Support Us

Delivering Optimal Human Services for Disenfranchised Adolescents

Delivering Optimal Human Services for Disenfranchised Adolescents

Gregory D. Johnson


The research identifies specific reasons why optimal human services are needed for disenfranchised adolescents.  Firstly, the research contained within this paper clearly defines the disenfranchised adolescent and the circumstances which lead to the disenfranchisement of adolescents within the American society.  Disenfranchisement occurs because of numerous factors and the research indicates that adolescence is a naturally tumultuous time in one’s life propelled by the desire for independence. Other factors that lead to the disenfranchisement of adolescents are the makeup of the family dynamic and behavioral problems stemming from sexual and physical abuse.  The research details the specific areas where optimal human services are needed within child welfare systems and identifies the predominant factors of homelessness, drugs, and sexual exploitation as indicators for the need for optimal human services among our adolescents.  The research pinpoints reasons for roadblocks that prevail when delivering optimal human services to adolescents.  These roadblocks are identified as the homeless condition of adolescents, a lack of trust amongst adolescents towards adults, and a lack of funding.  Finally the research denotes effective means of delivering optimal human services to adolescents.  The research considers the importance of the human services professional when offering optimal services to the disenfranchised adolescent.  As determined by the research, other factors to consider as integral components of optimal delivery methods of human services geared towards disenfranchised adolescents are communication, family, the empowerment of the adolescent, and unconditional love.

Keywords:  disenfranchised adolescent, optimal human services


The Disenfranchised Adolescent

            In order to identify the optimal human services needed by disenfranchised adolescents and effective means of delivery for these services, the term ‘disenfranchised adolescent’ must be examined and defined.  Firstly, the research identifies the condition of the adolescent and factors which create the disenfranchisement of our youth.  The lifespan period of adolescence ranges from the age of 12 to 20 years (Feldman, 2011).  According to Alexander, the period of adolescence is typically a chaotic time in one’s life because of numerous factors.   Primarily, adolescents are searching for an independent identity while operating within the confines of parental authority, which may lead to behavioral problems.  In addition to wrestling with the authority of parents, adolescents are weighing the influences and opinions of friends when defining their autonomy.  Lastly, adolescents are considering the social issues of race, gender, religion, culture, and societal values when exploring their personal identity (Alexander, 2013).  The research by McLean, Breen, and Fournier indicated that the primary function of adolescence is to identify an independent personality while considering the expectations of the community in which he or she resides (McLean, Breen, & Fournier, 2010).  By the very nature of the lifespan period of adolescence, the adolescent wrestles with personal identity within the confines of community to construct a sense of independence and autonomy which creates an inner conflict (Alexander, 2013).   Because of this time of great exploration of self, adolescents may suffer from heightened symptoms of stress and depression.  Stress and depression can be brought on by numerous factors, which can be psychological, behavioral, and social in nature usually focusing on loss or conflict within the family dynamic or within relationships with peers (Walker, 2002).

            The family dynamic plays a major role in determining the disenfranchisement of an adolescent (Martin, 2011).  If an adolescent is well supported and loved within the family dynamic, a child is likely to be well adapted and secure in their exploration of his or her identity (Levy, 2009).  If an adolescent lacks proper support and guidance from the parental unit, then he or she will suffer grave consequences of behavioral issues which ultimately lead to the disenfranchisement of the individual (Martin, 2011).  When the parent exhibits proper boundaries for the adolescent to operate within, then the individual is less likely to succumb to social influences of gangs, poverty, and developmental issues (Levy, 2009).

            Because of a lack of family support, adolescents have an increased probability of becoming disenfranchised.  Homelessness is a key factor in determining the disenfranchisement of an adolescent (Martin, 2011).  Youth become homeless due to several factors within the family unit - the parents no longer want to care for the adolescent or do not have the means to effectively care for the child, the adolescent suffers from sexual and physical abuse, or the adolescent suffers from psychological maltreatment by means of emotional abuse within the family dynamic (Feldman, 2011; Martin, 2011).  

