Older Youth and Permanence: A Conversation with Gina Miranda Samuels

Posted March 29, 2012, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Gina Miranda Samuels is a researcher and associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago on sabbatical leave at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She is the author of a report called, “A Reason, a Season, or a Lifetime: Relational Permanence,” published in 2008 by the Chapin Hall Center for Children with support from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.

Q: What do you hope to contribute to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s understanding of permanence and to the field more broadly?

A: Permanence is child welfare jargon for finding, creating, repairing, and healing families for kids to grow up and thrive in, whether that includes biological, adoptive, or foster parents, or some combination. It is not just legality that causes bonding and love to last. While all sorts of benefits come with having the right to legally affirming relationships within a family, the piece of paper alone doesn’t make people family. Much more goes into the sense of attachment to a family or group. Human relationships are complex, and family relationships become even more complex for this group of kids who have experienced tough starts in their families of origin and are left with the residue. Regardless of whether they go back home or are adopted or whatever their next stopping place is, my hope is for the field to see that all of those relationships matter.

Q: In an era where fiscal responsibility is paramount and philanthropic investments are guided by concrete results, how can we measure the success of these relationships?

A: Casey Family Services [the Foundation’s child welfare agency] has a tool called the Belonging and Emotional Security Tool, or BEST, that is used in practice and in longitudinal studies to assess a child’s sense of belonging. It is not enough to check a box and say we’ve achieved permanence. You need to look at the child’s well-being, sense of belonging, and emotional security. In the past, we assumed that if you could just get a kid to legal permanence, all those other things would come. Based on research that suggests emotional security is a critical component of successful permanence, the BEST tool is an example of a practice attuned more to relationships. Casey Family Services has been following a cohort of young people who have been in its system and have either aged out or are no longer in it—and they have used this tool to guide workers in paying attention to these things. As we look to measure outcomes, we want to know whether we have moved the dial developmentally in ensuring that children have healthy relationships. Some questions to guide us include: How do we form family-like connections and supports around youth and young adults aging out of care when we have failed to do so while these same young people were in care? What relational networks do young people have, and how might they provide support, or not, across the life course? What are the unique roles of adults, both kin and non-kin?

Q: In addition to being an MSW social worker and PhD researcher, you are a transracial adoptee. What kind of advice can you offer the field about transracial adoption?

A: I try to push the field beyond the question of whether it is good or bad. We have multiracial families not only by adoption but by birth—that train has left the station—so we should not be asking whether or not we should exist, but raising questions about the challenges embedded in that family structure. How can we make being transracially adopted less of a risk factor for identity struggles than it needs to be? Who plays what role in that, and how can we help children and parents living in that context to create families that are affirming to all members? For most parents entering transracial adoption or cross-race parenting, raising kids to operate in cultures and ethnic groups other than their own is not a natural skill set that most parents have, and yet these are absolutely essential skills for parenting transracially adopted kids.

When it comes to preparing adoptive parents, there really isn’t an evidence-based practice for cross-race parenting, and unlike in foster care, many adoptions are conducted through private agencies that aren’t held to the same reporting mechanisms as public agencies. Cost is also a factor, and some agencies can’t provide the support to help parents—whether it is a transracial adoption or not—get sufficient training to ensure they can successfully integrate a child into their family. And while some communities offer informal support groups for transracial adoptive parents and families, or training on hair care, culture, and history, questions remain about how you can teach parents who’ve never experienced racial discrimination what it will feel like for their children—or if you could, is there any evidence that it would help their parenting? It is also important to remember that some families do fine without supports, and others won’t for reasons that may have everything or nothing to do with race.

Q: A report published by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative offers guidance on foster care policies for older youth based on research on the adolescent brain. Can this work play a helpful role in child welfare reform?

A: This is a really important area of research that oftentimes as social workers we don’t think about. What this work does is really force us to pay attention to the biology of human beings and the way it matters. You are born with certain abilities, and then the environment starts to happen for you and it massages either your vulnerabilities, your strengths, or a combination of both. A very important piece is that the brain science offers evidence of substantial opportunities for growth for this age group, and what particularly excites me is that it is through relational experiences that the brain grows and can rewire itself. This underscores the importance of relationships, not only from the standpoint of attachment, but because they can help young people grow and repair some of the damages in the brain’s development that early maltreatment can cause. These data confirm that there are a host of things we can be doing intentionally in using relationships as a mechanism for healing.

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