The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

The Effects of Multiple Professional Relationship Disruptions On Young People Nearing Emancipation From Foster Care: A Multi-Perspective Qualitative Study

Friday, January 17, 2014: 3:00 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 102A Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Ashley Curry, LCSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL

This study explores disruptions (i.e., unplanned relationship endings) between young people and workers in an independent living program. The relationships young people build with child welfare professionals have the potential to provide healing and therapeutic experiences, as well as, promote positive youth outcomes. Unfortunately, however, relationship disruptions between young people and workers are common in child welfare given the high rates of turnover and recent trends in agency settings to restructure programs and caseloads. These disruptions are problematic and may prevent the formation of long-lasting and potentially healing relationships for young people with a considerable history of maltreatment and relational loss. Little is known about the impact of the professional relationship disruptions youth experience in the child welfare system, especially those in independent living programs, who are nearing emancipation from the system.


This study explores the perspectives of administrators, workers, and young people in an independent living program. In-depth interviews were conducted with 4 administrators, 6 workers, and 15 young people (N=25), and participant-observation was conducted over a two-year period. The age of youth was 19-20 and staff longevity ranged from newly hired to over 20 years in the program. Transcribed interviews and detailed field notes from participant observations were examined using a three phase model of field research: description, analysis, and interpretation (Wolcott, 1994). Within these phases, key themes were identified using a progressive focusing technique, relationships between themes were established, and data were systematically examined for deeper conceptual meanings (Wolcott, 1994).


Relationship disruptions were found to have a variety of emotional and relational consequences for youth, which were exacerbated by their histories of relational loss. Workers made assumptions about the importance of their relationship to youth which tended to minimize (or devalue) the relationship, which directly contrasted the youth’s perspective. Data suggest that, like youth, workers also experienced emotional responses to the relationship ending. Worker assumptions and emotional responses influenced the way workers ended their relationships with clients, including three conceptually distinct, yet overlapping approaches: avoidance, minimization, and reframing. These approaches were found, at times, to pose a barrier to ending the relationship in a way that was most helpful to the client. Administrators tended to underestimate the frequency with which relationship disruptions occurred and, at times, to minimize (or devalue) the potential effects of these disruptions on youth. These factors may have unintentionally posed a barrier to supporting workers in ending their relationships with clients.


This study provides new information about the effects of professional relationship disruptions on a group of youth in independent living, as well as, how their workers thought about and ended those relationships in the moment. The approaches used by workers provide important insights about the complexity of relationship endings in child welfare. The study provides client-centered suggestions for taking relationship endings seriously and managing them in a way that minimizes the potentially damaging emotional and relational effects on youth.