Making Connections, Building Family

Published in the Fall 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

A new study looks at the sense of ambiguous loss and relationships among youth aging out of foster care.

-Chelen David

Young people who are aging out of foster care typically face a number of risks to their adulthood success, and recent research has shown high levels of homelessness, poverty, incarceration, early pregnancy, and unemployment in this population. Add to that list "ambiguous loss" in their emotional life, according to Gina Miranda Samuels, assistant professor at SSA and a Chapin Hall faculty associate.

"Ambiguous loss is a useful framework for youth leaving foster care because it helps to explain how chronic and irresolvable their losses are. It also helps to underscore that being removed from one's family of origin, even when it is absolutely necessary and in the child's best interest, is a profound loss—a loss of one's sense of home and family," Samuels says.

Samuels explores the concept in a paper she released this summer, "A Reason, a Season, or a Lifetime: Relational Permanence Among Young Adults with Foster Care Backgrounds." To gain a better understanding of support networks and examine how foster care might constrain or facilitate supportive relationships into adulthood, she conducted in-depth interviews with 29 young adults nationwide.

Children in foster care are often moved from one foster care setting or group home to another and cycle through many different caseworkers and counselors. Because much of their interpersonal lives have been out of their hands, some young adults with a foster care background view the course of a relationship as something largely beyond their control. The lack of a permanent family raises questions about how foster youth navigate family membership and ties, who they form supportive relationships with, and how their experiences in foster care shape their relationships.

"We, as a child welfare system, were not able to rehabilitate their biological nuclear families to reunify them with their parents, and we failed to find an adoptive family who could provide permanent familial stability," Samuels says. "It seems important to figure out how they do or do not access that relational permanence and understand the important role biological parents, foster parents, siblings, and caseworkers play while in care and into their early adult years."

Looking at her findings, Samuels found a strong match with the concept of ambiguous loss, Pauline Boss' model of coming to terms with the end of a relationship with no explicit closure and no rituals for grieving or recognizing what is lost. Many participants in Samuels' study experienced parents, caseworkers and other professionals, and foster parents traveling in and out of their world, often without a clear or acknowledged reason for the change. All of the participants had expectations, fears, and hopes about the permanence of their relationships.

Samuels' study is part of a growing body of research looking at the transition to adulthood for those in foster care, although she is among a smaller cohort who are interested in examining their relational, socio-emotional health. "I think it can be the lynchpin of everything else," she says. "If a young person is depressed, he's going to have a harder time finding a job. If she isn't connecting with foster parents or other students, it can impact her performance at school."

Alfred Pérez, a doctoral student at SSA who himself grew up in foster care, is working with Samuels and SSA Associate Professor Julia Henly on research around the relationships between caseworkers and children in foster care, and how those connections have an impact as the youth leave the system. "There's this notion that when they're emancipated, they leave the system and it's almost like they didn't have any relationships with the people they've known for a number of years," he says. "But I believe that young people rely heavily on their social workers and their caseworkers."

Each year approximately 20,000 young people enter adulthood directly from foster care, and the work of researchers like Samuels and Perez may help make that transition successful. "I think a lot can be done both structurally and how we work one-on-one with kids," Samuels says. "Even when necessary, removal should be acknowledged as disruptive to their primary relationship, and that may need repairing over time. We can think about how placement moves are handled, the role of adults in helping kids to process these transitions, and whether we can create a system where caseworkers come in and out of a child's life less frequently."