Abstract: Adoptive Parents and Guardians Frame Their Struggles and Commitment: A Grounded Theory Approach (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Adoptive Parents and Guardians Frame Their Struggles and Commitment: A Grounded Theory Approach

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Ahwatukee B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Joan Blakey, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN
Kerrie Ocasio, PhD, Assistant Research Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Nancy Rolock, PhD, Henry L. Zucker Associate Professor of Social Work Practice, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH
Background/Purpose: Legal permanence through adoption and guardianship is a desirable outcome for children for whom reunification is not possible. Research into the stability of these arrangements has found that between 5% and 20% return to foster care. Other children may experience separation through informal placement with family members and residential treatment, which are harder to track in administrative data and therefore less well understood. Furthermore, families may struggle for a period of time before seeking an out-of-home option. Prior research has identified risk and protective factors associated with post-permanency instability, including caregiver commitment, however, the contextual factors that underlie caregiver commitment are not well understood. This study interviewed 32 adoptive parents and guardians about their experiences and the challenges they face in keeping their families together.

Methods: Using a grounded theory approach, interviews were conducted with 32 public and private adoptive parents and guardians (caregivers) from the Midwest. Responses were reviewed, recorded, transcribed, and coded using open coding, axial coding and selective coding to get a sense of the interview as a whole before breaking it into parts. Specific to this study, a post-permanency struggle index was created with three levels: 1) some minor issues, families are doing okay for the most part, 2) families are struggling, experiencing some serious issues that if they continue to go unaddressed could lead to post- permanency instability, and 3) families are experiencing serious issues, the families have seriously considered ending the adoption/guardianship or the child is placed outside of the home already; and caregiver commitment statements were coded. Two researchers coded the interviews and discussed differences in coding.

Results: Post-permanency challenges were noted related to caregiver characteristics: motivation reasons for adoption/guardianship, social support, minimization of need for services, flexibility, and resiliency; child issues: type, number and frequency, and receptivity to mitigation; and systems challenges: withholding of information, lack of access to services. Caregiver commitment was strong with the families who had relatively few struggles and strong resources, and weak with families who had already begun to have the child live elsewhere, even if framed as temporary. Caregiver commitment was complex amongst the struggling with serious issues group (Struggle Index Level 2), with lack of agreement between coders for a number of these interviews. These were coded as ambiguous and further evaluated for the factors that contributed to this finding that included competing best interests of children in the home, and lack of congruence between parent characterizations of the degree to which they were struggling and clear indications that there were serious issues not being adequately addressed.

Conclusion/Implications: Caregiver framing of their struggles and commitment were illustrative of the complexity of the interactions between risk and protective factors for post-permanency stability. Our challenges coding the Level 2 interviews was most illuminating and raises important questions about how to guide and support families when there are competing interests amongst children in the household or when children’s needs and resources available are so at odds that commitment may mask how desperately the family needs help.