Author ORCID Identifier

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Social Work

First Advisor

M. Alex Wagaman, PhD

Second Advisor

Sarah K. Price, PhD

Third Advisor

Hollee A. McGinnis, PhD

Fourth Advisor

Kurt Stemhagen, PhD

Fifth Advisor

Elizabeth M.Z. Farmer, PhD


Children’s participation rights are critically important for supporting children’s well-being. Studies across the world consistently demonstrate that children and youth feel uninvolved, silenced and marginalized within the child welfare context which has a direct impact on their physical safety as well as their subjective well-being. There has been a shift in US policy and practice towards recognizing the value and importance of engaging youth, older youth in particular, in being involved with planning for their care and for their future. However, definitions of what meaningful “youth engagement” might look like within the child welfare context generally lack clarity. In addition, policies which indicate support for youth engagement often lack adequate financial, training and staff supports to realize stated goals. This study aimed to address the gap between policy and practice and identify opportunities for implementing children’s participation rights within the context of the United States child welfare system. This qualitative study centers perspectives of young people (18-25-year-old) who have lived experience of child welfare systems and child welfare professionals. Through 22 interviews and two group meetings this constructivist grounded theory study using an action research framework explored caseworkers’ and young people’s views about children’s participation.

Findings revealed that young people may view meaningful participation as including: recognition, supportive communication and involvement. The main message shared by young people in this study was that they wanted children to feel valued, that efforts are made to understand children’s perspectives and that children be given opportunities and support to be involved in planning for their care and future in ways that are meaningful for them. Caseworkers in this study generally emphasized an outcome oriented view of participation and implied a perspective that participation was more of a privilege, rather than a right. Both young people and caseworkers revealed challenges potentially impacting children’s participation, such as systemic disempowerment stemming from a culture of scarcity and inequity in US child welfare systems.

The main finding from this study was that despite system level constraints and even caseworkers own beliefs about children’s participation, caseworkers in this study demonstrated that they do use participatory and child-centered practices in working with children and youth. And that these practices are consistent with young people’s own views about what might make participation feel meaningful for children: including recognition, supportive communication and involvement. The findings reveal where there are opportunities to support children’s participation and also offer practical strategies for child welfare professionals, policy makers and social workers to build processes and systems which are supportive of children’s participation rights and their overall well-being.


© Anna M. Cody

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VCU University Archives

Is Part Of

VCU Theses and Dissertations

Date of Submission


Included in

Social Work Commons