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“A Comfort I Couldn’t Find in Nobody Else”: Relationships Between Emancipated Former Foster Youth and Their Biological Parents


When foster youth emancipate from the child welfare system they no longer have professionals overseeing decisions about contact with their biological parents. While there is a general awareness in the field of child welfare that former foster youth often do choose to reconnect with their biological parents as adults, there has been scant research investigating former foster youths’ lived experiences of contact with them. Little is known about the potential functions of these relationships as sources of support, conflict, healing, or resilience. Without an understanding of how decisions about contact are made, and how such contact impacts their lives, it is not possible to assess how prepared, or unprepared, emancipated youth are when they leave the child welfare system to negotiate these relationships in whatever manner is most beneficial to them.

This qualitative study utilized interpretative phenomenological analysis in order to describe the experiences of a small sample (N = 8) of emancipated youth. This research also investigated the potential for theories of emerging adulthood, attachment and ambiguous loss, and resilience to contribute to a theoretical framework that could aid in understanding their experiences and decision making processes with regards to their relationships with their biological parents. Data were collected primarily via two rounds of in-depth, semi-structured interviews, and topics explored included descriptions of contact, ways in which relationships with biological parents served as supports and challenges, how emancipated youth made sense of their decisions about contact, identity development, forgiveness, and closure.

Overall, participants described their biological parents as still struggling with the issues that led to foster care placement, and their relationships with them were often both supportive and challenging in different respects. For some, having children of their own had changed their relationships with their biological parents in rather complex ways. Despite the presence of difficulties in many of their relationships, participants expressed a great deal of empathy for their biological parents. Many had gone through a process of forgiveness in order to move on from the past. Practice implications and the applicability of theories of emerging adulthood, ambiguous loss, and resilience were also explored.

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