            When a child suffers from abuse in the family unit, often times the adolescent will act out in terms defined as behavioral issues or problems, which will mandate the child being placed within the foster care system or juvenile justice system (Martin, 2011).  Upon placement within the above mentioned systems, the adolescent is defined as disenfranchised.  Placement within the child welfare systems of foster care and juvenile justice occurs because of exhibited antisocial behaviors which may be due to the early neglect a child suffers within the family unit (Delsi, Neppl, Lohman, Vaughn, & Shook, 2013).

The Need for Optimal Human Services

            When an adolescent becomes disenfranchised from the family unit, the adolescent may see his or her self as a victim or being victimized by the society in which the individual lives.  When an adolescent is placed within the foster care system and the juvenile justice system, the systems have a tendency to label the adolescent’s behavioral issues by means of medical or psychological abnormality.   Rather than the rehabilitation of the individual, the individual is identified as medically or psychologically unhealthy further isolating the adolescent and increasing the sense of victimization the adolescent may feel.  The juvenile justice system acts more in a way of punitive authority rather than that of rehabilitative quality.  When an adolescent is placed within the confines of the foster care system, the individual reckons with the loss of the family unit, including separation from parents and siblings (Martin, 2011).  The adolescent often feels abandoned, isolated, and alone having to reckon with factors of his or her future while processing the effects of his or her past in isolation (Anthony, Samples, Kervor, Ituarte, Lee, & Austin, 2010).

            The homeless adolescent, once disenfranchised from the family unit due to abuse and neglect, suffers from a lack of positive support from family or friends.  Most homeless youth lose all contact to his or her life’s contacts prior to entering life on the streets.  In order to compensate for the lack of family support, the individual is mentored by older teens living on the streets.  The teens interviewed were grateful to have some sort of guidance showing them the ways of a new life on the streets.  Because the homeless adolescent is isolated and lacks trust for any adults, the adolescent has little access to human services and if the adolescent does accept assistance from human services professionals, the individual is negatively labeled by his or her homeless peers. This fear of being labeled prevents the homeless adolescent from reaching out for healthy assistance when Human Services assistance is offered (Martin, 2011).

            Drugs are a major issue that disenfranchised adolescents reckon with as individuals that have been labeled as juvenile delinquents (Anthony, et al., 2010).  Because of the severe emotional issues disenfranchised adolescents are left to deal with and process, the individual is likely to utilize drugs as a means of coping (Martin, 2011).   Disenfranchised adolescents are at a higher risk of suffering drug addiction based upon the factors of substance abuse by parents, substance abuse by peers, victimization of sexual and physical abuse, abusive family environment, and poverty (Martin, 2011, p. 231). 

            Exploitation of the disenfranchised adolescent is a crucial factor in determining the need for optimal human services for this population.  The homeless adolescent is at a higher risk of being exploited by older homeless adolescents and adults.  The exploitation of homeless adolescents comes in the form of sexual exploitation as a means of financial gain and survival on the streets.  The disenfranchised adolescent is further exploited by means of drug trafficking, forced into drug dealing by adults and older homeless youth (Martin, 2011).

            According to Cross’ research published in the Journal of Guidance & Counselling, an adolescent may feel disenfranchised by not feeling special or unique.  An adolescent struggling with issues of identity desires and needs to feel validated by adults.  Specifically, the disenfranchised adolescent, lacking family support and nurturing, strongly desires validation and yearns for the approval of adults to ensure his or her uniqueness, individuality, and self-worth (Cross, 2013).

Roadblocks to Offering Optimal Human Services

            Many factors prevail which prevent optimal human services from being administered and delivered to the disenfranchised adolescent as will be identified by the research gathered.  The contributing factors that continue to further alienate the disenfranchised adolescent abound within the American system which places labels via medical and psychological identification upon our youth in need of assistance (DeLisi, et al., 2013).  Not only are disenfranchised adolescents being labeled by the system in which he or she is helped, negative labeling takes place within the peer group of the disenfranchised adolescent (Martin, 2011).  

