Legal Permanency Is Not Always Permanent

legal permanency is not always permanent

November is National Adoption Month, and we’re focusing this week on legal permanency.

Please join us on Wednesday, November 8th for a Facebook Live session discussing this topic!  0.5 CEUs available!

By Tymothy Belseth

In child welfare, permanency is a concept often discussed, but rarely researched as a multidimensional concept. Permanency is simply explained to children in foster care as their ‘forever family.’  Pragmatically, it represents the point when the state is no longer in charge of a child. That responsibility transfers back to the original caregiver or a new caregiver. The state then assumes that this caregiver will provide lifelong connections, support , and stability for the child.  However, anecdotal evidence suggests this is not the case, particularly for adolescents in foster care.

The Texas Youth Permanency Study aims to assess permanency across three dimensions in order to understand where and how to shift policies and practices to meet the needs of older youth in foster care. The three dimensions are defined as:

  • Legal permanency, which is the legal outcome of the case, such as adoption, reunification, or another planned permanent living arrangement, known as “aging-out”. The legal outcome is the point at which the child welfare system is no longer responsible for the child. That responsibility is assumed to be transferred to the caregivers who will provide relational and physical permanency.
  • Relational permanency is a newer term, but an age-old concept. Relational permanency is the existence of one or more strong, sustainable and supportive relationships between a youth and caregivers, siblings and other individuals that a youth considers part of his or her family.
  • Physical permanency is also a newer term but a basic concept. Physical permanency is a physical space that an individual considers home and/or a place of acceptance and security. One youth described physical permanency as having a place where you “can take your shoes off.”

Permanency efforts today largely focus on achieving legal permanency. However, our pilot study indicates that relational permanency is a far better indicator of relationship quality a youth has with their families. The pilot for the Texas Youth Permanency Study ran from February through August 2017 to calibrate survey methods, instruments, and best practices for research. Thirty former foster youth participated in a survey and an open-ended interview regarding their experiences with foster care, adoption, and permanency in general. In our pilot, we had several youth who had experienced adoption as children or adolescents. Some of these adoptions failed. When we explored factors that contributed to adoption dissolution, we found that these youth had weak bonds with the families. Some reasons that prevented youth from bonding with their families included a lack of emotional and social support, perceived inferiority when compared to caregiver’s biological children, and belief that adoptive families were only in it for the money. Although legal permanency was achieved, the participants made it known that a critical component was missing from their experience—they did not feel like part of the family.

In our pilot, we found that some youth had secured relational permanency with caring adults, but did not experience adoption or reunification. When we explored what factors contributed to building relational permanency, we found that normalcy and equitable treatment facilitated strong relationships, improved wellbeing for youth, and resulted in the youth wanting to maintain the relationship over time. Despite the fact that these youth aged-out of care at 18, they felt as if these foster families and individuals were their family and continued to rely on them for support. Youth who had achieved relational permanence while in care had fewer placement changes, felt more prepared for life after foster care, and overall appeared to have encountered better experiences during adolescence and early adulthood compared to participants who did not achieve relational permanency while in care.

In conclusion, the early results from our study indicate that securing relational permanency is perhaps more influential in positively influencing a youth’s life than merely establishing legal permanency. Adoption for teens in foster care is often a difficult task, and there is no guarantee that their adoption will ultimately result in a lifelong connection. However, by promoting factors that facilitate relational permanency, we can ensure that youth feel safe, comfortable, and relatable to the families who take care of them. If the youth feels like they are part of the family and are treated well, the relationship is likely to be maintained by the youth as they grow and will continue to benefit from these strong connections.

Please join us on Wednesday, November 8th for a Facebook Live session discussing this topic!  0.5 CEUs available!