Evaluators are keenly aware of the difficulties program staff can face in keeping program participants engaged throughout the life of a program, and we know how disappointing it can be if a program cannot reach the people who need it most. While programs want to engage all individuals who need services, inadequate resources such as time or money limit staff capacity to engage those who struggle to show up for services. Our federal partners fund efforts to serve those who are hard to reach as well as efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of those programs. Recently, we’ve supported two federally funded initiatives that were designed for reaching specific hard-to-reach populations. One initiative focuses on reaching youth and young adults with foster care histories. A second initiative focuses on engaging fathers in systems where, at some point, they may have been underserved. We’re pleased to share what we’ve learned from our partners about working to engage program participants.
For the Youth At-Risk of Homelessness project—also known as YARH—Mathematica and our partners at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) aim to inform the field about what works to prevent homelessness among youth and young adults with foster care histories. The KEEP Fathers Engaged Study, funded by the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at HHS, is designed to help human services programs strengthen their engagement of fathers with the goal of improving outcomes for children, fathers, and families.
Through these initiatives we’ve learned important lessons about engaging hard-to-reach populations. Through YARH, we’re building the evidence base on promising strategies to support: (1) adolescents who enter foster care between ages 14 to 17, (2) young adults aging out of foster care, and (3) homeless youth and young adults with foster care histories up to age 21. Given that youth and young adults with foster care histories have, by definition, experienced trauma and likely had negative interactions with adults involved, it naturally can take more time to engage these youth and build trust with them. It’s especially important for practitioners to start early, expect ebb and flow, and make the most of each interaction. As engagement deepens and trust grows, more sensitive topics can be raised.
Other lessons learned from our YARH work are:
- It’s okay to fail forward. “Failing forward” means purposefully learning from failure in order to grow. This might be a difficult concept for adults and practitioners, because it goes against the innate desire to avoid risk and protect youth and young adults. But when practitioners allow youth in care to “fail forward” and experience the same developmentally appropriate risks as youth who are not in care, they can learn to see failure as an event and not a personal characteristic.
- Programs should encourage peer connections between participants. Program participants may have a broader sense of community with their peers who are exposed to the same knowledge and resources in the program. Youth could help connect each other to resources and build a unique support system born out of navigating similar life experiences.
- Practitioners should make space for shared experience. Creating the time and space for youth to share their thoughts and feelings about their future is essential to meaningful transition planning. One YARH grantee builds rapport with youth by encouraging practitioners to reflect on their own experiences. This helps youth understand and relate to their practitioners.
This one-pager, “What Is Father Engagement,” developed for the KEEP Fathers Engaged Study, describes the initiative's overall emphasis on engaging fathers who want to be involved in their children’s lives, but who face systemic and/or personal barriers to doing so. We identified efforts to promote and support father engagement:
- At the program level, practitioners tailored engagement-promoting materials to reach fathers, enhanced the service environment to be more inclusive of fathers, and delivered services that resonated with fathers’ goals.
- At the organization level, staff in leadership positions can promote fathers’ engagement by demonstrating their own commitment to it, developing partnerships with other organizations that serve fathers, and incorporating father engagement into staff development.
- At the system level, staff of federal, state, local, and tribal governments—as well as foundation, association, and other intermediary staff—can promote father engagement by identifying and breaking down systemic barriers and ensuring that organizations and programs have the resources and authority necessary for engaging fathers.
Lessons learned from these two initiatives could enhance services to people that would benefit most from program services and resources.