            The homelessness adolescent presents logistical, physical, and emotional roadblocks for a disenfranchised adolescent in need of optimal human services.  Adolescents who are homeless lack a home base.  They are often difficult to track down because they do not have a permanent residence, which prevents any type of follow up services for the individual.  Once an adolescent is homeless and becomes a member of the streets, the youth is faced with the challenge and difficulty of being derogatorily labeled by his or her homeless peers when accepting Human Services from adults (Martin, 2011).  The adolescent may be labeled a “sellout” or even “foolish” when accepting assistance, which prevents the individual from seeking the help of adults (Martin, 2011, p. 180).

            According to Alfred’s research, adolescents are very sensitive to adults who do not respect his or her values and ideas.  Adolescents develop a lack of trust because adults can be overbearing, judgmental, and harsh (Alfred, 2009).  Martin accredits this lack of trust adolescents have for adults to the severe rejection, abandonment, and abuse the child has suffered at home coupled with the effects of further exploitation once the youth leaves the family dynamic (Martin, 2011).

            According to Martin, with the recent and ongoing decline in the economic condition of the United States, major cuts in funding have taken place within social services that assist and help the disenfranchised adolescent.  Human services that were once readily available are not as prevalent and perhaps no longer exist.  Funding is a crucial component in offering human services to disenfranchised adolescents and without financial means these individuals may not have access to the support needed (Martin, 2011).  According to the research of Balsano, Phelps, Theokas, Lerner, and Lerner, their research indicated the effectiveness that after school programs have on adolescents, which includes youth development programs to improve positive youth development (Balsano, Phelps, Theokas, Lerner, & Lerner, 2009).  The involvement of adolescents in multiple programs increases the positive impact programs will have on the lives of the adolescents (Balsano, et al., 2009). Hence, budget cuts hinder the availability in offering positive programs to disenfranchised adolescents (Martin, 2011).

Delivering Optimal Human Services to Disenfranchised Adolescents

            The human service professional is a key component in offering optimal services to disenfranchised adolescents (Hagan & Kisubi, 2011).  According to the research of Hagan and Kisubi, human service providers must provide the population served with a sense of community and belonging, which is what the disenfranchised adolescent is in need of because the individual comes from a broken home or a lack of familial support (Hagan & Kisubi, 2011; Levy, 2009).  The human service provider provides relief for the disenfranchised adolescent by means of alleviating the pain and suffering of the individual through advocating for the underprivileged.  Hagan and Kisubi identified the human service professional as the individual who offers hope for a second home to the runaway youth, instilling a sense of hope to the individual by being a positive role model in the individual’s life.   The human service professional offers hope of friendship, shelter, food, and recovery to the disenfranchised individual who may have abandoned any sense of hope and faith in his or her future.  The human service professional must deliver optimal care by positive and effective means by addressing the specific needs of those served (Hagan & Kisubi, 2009). 

            Not only is the human service professional an integral component in offering optimal human services to adolescents, the type of care which is offered to the individual is of valuable consideration (Alexander, 2013; Hagan & Kisubi, 2009).  Alexander’s research identified a need for services that were family based and multisystematic when dealing with youth with behavioral issues.  Not only should the services rendered focus on the adolescent, they should also embrace all elements of the individual’s life assisting the adolescent in building and establishing relationships with the world at large (Alexander, 2013).   As per the research of Sue Alfred, human services provided to adolescents should be offered confidentially, respectfully, and in a friendly manner.  Furthermore, integrated services, culturally appropriate services, free and low cost services, and accessible services are factors of high importance when offering optimal human services to disenfranchised adolescents (Alfred, 2009).   The research of Elizabeth Anthony, Mark Samples, Dylan de Kervor, Chris Lee, and Michael Austin stressed the importance of offering services that are keenly aware of the needs of the disenfranchised adolescent, specifically formerly incarcerated youth being reestablished in society after his or her liberation from confinement.  In order to properly serve the formerly incarcerated youth and the disenfranchised adolescent, services must be offered which address the specific needs of the populous (Anthony, et al., 2010).

             Optimal human services for disenfranchised adolescents must embody specific techniques in order to assist the needs of this population.  According to Joyce Walker’s research, she has identified problem-solving and coping skills as necessary life tools human services should offer youth in order to positively process and deal with the stressors of life.  As part of problem solving skills, Walker identified goal setting and making plans as crucial skills which should be taught to youth.  Coping skills must embody ways in which one takes responsibility for his or her actions and deals with obstacles utilizing positive and healthy outlets (Walker, 2002).

