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Youth Speak! Amplifying Voices from the Community Collaboration for Children’s Success

Staff Perspective Maeve Johnston

“Family therapy brought me closer to my dad,” says an incarcerated youth at San Mateo County’s Youth Services Center. “I was never as close to my dad as I am now.” We’re discussing what would have made a difference for him—the supports and barriers along his path, which for most of the last two years has taken him in and out of this detention facility. Access to family therapy and a supportive parole officer has been stabilizing since he has been incarcerated, and he pauses to consider the earlier supports that could have made a difference.

Over the last nine months I have had the opportunity to hear stories from young people who have been engaged with San Mateo County’s highest intensity youth systems. I help lead San Mateo County’s Community Collaboration for Children’s Success initiative which brings a  unique approach for San Mateo County agencies—directly ask young people and their families what assets and barriers exist in their communities and what they suggest changing to bring success closer to reach.

We are at an important moment in the planning and engagement processes in the first two neighborhoods, North Fair Oaks/Redwood City and South San Francisco. Between the two communities, we have heard from almost 400 young people and their families, especially young people who are involved in San Mateo County systems and services such as youth behavioral health and recovery services, foster care, and juvenile justice. Right now, we have a unique opportunity to hear what people are sharing about their challenges and assets.

Overwhelmingly, we have heard that youth and their families struggle with the high cost of living for housing, childcare, and transportation, which can destabilize families trying to make ends meet. We also heard that young people aren’t able to spend enough time with their parents or other supportive adults and that both parents and youth need skills, opportunities, and connections for living wage jobs. We heard that mental health and substance-use issues are not addressed adequately or identified early and that these issues are heavily stigmatized. Youth and parents also reported conditions in the community that pose challenges including negative interactions with law enforcement, bullying, fear of sexual assault, and not knowing their legal rights.

At the same time, we asked community members to think about strategies to better support them. We heard innovative and broad-ranging ideas in both communities, which fall into four large categories:

1.       Build protective and healing spaces. Youth proposed strategies to create protective and healing spaces within schools and the community and through approaches like restorative practices in schools, cultural humility training for service providers, and community policing.

2.       Education and programming to support resilience. Youth identified that they and their families want more access to skills such as bystander training for sexual harassment, know your rights training, leadership development, mentorship, and more.

3.       Prevention and early intervention. By the time young people are in our systems we have missed several opportunities to provide support. The process uncovered a need to identify the earliest moments for robust and immediate connections to resources and support to prevent issues from escalating.

4.       Supports for system-engaged youth. Many programming and support options exist for system-involved youth once they are in our systems; the planning process identified a need to think through how to allocate those resources before youth are in the system.

It has been an honor to hear from some of the families and young people in San Mateo County and to work with them to make changes. We have heard deep information from our focus communities on their assets, barriers, and strategies that would support their success. As we finalize the community plans for the South San Francisco and North Fair Oaks/Redwood City neighborhoods, we have launched planning in Daly City, with East Palo Alto launching in December. I look forward to engaging with young people and their families on issues that matter most to them to help support children’s success!

For more information on CCCS and the communities’ emerging priorities, email Maeve at