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2010 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 15, No. 2
May 2010

Pass It On: Empowering Families and Young People to Be Wise Consumers of Services

As child welfare professionals, we are often called upon to broker services on behalf of children and families. Yet brokering services will never be enough to meet their needs in the long run. To truly make a long-term difference, we must pass on what we know and nurture people’s abilities to find services that are right for them.

Here are some ways you can teach families and youths to be strong consumers and advocates for themselves:

Steer away from doing “for” in favor of doing “with.” Include adolescents and parents in decision-making and treatment planning as much as possible.

One on One Time. In individual meetings, engage parents in the process of learning about and selecting services. Be sure to share as much information about services as you can and encourage them to ask questions. Coach families in the process of finding a provider who can meet their needs—be a practice partner so that families can become comfortable formulating and asking questions of therapists and other service providers.

Child and Family Team Meetings. CFTs are a good place to initiate conversations with youth and their parents about their attitudes and beliefs about mental health and health care. Exploring these topics with families will allow them to bring to the forefront their own perspective about their needs.

CFTs can also be a natural fit for “consumer” skill development. Even though some services may be court-ordered, inviting families to lead with their ideas about the type of services they believe will be helpful validates help-seeking and demonstrates family-centered practice.

CFTs can sometimes be forums in which family members can demonstrate what they know about finding services. For example, in her work with one particular family, a North Carolina child welfare caseworker was apprehensive that a parent was not following through on the case plan, and that as a result one of her children was not receiving the mental health services he needed. Yet at the CFT meeting she was pleased to learn that the child’s mother “had explored options for her son on her own and brought support to the table. With her resource and some others, we were able to meet the needs of the family” (Duke Univ., 2009).

Partner with resource families caring for adolescents in foster care. When they understand the importance of deliberately instilling health values and beliefs in children, foster and kin caregivers may be able to help teenagers internalize beliefs that will translate into help-seeking behaviors while youth are in care or after they leave the system. Resource families and child welfare professionals can teach foster youth to appropriately identify a health or mental health need and then locate and access appropriate services (Unrau, et al., 2006).

Focus on support networks. Reinforce youth and parent support networks, including peer connections, relationships with kin, schools, churches, and other groups. Doing so will promote the stability in natural helping networks, increasing the chances that families’ needs will be met once they are no longer formally involved with the child welfare system.

Valuing the knowledge that families bring and expanding their access to additional information and resources promotes lifelong skills in information-seeking and decision-making as consumers of services.


  • Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Provides fact sheets to help families and professionals select a child or adolescent psychiatrist. Includes a searchable database for locating psychiatric help. <>
  • Maternal and Child Health Library. Helps service providers and families find available national, State, and local resources that can address child and family needs in areas such as education, health, mental health, family support, parenting, child care, and financial support. <>
  • NC LINKS, North Carolina’s Foster Care Independence Program, is an ideal way to help youth in care develop their help-seeking capacity. NC LINKS facilitates a youth’s transition to adulthood, supporting youth in building skills for independent-living and engaging youth in a support network of peers. A key outcome for all young adults exiting the foster care system is to have access to routine mental health, health and dental health care (NCDSS, 2010).
  • Health Care Skills Checklist. For use in the context of LINKS and Independent Living. Recommended by Dr. Marian Earls, President, NC Pediatric Society <>

References for this and other articles in this issue