Upbring, a thought leader among child welfare nonprofits, and the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing have released a preliminary report from the Texas Youth Permanency Study (TYPS). Findings call into question the child welfare system’s decades-long assumption that placing youth with adoptive parents, biological parents or relatives is sufficient to ensure they have a “forever family” and that they successfully transition to adulthood.
“Relationships are the key to building resilience,” said Monica Faulkner, PhD, who directs the study. “Sadly, our child welfare system is focused on legal outcomes — returning children to their parents, terminating parental rights, getting a child adopted. We don’t focus on the ‘normal’ relationships that youth need with friends, siblings and supportive adults. As we continue this research, we hope to find more information to understand how those relationships function regardless of the child’s legal outcomes.”
The released report summarizes findings from the pilot phase in a multi-year study. Over the next five years, the research team will follow a cohort of adolescent youth as they exit the foster care system due to family reunification, adoption or aging out. The study will assess the extent to which these trajectories impact the youths’ abilities to build authentic relationships and achieve positive outcomes in key areas.
Researchers have long known that youth who age out of foster care are at high risk of negative outcomes such as homelessness, unemployment and early or unplanned pregnancy. Until now, however, there was no data comparing youth who age out of care to youth who are adopted or reunified with family.
For this pilot study, the research team interviewed 30 young adults who had been in foster care, seeking answers to two primary questions:
- How do foster care experiences shape outcomes in emerging adulthood?
- To what extent do older youth who are adopted from foster care, returned to their family of origin, or remain in permanent managing conservatorship maintain stable and nurturing connections in emerging adulthood?
Five study participants reported that they were reunified with their birth families, but they returned to foster care because of ongoing abuse or neglect. Another five participants experienced disrupted adoptions for varying reasons, including abuse and the adoptive parents choosing to end their relationship with the child. The majority of participants eventually aged out of care.
A new model
The pilot report suggests a new model for improving long-term outcomes for youth in foster care, regardless of whether they are adopted, reunified or age out of care. The model starts with youth establishing authentic relationships with people who genuinely care about them, including caseworkers, mental health professionals and foster parents, as well as more informal relationships.
“That foster mom, she has been my angel,” said one study participant. “She’s godmother to my two children. She treated me with decency and respect. She wanted to get to know me.”
Faulkner’s team found that youth who have the opportunity to forge authentic relationships feel like normal children. Authentic relationships and feeling normal, in turn, facilitate a successful transition into adulthood.
Because children enter the child welfare system at different life stages and due to different circumstances, each has unique needs. Still, Upbring’s research identifies five key markers of every child’s well-being: safety, health, education, vocation and life skills. Every Upbring program is designed to make measurable progress toward the five markers.
“We call this our continuum of care, and it is a framework for treating the whole child, beyond his or her immediate needs,” Upbring Senior Vice President of Strategy and Community Engagement Murray Chanow said. “The Texas Youth Permanency Study will provide insight that helps us deliver the support each child needs to thrive after they leave our care and, ultimately, break the cycle of abuse they were born into.”