Agency, Genuine Support, and Emotional Connection: Experiences that Promote Relational Permanency in Foster Care

Barbara Ball, Lalaine Sevillano, Monica Faulkner, Tymothy Belseth - Children and Youth Services Review


Child welfare systems focus on achieving legal permanency within specific timeframes. Once a child has achieved legal permanency, there is an assumption that youth develop loving, lasting, and supportive relationships that are essential for successfully navigating adulthood. However, extant research suggests that legal permanency does not equate relational permanency, and little is known about the factors that help youth achieve it. This study uses grounded theory methods to generate a deeper understanding of the experiences that help youth achieve relational permanency, regardless of whether they emancipate from care or are adopted. We conducted semi-structured interviews with 30 young adults with lived foster are experience and examined the quality and continuity of their relationships. Participants’ accounts of their relationships with caregivers and child welfare professionals coalesced around three core qualities: a) sense of agency (disempowering or empowering), b) perception of support (transactional or transformational), and c) emotional connection (guarded or mutually meaningful). Our findings suggest a clear link between the quality of relationships while in care, including those that are by definition temporary, and the participants’ ability to achieve relational permanency. Participants who felt empowered and experienced genuine support and connection while growing up in foster care or adoptive homes, also described more extensive, emotionally connected, and mutually meaningful relationships in adulthood that provided stability and support. By increasing foster youth’ sense of agency, providing trauma-informed foster parenting, and supporting youth’ connections with kin, friends, and mentors the child welfare system can increase the chances of youth to achieve relational permanency.