            Various qualities play an important role when delivering optimal services for at risk youth.  Communication is the first quality of relevance, which has many facets and layers of importance.  The communication between the adolescent and the human service professional is the first level of concern when considering the effectiveness of human services (Hagan, et al., 2011). Through means of effective communication between the human service professional and the disenfranchised adolescent, trust is built ensuring for the feeling of safety and security for the disenfranchised youth (King & Newnham, 2011).  Since adolescents are extremely sensitive to any type of criticism, the professional must be mindful of the way in which he or she communicates with the adolescent, remembering to speak in compassionate and nonjudgmental tones.  Communication should support the autonomy and confidentiality of the individual at all times.  Alfred’s research indicated when parents improved their communication skills, the adolescent improved his or her communication skills thus positively affecting the individual’s behavior (Alfred, 2011). Since many of the adolescents served come from broken homes, are homeless, and residing within the child welfare system most depend upon the human service professional to model appropriate communication skills (Martin, 2011).  Good communication skills are critical to the disenfranchised adolescent because he or she desires an adult to listen to his or her problems; the adolescent desires to express emotions and feelings (Walker, 2002).

            The quality of family is crucial in an adolescent’s life and many disenfranchised adolescents are void of a family dynamic, which makes the human services offered to the at risk youth significant in creating a sense of community and belonging for the adolescent.  The human services offered, whether it is a non-profit organization, the child welfare system, the juvenile justice system, or the foster care system, many times acts as a substitute for the family of the disenfranchised adolescent and serves as the foundation for the idea of family for the individual’s life (Martin, 2011).  According to the research of Kate McLean, Andrea Breen, and Marc Frontier, adolescents desire to be a part of a group and to cultivate close relationships with others (McLean, et al., 2010).  Because the human services organization may act as a substitute for the family dynamic (Martin, 2011), based upon Levy’s research, these organizations must render warmth and support, which will diminish risky behaviors of the disenfranchised youth.  As well, when parents set boundaries and clear expectations for their child, the child is less apt to engage in risky behavior (Levy, 2009).  Hence, a human services organization must set clear boundaries and expectations for the disenfranchised adolescent in order to provide proper guidance and lessen the engagement of risky behavior on the part of the youth (Levy, 2009; Martin, 2011).

            The quality of empowerment is an integral component needed when delivering optimal human services to disenfranchised adolescents.  Since most of the adolescents served by means of human services come from abusive and horrific living conditions, rarely are these kids appreciated and strengthened in knowing their value (Martin, 2011).  According to Martin, when working with homeless youth the human service professional “must provide consistent encouragement, compassionate care, and understanding that promotes both self-esteem and self-efficacy (a sense of competence) in these emotionally broken and bruised teens” (Martin, 2011, p. 181).  The human services organization plays the role of empowering and lifting the adolescent beyond his or her current paradigm (Martin, 2011).   Although a majority of the disenfranchised adolescents are broken because of poverty, homelessness, family conflict, drug abuse, and exploitation, if given proper encouragement and empowerment, via methods of mentoring and guidance from the human services organization and its professionals, the youth are resilient in nature and may continue on to lead productive and meaningful lives (Zolkoski & Bullock, 2012). 

            The final quality identified as imperative to delivering optimal human services to disenfranchised adolescents is unconditional love, which is a powerful quality of service with many positive benefits (Oman, 2010).  Martin’s research indicated that homeless adolescents felt “extremely lonely and distrustful but in desperate need of love and affection” (Martin, 2011, p. 180).  Most disenfranchised adolescents lack a sense of love because they are coming from broken family dynamics and abusive histories (Martin, 2011).  When adolescents are given unconditional love, the power of unconditional love promotes positive results in self-esteem and self-worth.  The adolescent is positively affected by unconditional love and as a result of the love shown to him or her,  the individual will respond to life unselfishly and with a strong desire to serve others by putting others’ needs before his or hers.  The desire to help others before his or her needs due to the power of unconditional love, fortifies the disenfranchised adolescent by means of individual enrichment and a great sense of purpose and belonging within a community.  Self-efficacy is positively improved by the power of unconditional love, as well as the individual feeling better as the result of reduced stress and pain levels (Oman, 2011).  Many homeless youth reported having a strong belief in God and a desire for love (Martin, 2011).  Optimal human services offering unconditional love as the foundation of service enliven the lives of the disenfranchised adolescents with a faith and hope in a universal good (Oman, 2010).


