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July/August 2015 Issue

Legal and Relational Permanence in Older Foster Care Youths
By Allison E. Thompson, MSS, LSW, and Johanna K. P. Greeson, PhD, MSS, MLSP
Social Work Today
Vol. 15 No. 4 P. 24

Permanency may be conceptualized as two separate but related dimensions. It is ideal, but not always possible, for youths to attain both.

Each year, roughly 25,000 young people age out of foster care in the United States without a legally binding, permanent relationship with a family. Youths are said to age out of care, or emancipate, when they are forced to exit foster care due to reaching the age of majority, which is anywhere from 18 to 21 years of age depending on the state. From 2000 to 2009, the number of youths aging out of care increased by 46%, and though the number has finally begun to decrease over the past five years, youth emancipation continues to represent one in 10 exits from foster care (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2013).

Because aged-out youths often lack concrete resources and social supports, they are at risk for a number of adverse outcomes, including increased rates of unemployment, low educational attainment, reliance on public assistance, behavioral health symptomology, poor physical health, homelessness, unplanned pregnancy, and criminal justice involvement (Courtney, Dworsky, Cusick, Havlicek, Perez, & Keller, 2007). In fact, the most statistically at-risk youths in the United States today are former foster youths who have aged out of the child welfare system (Muller-Ravett & Jacobs, 2012). The Jim Casey Youth Initiative estimates that on average, for every young person who ages out, taxpayers and communities pay $300,000 in social costs over that person's lifetime. With approximately 25,000 young people aging out each year, this amounts to roughly $7.5 billion in total costs.

Permanent Relationships With Caring Adults
Impacting the poor outcomes that these highly marginalized youths experience and the bottom line is not impossible. Researchers have suggested that the presence of an enduring, permanent relationship with a caring, supportive adult may be associated with improved positive well-being outcomes for youths in foster care (Greeson, 2013). Thus, over the past two decades, there has been an increased emphasis on establishing permanent relationships for youths in foster care. For example, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) sought to address the problem of "foster care drift," where many children and youths remained in foster care for long periods of time without achieving permanency. By mandating strict timelines for the achievement of legal permanency, ASFA attempted to both expedite permanency and reduce the number of youths lingering in foster care without permanency. Interestingly, ASFA defines permanency as the achievement of a court-sanctioned legal status and mandates that permanency be pursued in the following order: reunification, adoption, legal guardianship, placement with a fit and willing relative, and another planned permanent living arrangement.

Although ASFA may be a step in the right direction, there are two underlying assumptions of this law that deserve further exploration: one, that the attainment of a legal status is synonymous with the achievement of permanency, and two, that there is a hierarchy of permanency statuses, meaning that some are better than others. The first assumption may be problematic, as some youth may be legally adopted and still not feel a sense of permanent belonging with a family. Under ASFA, this would be considered a successful permanency, even though subjectively, the youth may not feel a sense of permanency. Conversely, a youth may experience an enduring and permanent connection with an adult, though this relationship may not be validated by a court order. Under ASFA, this would not be considered a successful permanency, though to the youth, it may be.

The second assumption may also be problematic, as it prioritizes adoption next only to reunification. Adoption requires the termination of parental rights, which may not be desirable for all older youths in care, particularly those living with relatives and still in a relationship with their parent(s). For these youths, placement with a fit and willing relative may be a better option, even though this goal is fourth on the list of permanency priorities.

The legal definition and hierarchy of permanency reduces the complexity that many youths in foster care attribute to their understanding of what it means to "achieve permanency." In other words, such a narrow definition does not grapple with the intricacies of permanency beyond its legal definition and therefore may be inadequate in explaining the experiences of permanency for individual youths in foster care. In response to this limitation, the notion of relational permanency, otherwise known as emotional permanency, has emerged as an additional way to conceptualize meaningful permanency for youths in foster care.

Semanchin-Jones and LaLiberte (2013) define relational permanency as "youth experiencing a sense of belonging through enduring, life-long connections to parents, extended family, or other caring adults, including at least one adult who will provide a permanent, parentlike connection for that youth" (p. 509). In other words, permanency is subjectively defined by the youth irrespective of a legal status.

Permanency may be conceptualized as two separate but related dimensions: legal and relational statuses. For example, it's most ideal for youths to experience both relational and legal permanency, in that it's subjectively meaningful for the youth and also validated and cemented in place by a court order. It is least desirable for youths to experience neither legal nor relational permanency, because these youths live in isolation from caring and supportive adults. Youths who experience legal permanency but not relational permanency may also be at a disadvantage. They still lack a sense of belonging with a family, even though a court has declared them to be legally part of that family. Likewise, some youths who only experience relational permanency, but don't achieve legal permanency, may also struggle with the insecurity of not being part of a forever family, as there's no court order sanctioning the relationship.

