Q&A: Researchers and Practitioners Put Their Heads Together to Measure Youth Connections

Photograph of three young people giving the thumbs up.

Three years ago, child welfare experts at the University of Minnesota met with staff members at Anu Family Services, a nonprofit with locations in Wisconsin and Minnesota, to discuss a problem that concerned both parties. Research showed that youth aging out of foster care did worse when they weren’t connected to caring adults. The practitioners at Anu felt they couldn’t adequately address the problem because they didn’t have a consistent way to assess their clients' connectedness to others.

The two groups' conversations led them to create the Youth Connections Scale, a tool meant to measure how well youth think they are connected to an adult support system. Young people answer questions designed to reveal how supported they feel in their daily lives, and to identify adults they think they can count on in the long-term.

We talked to Annette Semanchin Jones, research project specialist at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, about developing the scale and how it can support at-risk youth who don’t live in foster care.

NCFY: How did your collaboration with Anu Family Services influence the process?

Semanchin Jones: The practitioners in the field really drove the question of "now that we’re trying to identify and engage supportive adults for these youth, is there a way that we as practitioners can measure the impact of the work that we’re doing? Is there a way to see if we’re increasing the number of supportive connections or using the tools that will help youth feel connected?"

So really, it was driven by the field, to say that we would like to do something to evaluate the work that we’re already doing.

NCFY: Do you think other at-risk youth can benefit from these types of relationships?

Semanchin Jones: It really does seem that there are concrete benefits for all youth when they have those sustained life-long connections. In the literature, there were positive effects on self-esteem and increased social and relational skill-building, so being able to develop and maintain healthy connections with supportive adults can actually help youth develop relationships in other aspects of their lives.

I absolutely think that these concepts would apply to all youth, not just in the child welfare system, but really across the board.

NCFY: Youth who complete the scale end up with several scores that youth workers can compare over time. What other benefits have youth workers mentioned?

Semanchin Jones: The tool is designed to have the social worker and youth fill it out together. It’s not just a checklist that the youth is going through, but it’s really an opportunity for the social worker to ask questions of the youth about their level of connectedness and who they feel connected to. This can help them identify some folks that the social worker can use in service planning.

The scale itself is not highly complex, but I think just having an intentional tool and intentional space to talk about these things, some of the workers were really surprised at how in-depth some of the youth went. It really just opened up some different conversations and dialogues they had not had with the youth before then.

Learn More

NCFY wrote about a study of the Youth Connections Scale in “Primary Sources: New Tool Measures Youth Connections to Adults.”

You can download the Youth Connections Scale and information about how to use it for free by visiting the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare website.

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