Young people are connected to others through family and social networks, and these connections are central to establishing relational permanency. Young people may view this as being more important to them than legal permanency (Salazar et al., 2018). It is critical to maintain these connections and the sense of belonging they bring to a young person.
One caring adult
There is numerous research that speaks to the importance of young people having at least one caring adult in their safety and support network. Young people who have positive life outcomes and have adapted and overcome childhood trauma and other challenges all have in common a stable and committed adult.
The power of that one strong adult relationship is a key ingredient in resilience – a positive, adaptive response in the face of significant adversity.
The aim of relational permanency is to build a young persons’ connections to important people in their lives however finding one stable and supportive adult will have great positive outcomes for the young person. If that one caring adult can be a young person’s guardian it can be a beneficial way to secure legal and relational permanency.
While there are complex family dynamics to navigate when a young person is placed with kin, this type of care arrangement also positively contributes to placement stability and relationship quality. Contact between a young person, their siblings, parents and carer is more likely to occur in a kinship care arrangement, while also having a strong influence in terms of preserving a young person’s sense of self, family identity and cultural continuity (Broad, 2007).
It is important for practitioners to understand the unique kinship systems that are a part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. As permanency for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child or young person is identified by a broader communal sense of belonging, including where they are from, and their place in relation to family, mob, community, land and culture.
A strong relationship between a kinship carer and a young person can be reinforced by moving to a child protection order granting long-term guardianship or a permanent care order to the kin carer, strengthening legal permanence.
Young people in foster care may require additional support to maintain their care arrangements through the adolescent years and to continue to grow relational permanency. A strong foundation-building attachment to foster carers in their younger years will often help to lay the foundation for a more stable care experience in adolescence. Early intervention to address trauma, attachment and developmental issues is critical.
If young people enter foster care or change care arrangements during adolescence, they may need additional support to help them work through any trauma, grief and loss they have experienced, and to develop new ways of forming relationships. Counselling may provide a supportive outlet to work through some of the challenges of adolescence such as identity, attachment and relationships with carers. Therapeutic life story work can be a useful approach for young people in foster care.
Family contact is extremely important in developing and maintaining relationships between children, young people, their parents, extended families and communities. Family contact should be regularly reviewed, with practitioners considering the quality of this contact instead of the quantity.
The views and wishes of a young person, their siblings, their parents and the young person’s extended kin or community networks should be considered when determining how contact will progress. As young people get older, they may take a stronger lead on how these contact arrangements occur (when it is safe for them to do so).
Family contact allows for family continuity, in a safe environment. Well-planned and positive family contact benefits young people by assisting with reunification, maintaining and building attachment and connectedness with family and other significant people in the child’s life, and promoting positive wellbeing and development. It also encourages all dimensions of permanency.
Wherever possible, build relationships between carers and family so that contact can be facilitated more naturally.
Family dynamics are often determined by the number of people within a household and their relationship with each other. While it is common for most young people to live with their siblings and their parents, if a young person is placed in care, ask them who they consider to be a sibling, as their determination of who is a sibling may not fit traditional views (McDowall, 2015).
Information Gateway’s (2013) January Bulletin (cited in McDowall, 2015), outlines the many types of relationships that may be perceived as involving ‘siblings’:
- Full or half-siblings, including any children who were relinquished or removed at birth
- Adopted children in the same household, not biologically related
- Children born into the family and their foster/adopted siblings
- Other close relatives or nonrelatives living in the same kinship home
- Foster children in the same family
- Friends with a close, enduring relationship
- Children of the partner or former partner of the child’s parent
- Individuals conceived from the same sperm or egg donor.
When a child is removed from their parents’ care, either with their siblings or at different times, practitioners should note the importance of placing sibling groups together wherever possible. The impact of feelings a child may experience on entering care, such as anxiety, trauma, grief, guilt and loss, reduces when children are placed with their siblings, and these relationships continue to provide support through to adulthood (Herrick et al., 2005 cited in McDowall, 2015).
Practitioners may consider how stability and permanency in placements is more likely to occur when siblings are placed together, with research indicating that siblings being placed together in care strongly predicts successful reunification (Webster et al., 2005, cited in McDowall, 2015).
This video describes young people’s views and feelings in relation to sibling contact and the importance of being placed with their siblings when in care.
Connections with others
During a young person’s time in care, or prior to entering care, they will have built other relationships that are important to them. Ask them who they would like to remain in contact with, and find ways to include these people in the young person’s life.
These people may include (but not be limited to):
- previous foster carers
- previous residential or care workers
- neighbours from previous placements or home
- school friends.
If young people are finding their own places to stay, they may be building connections with people who do not offer safety or encourage unsafe behaviour. Continue to work in a strengths-based approach with the young person to find strengths in the relationship that can support the young person.
By working together, the CSO can ensure the young person is given clear messages about safety and decision making, while hearing their values and wishes regarding the relationship.
Complete the Safe Contact Tool with the young person and write a plan about any worries that exist and what each party will do to manage the risk. It is important to balance working with a young person while ensuring that their safety is met.
For a young person who has relational permanence with an adult, explore how this relationship can provide support as the young person prepares to transition into adulthood.
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