make the case for increased attention to and investment in permanency for children and youth and support for families.