Perspectives From Former Youths in Foster Care
Ashleigh Martell Brunsink is a Master of Social Work student at the University of Pennsylvania, and she worked for several years as a house parent in a group home with older youths emancipating from foster care. As a young person, Brunsink also aged out of foster care. According to Brunsink, many youths in foster care experience legal permanency as what the child welfare jurisdiction "prescribes" for them, whereas relational permanency refers to what young people "make or choose." In this way, relational permanency is established over time through hard-earned trust and represents an intentional choice on the part of both parties to maintain a meaningful, committed relationship. For youths in care, such organically formed relationships are often deeply cherished and significant. However, Brunsink acknowledges that there can also be challenges associated with relational permanency.

Brunsink shared her perspective about the strengths and limitations of legal and relational permanency, likening the relationship to that of marriage. In her analogy, Brunsink describes a committed, long-term dating relationship as similar to what some youths with relational permanency may experience. Though the relationship may be subjectively meaningful and significant, partners may feel that they have to defend the strength of the relationship, as more than "just dating" in a way that married couples do not. Likewise, while youths with relational permanency may experience committed relationships with supportive adults, they too must often explain that they are more than "just a foster youth" in a way that a legal child does not. According to Brunsink, some youths who solely engage in relational permanency may feel more vulnerable, as they cannot hold onto a legal document that obligates adults to act as parents. Brunsink says that for these youths "[They may] want the piece of paper. It's validating. It's comfortable to fall back on something to say that they chose me enough to adopt me."

However, Brunsink readily explains that the achievement of legal permanency that is beneficial to youths isn't without its challenges. Taking the marriage analogy a step further, perhaps the process of being quickly pushed through a legal adoption without relational permanency may be akin to experiencing an arranged marriage between two individuals with no prior relationship. Indeed, Brunsink suggests that the permanency timeframes associated with ASFA (i.e., 15 of the last 22 months in foster care) are "far too soon for a youth to choose a family." She believes that ASFA was limited in that it failed to acknowledge and validate the importance of relational permanency, perhaps overemphasizing the benefits of legal adoption. For older youths in foster care, adoption can be complicated. Adoption leads to the legal severance of birth family ties, which may in turn lead to the relational severance as well. Unlike a marriage, where conceptually a family grows, adoption is often associated with the loss of a birth family and the acquisition of a new family. For youths in foster care, the decision to choose between a birth family and an adoptive family can be quite difficult. Thus, Brunsink calls for a balanced approach, one that acknowledges the importance of both relational and legal permanency while remembering that navigating between the two is "messy, dirty, hard work."

Daniel Knapp, MSEd, MSW, is a board member of FosterClub, a national network for youths in foster care (www.fosterclub.com), and he is also a young adult who was formerly placed in foster care. Through his work with FosterClub, Knapp has spoken with thousands of young people across the country about what it means to experience permanency. He's a coauthor of Getting Solid, which is a FosterClub training program for young people aging out of foster care. The training has four components for youths in care to consider: What is permanence? Do you have it? Why do you need it? and How to get it.

According to Knapp, many youths in foster care do not understand what is meant by the word "permanency," and so the Getting Solid curriculum explores both legal and relational permanency with youths. Youths take a "Permanency Quiz," which prompts them to consider various aspects of what it means to have a permanent relationship with a caring, committed adult. They rate a list of statements that may be commensurate with the experience of permanency, such as "I have an adult who gives me good advice" and "I have an adult who will want to spend time with me during the holidays." The next section of the training explores why youths need permanency, which according to Knapp, can be somewhat challenging for youths who have grown up in a system that prioritizes independent living skills over the need to establish social support networks. According to Getting Solid, "Life on your own after foster care doesn't have to be like living on a deserted island." But for youths in foster care, the fear of being rejected or hurt is very real, and the "trust issue," as Knapp calls it, is often a barrier to the establishment of permanency.

Reflecting on these challenges, Knapp comments that the establishment of permanency for youths in foster care is difficult: "The person who was supposed to love them unconditionally no matter what failed to do so, and now we are expecting them to take on a new family and trust that everything will work out. I think that trust issue is a huge barrier. I've worked with a lot of young people who have aged out of the foster care system, and they often say, 'I don't need anyone. I've done this all on my own.' We teach them to live independently, and it's like a banner. They are saying 'I don't need anyone,' and that's sort of their mantra."

