Permanency is Possible for Older Youth in Child Welfare

“I don’t want a family.” 

“Johnny will never have a family so it’s best to focus on independent living skills.”

For decades, Plummer Youth Promise accepted the truth of these statements. And so, rather than prioritizing permanency, we focused on preparing youth to live without family. We capitalized on community support to provide mentors, jobs and other opportunities. We taught daily living skills. We provided tutoring.

But it wasn’t enough. We knew our youth struggled as young adults. We knew many were couch-surfing or homeless. We knew some became young parents, and had trouble holding jobs.

Today, things have changed. For fiscal 2019, 70 percent of the young men who discharged from our group home had achieved the support of a “Safe, Emotionally Secure Parenting Relationship.” To us, that means the relationship is: physically and emotionally safe; meant to go on indefinitely; unconditionally committed; and one in which the youth is claimed by the parent as part of the family and feels belonging and acceptance.

We reject the notion that teens don’t want families, or that family isn’t possible for them. Instead, we press for that outcome every day using techniques pioneered by others and adapted for our setting.

Immediately at intake, we start the family search and engagement process. We ask open-ended questions, like, “Who is important in your life?” or “Who cares about you?” We reach out to adults, asking things like “What’s your favorite memory of this young man?” or “What do you wish for him?”

Next, guided by the youth, we build a team. The team is informed wholly by the youth’s needs, allowing people who’ve been in conflict to come together for the purposes of working on the young person’s permanency plan. Plans always drive toward safe, supportive, lasting family relationships, and often toward living with a family. Though it may at first be dominated by professionals, the team should eventually include only natural connections.

We engage the team in crafting a workable plan which often relies on more than one person. For example, a grandmother might be willing to have the young person live with her, but say she’ll struggle on certain days. A different team member might volunteer to care for the youth on those days. Still another might agree to get the youth to and from school or athletics.

Finally, we help youth and their families get ready for permanency so their relationships can sustain. We prioritize family contact, providing plenty of visits and time to strengthen relationships. We never limit family contact due to a young person’s behavior. And we have conversations between and among a permanency social worker, the youth, and family members about what is necessary to make the relationship successful, what the challenges might be, and what kind of support is available.

If you’re unsatisfied with your residents’ outcomes, start by being brutally honest about what’s working and what isn’t. If you can’t make big changes, start small. Recognize family contact as a right, not a privilege, and never use family visits as incentive or punishment. Use casual circumstances like car rides to introduce conversations about family.

When a young person mentions someone important to them, follow up immediately. Focus on permanency rather than behaviors when reviewing a youth’s treatment plan. Understand that the longer young people go without living with their families, the more layers are added to their trauma.

Permanency is possible for youth in residential care who have been in the child welfare system for years and experienced multiple moves, but it doesn’t just happen. It takes an intentional approach at all levels of the organization.

The Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America conference is coming up November 1-2 in Boston. Click here to register! #REFCA2019


Nicole McLaughlin is the acting executive director of Plummer Youth Promise in Salem, Mass. This column was adapted from an article by James Lister and Nicole McLaughlin published in the Winter 2018 issue of Adoptalk, a publication of the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

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