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Challenges to achieving permanency for young people

Adolescence is a time of significant development and growth, and this can bring challenges when seeking to secure permanency.

Young people need and deserve stability and safety regarding their connections with people, professionals and care arrangements. Achieving permanency remains one of the most important aspects contributing to positive outcomes for young people. It is a critically important, positive pathway for a young person’s development and long-term wellbeing.

In light of what we know about the impact of relational, physical and legal permanency on a range of outcomes, we (as practitioners) need to consider the importance of timely and robust discussions about permanency well before the young person transitions from care.

A young person’s transition to adulthood from care is influenced by a range of factors, including whether relational, physical and legal permanency have been achieved. Salazar et al., (2018) found that permanency plays a significant role in successful transitions, providing a secure base for a young person to explore their environment as well as to participate in and pursue life goals. Connecting with a committed and caring adult through permanent care arrangements is significant in developing resilience to manage the challenges of the transition from care to adulthood and the path to greater independence.

There are increased risk factors for a range of poor outcomes if permanency for a young person is not achieved. The transition from care in the absence of one or more supportive, stable relationships and access to services impacts on the mental, physical and emotional health of a young person, and the chances of homelessness, unemployment and substance abuse are increased (Lockwood et al., 2015; Avery, 2010).

Care arrangements (placements) are another important area that may result in poor permanency planning. Young people may experience:

  • frequent changes of care arrangements
  • residential care with harmful co-tenants
  • a return to a parent or family member who is unable to meet their safety needs
  • unknown or unsafe homes
  • homelessness.

When young people have unstable care arrangements, focus on maintaining continuity in relationships and other forms of physical permanency (such as staying at the same school or the same area) to help them move through these challenging experiences.


‘I haven’t really belonged to one place or one culture or felt a sense of connection to anywhere. I would have liked to, but was moved so frequently that I couldn’t feel that sense of connection.’

(Female, 19, cited in CREATE, 2019)

Stein (2006) describes three types of care leavers, along with their attributes, needs and potential trajectories. Stein refers to the groups as ‘moving on’, ‘survivors’, and ‘victims’, (though these have been renamed to use less stigmatising language).

The well-supported group:

  • had stability and continuity in their lives, including a secure attachment relationship
  • made sense of their family relationships so they could psychologically move on from them
  • achieved some educational success before leaving care
  • had gradual preparation
  • left care later, and their moving on was likely to have been planned
  • were practically prepared with access to necessary documentation and life skills.

The vulnerable group:

  • experienced some instability, movement and disruption in care
  • left their care arrangements younger, often following a breakdown in foster care
  • had little or no educational success or completion
  • were likely to experience further movement and problems after leaving care, including periods of homelessness and low-paid casual work/unemployment
  • were likely to experience problems in their personal and professional relationships through patterns of detachment and dependency.

The higher needs group:

  • had significant damaging pre-care experiences for which care was unable to compensate
  • had experiences in care that were likely to include many placement moves and related disruptions, especially in relation to personal relationships
  • were least likely to have an ongoing attachment relationship with a family member or carer
  • had problems in engagement with education and were unlikely to continue
  • were likely to leave care younger, following a placement breakdown (Stein, 2006).

The level of permanency achieved also influences the outcomes for these groups of young people and significantly shapes the future for them as they move towards independence.

Practice prompt

Think about these impacts next time you begin a conversation with a young person. Think about the importance of robust permanency discussions addressing the individual needs of the young person you’re working with.

Consider who’s in the young person’s safety and support network and what role they play or could play.

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