Growing up in foster care: a qualitative study of the relational worlds of foster youth
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Grounded theory methodology was used to study 18 young adults (ages 18 to 25) who had spent at least four years in foster care during childhood. Semi-structured interviews were used to gain information about the experiences before, during, and after foster care placement. The interviews focused on relationships of all types, but especially caretaker-child relationships. Additional information on relationships and psychosocial functioning was collected via self-report measures and a file review. Results indicated that many of the participants’ experiences caused relational wounds, including painful relational beliefs and emotions. Relational wounds endured over time and broadly affected the participants’ experiences in foster care through the activation of goals and behavioral strategies. Foster placement characteristics also influenced the participants’ choice of goals and behavioral strategies. In many foster placements, the participants’ experiences inflicted new relational wounds or confirmed their existing relational beliefs. In some placements, however, participants experienced a sense of family. In these foster placements, participants received messages from the foster caretaker that had a therapeutic effect on their relational wounds. Foster caretaker messages were related to five themes: love, belonging, acceptance, importance, and support. Healing of relational wounds resulted in changes in emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. Other factors, such as exposure to therapeutic messages, foster caretaker characteristics, the unexpected termination of relationships, therapy, contact with biological family, additional stress and trauma, and participants’ psychological defenses also affected the extent to which healing occurred within the therapeutic context of a sense of family. These findings support the use of foster parents as an agent of change and highlight the need to help foster youth form stable, enduring family relationships while they are in foster care. Implications for family-based treatment foster care, foster parent recruitment and training, and the role of mental health professionals in foster care is discussed.