Abstract: Factors That Help Youth Achieve Relational Permanency: Findings from the Texas Youth Permanency Study (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Factors That Help Youth Achieve Relational Permanency: Findings from the Texas Youth Permanency Study

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Barbara Ball, PHD, LPC-AT, Senior Research Associate, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Lalaine Sevillano, MSW, PhD Student, University of Texas at Austin, TX
Monica Faulkner, PhD, Research Associate Professor, The University of Texas at Austin, TX
Tym Belseth, MA, Research Coordinator, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Background and Purpose: Child welfare systems focus on achieving legal permanency within specific timeframes. Once a child has achieved legal permanency, there is an assumption that youth have loving, lasting and supportive relationships that are essential for successfully navigating emerging adulthood. However, research suggests that legal permanence does not equate relational permanency. The concept of relational permanency encompasses relationships with a range of supportive adults, a sense of emotional connection, belonging and continuity, and a dependable safety net. Extant research suggests that relational permanency is a protective factor for youth in foster care, but less is known about the factors that help youth achieve relational permanency. The Texas Youth Permanency Study addresses this gap in research by examining how experiences in foster care shape the relationships that young adults sustain or develop as they transition into adulthood regardless of whether they age out of care or are adopted.

Methods: Thirty interviews were conducted with youth formerly in foster care, ages 18 to 33 years (M=22.23). The sample is 80% female, 73% heterosexual, 27% LGBTQ, and 73% Non-White. Participants were recruited through foster care alumni groups, youth serving organizations, and foster care liaisons at colleges and universities. Interviews elicited participants’ retrospective accounts about their (a) history before entering foster care, (b) experiences in foster care, respectively in adoptive families, (c) relationships with caregivers, foster, adoptive and birth parents, caseworkers, and other adults, and (d) current relationship with the person they consider their permanent caregiver. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed using Grounded Theory methods and Consensual Qualitative Research strategies.

Results: The majority of participants (n=25) reported aging out of foster care without a permanent legal guardian. Four participants had positive experiences with adoption, while five participants experienced disrupted adoptions, resulting in reentry into foster care and disrupted support systems.

Participants’ accounts of their relationships while growing up coalesced around three core dimensions that also shaped their transition into adulthood: a) sense of agency (empowering or disempowering), b) quality of received support (transactional or transformational), and c) feelings of connection and belonging (connected or frayed). Participants who felt empowered and experienced some genuine support and connection while growing up, also described more extensive, emotionally connected, and mutually meaningful relationships in adulthood that provided stability and support. In contrast, participants who described relationships in foster care as predominantly disempowering and transactional, experienced abrupt and stressful transitions into adulthood, tended to withdraw from relationships or experience abusive relationships, and struggled with employment, financial, and housing instability.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings suggest that legal permanency does not guarantee relational permanency in emerging adulthood. However, there is a clear link between the quality of relationships while in care, including those that are by definition temporary, and the young adults’ ability to form and sustain supportive relationships at the transition to adulthood. By increasing youth’ sense of control and agency, promoting access to age appropriate, normal activities, and providing trauma-informed, sensitive foster parenting, the child welfare system can increase the chances of youth to achieve relational permanency.