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June 27, 2016 Articles

Engaging Youth in Court: A National Analysis

By Sharon Elstein

Youth engagement projects focusing on court participation improve outcomes for youth in foster care. In most court contexts, the rules strongly favor firsthand information. Yet, where a foster youth’s life is the topic of discussion, all too often we have not been hearing directly from the youth. New data show that youth want to come to court and courts are able to make better decisions when they do.

A number of U.S. jurisdictions have looked at these issues. Many of these efforts were supported by state court improvement programs. Evaluations included surveys of youth, attorneys, judges, and social workers, as well as court observations. This analysis is derived from seven assessments, two of them completed in Colorado and the others in Delaware, Kansas, New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington.

In many cases, data were collected where states were making efforts to ensure and improve youth engagement, including

• trainings and workshops providing youth and professionals with guidance on how to engage youth

• changes to court policies or procedures

• tools for youth, attorneys, and others

The data clearly demonstrate that many foster youth want to participate in decisions affecting their lives. Judges learn more about the youth coming before them and report having a better understanding of what youth need and want and why. Responses from caseworkers, court-appointed special advocates (CASAs), guardians ad litem (GALs), and other attorneys also reflect the positive benefits of youth participation.

The analyses of the seven assessments demonstrate the following:

• Decision making improves when youth are in court.

• Youth want to come to court.

• Court is usually a positive experience for youth, even though they understand they will not always get what they want.

• Youth felt they are heard and understood.

• Youth often reported being concerned about placement, school, permanency, and visitation.

• Barriers to getting youth to court can be overcome.

Elstein, Kelly & Trowbridge, ABA Center on Children and the Law, Engaging Youth in Court: A National Analysis 2015.

Foster youth want to be involved in decisions about their lives, especially with respect to placements, permanency, school, and visitation. Youth and professionals agree that the firsthand information they can contribute allows courts to make better decisions. The data show the importance of the adage that many youth have been telling policy makers for years:

“Nothing about us without us.”

Colorado A and Colorado B

A: The Colorado Judicial Institute, Bridging the Gap (United Way), and Center for Research Strategies, 2007, conducted focus groups with 58 current and former foster youth, ages 14–26.
B: February 2014 online survey with 258 GALs, county attorneys, parent attorneys, judicial officers, CASA directors, district court administrators, and others.


Delaware surveyed 95 youth ages 14–21 and 150 attorneys, CASAs/GALs, judges, foster parents, caseworkers, and case managers.


Kansas data are derived from 31 surveys of judges in 2013 and 44 in 2014, 28 court observations in 2013 and 32 in 2014, and 17 youth surveys in 2013.

New Jersey

In 3 counties, 600 professionals’ daily surveys were completed, as well as 135 youth surveys; 66 surveys were completed regarding absent children/youth; 170 professionals also completed monthly surveys.


The Vermont Court Improvement Program, Youth Development Program, and DCF-Family Services Division surveyed 74 youth, ages 13–18, about their experience in 2013.


Surveys were conducted in 2009–2010 of 551 youth and 12 judicial officers in 4 jurisdictions in the state about 1,357 hearings.

Keywords: litigation, children’s rights, court participation, surveys

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Sharon Elstein – June 27, 2016