Older Youth and Permanence: A Conversation with Gina Miranda Samuels

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

Interview ginasamuels 2012

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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