Throughout our Texas Youth Permanency Study (TYPS), we’ve explored relationships that are important to young people living in foster care. Our research shows how relationships with birth families and relatives unfold for youth. Many of our study participants report complex feelings about reconnecting with their birth families as young adults. Child welfare practitioners can play a critical role in helping youth navigate the nuances of rebuilding these relationships.
Reconnecting with birth families after foster care can bring about close attachments and serve as a critical moment in the healing process for youth. This can lead to strong relationships and broader support networks. Understandably, many participants are curious about their history and relatives and yearn to reestablish connection with family members. However, others may want little interaction with their birth family due to negative past experiences.
Voicing Concerns About Reconnecting
When asked about reconnecting with birth family members, several TYPS participants shared reservations. Some youth hesitate to reconnect or have certain boundaries that must not be crossed as part of their reconnection with birth families. “I gave them a lot of chances while we were with them to be better and become better and to get off drugs and all that,” Jonathan*, a TYPS youth participant, said in an interview. “And they abused those chances to the point where my sister and I and my brother just don’t want to talk to them anymore.”
Others are willing to work through differences due to the genuine relationship that they have with their families. Lupe* shared that although her father is the reason she’s in foster care, she still has regular visits with him and her mom. “I don’t really like him, but I don’t hate him,” Lupe said. “I do still love and respect him because he is my father, and I know he really just does want me to succeed. But I also know that he didn’t have the best childhood. He didn’t have anything to really based parenting off of very well. So, I don’t hold anything against him.”
Michael* had similar feelings of hesitancy about reaching out. “I think that when I’m ready and when I get over the trauma I’ve been through and come to a spot where I feel happy with myself and forgive them, if that happens in the future then I would love to have a relationship with them,” Michael said. “But right now, I have to find it in myself to forgive them before being able to see them or talk to them as much as I used to.”
Recognizing Changes and Celebrating Progress
Some participants noted the hardships their birth families had faced and recognized that their family members may have changed since the time of removal. These participants acknowledged the progress their parents have made and celebrated their family’s recovery. “My mom and dad were both addicted, and that’s why we had gotten taken away,” Jade* shared. “My dad’s going to be three years clean. My mom is now a year clean. So, it helps a lot, knowing that they want to change. It’s better it’s late that they change instead of never.”
Supporting Youth With Reconnecting
Reconnecting with family after separation, termination of rights, and years of foster care can present challenges when youth reach adulthood. Child welfare professionals should be aware of these nuances and be prepared to support youth with whatever choices they make.
Practitioners can aid youth on their journey to reestablish connections with their birth family by helping them set expectations and navigate challenging decisions. Based on interviews with youth, our research team developed several recommendations for those working with youth in care:
- Recognize that youth are naturally curious about their birth family. Avoid discouraging connection with parents, siblings, and relatives.
- Help youth locate family members and facilitate early conversations, activities, and visits if possible.
- Understand that birth families may have had outstanding hardships when the youth was younger.
- Introduce healthy boundaries youth can set up when reconnecting with birth families. This can maintain their emotional wellbeing during a challenging time.
- Be a trusted support for youth to confide in when youth are reconnecting with birth families. Make yourself available to celebrate victories and process hardships when youth are reestablishing connection with family.
As we’ve learned from interviews with youth, sometimes reconnection can be a beautiful experience. Other times, it can be a significant hardship and create stress for youth. Youth should be at the center of deciding whether they want to reestablish connection with their birth family. With the support of practitioners, youth can make choices that best work for them and their futures.
*We use pseudonyms in this blog to protect the privacy of Texas Youth Permanency Study participants.