In response to the nuanced and unique relational challenges each youth in foster care faces, FosterClub developed the Permanency Pact, an individualized contractual agreement that is completed by a youth and a self-selected supportive adult. The Pact combines elements of relational permanency with the formality associated with legal permanency in order to produce a document of commitment that describes the permanency, scope, and expectations of the relationship for the youth and their supportive adult. The Pact contains 45 suggested supports, such as an emergency place to stay, food/occasional meals, someone to talk to/discuss problems, spiritual support, babysitting, and even legal adoption. Youths and their supportive adults may also include their own agreed-upon supports that are unique to their relationship. The Pact documents a "life-long, kinlike commitment to a relationship between a youth and a supportive adult." FosterClub provides a great example of a permanency practice that acknowledges the importance of both individualized relational permanency along with the validation of a formal written agreement.

Improving Permanency Practice in Child Welfare
In order to improve permanency practice among youths at risk of aging out of foster care, child welfare jurisdictions must recognize the value of both relational and formally recognized permanency. In other words, all youths exiting care should do so with the enduring and permanent support of at least one caring, committed adult. Relational permanency should come first for older youths in foster care. Systems must begin to engage youths early on to identify such supportive relationships and must continue working to strengthen the youth's social support networks over time. Furthermore, this relational permanency should be validated and solidified by formalized written agreements, which can include either court orders or other individualized documents such as permanency pacts. Jurisdictions should be held accountable to ensure that both relational and legal permanency planning takes place for older youths aging out of care.

Related to the goal of achieving relational and formally recognized permanency for all older youths is the recommendation that child welfare jurisdictions move away from independent living models and toward interdependent living programming. Historically, child welfare systems have primarily invested their resources in preparing older youths to live independently, though we know that youths exiting foster care independently struggle and don't have good outcomes (Avery & Freundlich, 2009). Youths need strong social supportive networks to thrive, and current research shows that independent living programs are ineffective in increasing and solidifying social supports for older youth aging out of foster care (Greeson, Garcia, Kim, & Courtney, 2014).

Federal funding streams should prioritize building the evidence base to support effective programs and interventions aimed at improving relational and formally recognized permanency among older youths exiting care. Such promising practice includes interventions such as Caring Adults 'R' Everywhere, or C.A.R.E., which was developed to support and enhance naturally occurring mentoring relationships that are subjectively determined to be important to the youth (Greeson, Thompson, & Kinnevy, 2014).

Systems would do well to partner with youth-led organizations such as FosterClub in order to adapt their policies and practices to support the achievement of relational and legal permanency for older youths aging out of care. "Taking [youth] perspectives seriously requires a radical shift in current permanency practices and policies. The field must engage more flexible conceptions of 'family' that acknowledge youths' varied levels of familial identity and membership (i.e., legal, biological, and relational)" (Samuels, 2009, p. 1238).

— Allison E. Thompson, MSS, LSW, is a doctoral student in the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice.

— Johanna K. P. Greeson, PhD, MSS, MLSP, is an assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice.

Avery, R. J., & Freundlich, M. (2009). You're all grown up now: Termination of foster care support at age 18. Journal of Adolescence, 32(2), 247-257.

Courtney, M. E., Dworsky, A., Cusick, G. R., Havlicek, J., Perez, A., & Keller, T. (2007). Midwest evaluation of the adult functioning of former foster youth: Outcomes at age 21. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.

Greeson, J. K. P. (2013). Foster youth and the transition to adulthood: The theoretical and conceptual basis for natural mentoring. Emerging Adulthood, 1(1), 40-51.

Greeson, J. K. P., Garcia, A. R., Kim, M., & Courtney, M. E. (2014). Foster youth and social support: The first RCT of independent living services. Research on Social Work Practice, DOI: 10.1177/1049731514534900.

Greeson, J. K. P., Thompson, A. E., & Kinnevy, S. (2014). Natural mentoring of older foster care youths: Behavioral health benefits. Social Work Today, 14(4), 10-13.

Muller-Ravett, S., & Jacobs, E. J. (2012). After foster care and juvenile justice: A preview of the Youth Villages' transitional living evaluation (policy brief). MDRC. Retrieved November 21, 2014, from http://www.mdrc.org/publication/after-foster-care-and-juvenile-justice.

Samuels, G. M. (2009). Ambiguous loss of home: The experience of familial (im)permanence among young adults with foster care backgrounds. Children and Youth Services Review, 31(12), 1229-1239.

Semanchin-Jones, A. S., & LaLiberte, T. (2013). Measuring youth connections: A component of relational permanence for foster youth. Children and Youth Services Review, 35(3), 509-517.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2013). Administration for children and families, administration on children, youth and families, children's bureau. The AFCARS report—Preliminary FY 2012 Estimates as of July 31, 2013 (No.20).