            The disenfranchised adolescent typically comes from a broken and abusive home, leaving the youth abandoned to address and contemplate the meaning of his or her identity and autonomy without the support structure of loving guidance usually offered by the parents.  Without the comforts of the familial community dynamic, the disenfranchised adolescent is thrust into a life of homelessness, incarceration, foster care, drug abuse, and exploitation with minimal resources to effectively mentor and guide the disenfranchised adolescent along the journey of life.  Because of the child welfare system which punitively labels our youth, the homeless condition, the lack of trust disenfranchised adolescents have towards adults, and a lack of funding adolescents are potentially not engaging in effective and optimal human services.  The need for optimal human services for the disenfranchised adolescent is clear.  Offering readily available human services which are led by caring human service professionals which embody the principles of effective and powerful communication, family and community, empowerment and encouragement, and unconditional love optimizes the effectiveness of the service rendered to our disenfranchised youth.  Our adolescents are resilient in nature and when properly nurtured may live purpose driven and fulfilling lives of service.


Alexander, J. (2013). Adolescent behavioral problems. American Association for

Marriage and Family Therapy 1, 1-4. Retrieved from



Alfred, S. (2009). Best practices for youth friendly clinical services.

Advocates for Youth Publications 134, 1. Retrieved from



Anthony, E., Samples, M., Kervor, D., Ituarte, S., Lee, C., & Austin, M. (2010). Coming

back home: The reintegration of formerly incarcerated youth with service

implications. Children and Youth Services Review 32(10), 1271-1277. Retrieved



Balsano, A. B., Phelps, E., Theokas, C., Lerner, J. V., & Lerner, R. M. (2009). Patterns of

early adolescents' participation in youth development programs having

positive youth development goals. Journal of Research on Adolescence 19(2),

249–259. Retrieved from


Cross, A. (2013). Young people and the curse of ordinariness. British Journal of

Guidance & Counselling 4(1), 89-90. Retrieved from


DeLisi, M., Neppl, T., Lohman, B., Vaughn, M., & Shook, J. (2013). Early starters:

Which type of criminal onset matters most for delinquent careers? Journal of

Criminal Justice 41, 12–17. Retrieved fromDELIVERING OPTIMAL HUMAN SERVICES 16


Feldman, R. S. (2011). Development across the life span (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River,

NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.


Hagan, J., Kisubi, A. T. (2011). Best practices in human services: A global perspective.

Council for Standards in Human Service Education 1, 1-439. Retrieved from


King, M. G. & Newnham, K. (2011). Attachment disorder, basic trust and educational

psychology. Australian Journal of Educational & Developmental Psychology, 8,

(27-35). Retrieved from


Levy, S. (2009). Behavioral problems in adolescents. The Merck Manual Home Health

Handbook for Patients and Caregivers, 1, 1. Retrieved from



Martin, M.E. (2011). Introduction to human services: Through the eyes of practice

settings. Second Edition. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


McLean, K., Breen, A., & Fournier M. (2010). Constructing the self in early, middle, and

late adolescent boys: Narrative identity, individuation, and well-being. Journal of

Research on Adolescence 20(1), 166-187. Retrieved from


Oman, D. (2010). Compassionate love: What does the research show? Report to

Fetzer Institute 3, 1-111. Retrieved from



Walker, J. (2002). Teens in distress series: Adolescent stress and depression. The Center

For 4-H Youth Development 1, 1. Retrieved from

Zolkoski, S., & Bullock., L. (2012). Resilience in children and youth: A review. Children

and Youth Services Review 34(12), 2295 – 2303. Retrieved from