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May 2024Vol. 25, No. 4Moving Beyond Legal Permanency

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

Child welfare professionals have traditionally focused on identifying and establishing legal permanency on federally established timelines for young people determined to be unable to return to the care of their parents. However, focusing mostly on legal permanency may result in a young person’s other essential connections—such as prior foster caregivers, schoolteachers, and peers—not receiving the same attention as other forms of valuable support. In turn, this may cause young people in care to lose relationships with their biological families and kin as well as other important individuals in their lives.

In recent years, agencies have begun to understand that relational permanency is critical to the well-being of young people (Child Welfare Information Gateway, n.d.-b). Relational permanency encourages children and young people to form long-lasting permanent connections in foster care that include retaining connections with their cultures, communities, and families. By focusing on relational permanency, agencies can encourage children and young people to form strong relationships and social connections with people in their lives that can help them feel loved, accepted, and supported. This may also give young people more options and long-term security when it comes to choosing their permanent connections (Child Welfare Information Gateway, n.d.-a).

Challenges and Benefits of Moving Beyond Legal Permanency

Focusing on relational permanency is not without challenges. One of the challenges young people might face is that while they may be forming committed connections with adults in their lives, they may still lack a sense of belonging, seeing themselves as “just a foster child” (Thompson & Greeson, 2015). Young people may also have trouble forming meaningful relationships with adults in their lives because of trust issues due to entering care or previous experiences with adults, trauma caused by being in the system, lack of positive examples, or a fear of rejection due to past experiences (Thompson & Greeson, 2015). By being aware of these challenges and offering mental health support where needed, agencies can better facilitate relational permanency for young people in foster care.

In addition, collecting data on relational permanency can be a challenge for agencies. It is easier to determine the number of young people exiting care through adoption or guardianship than to determine how many young people are exiting care with an adult they can call when they are facing personal challenges such as ones related to child care or finances. These data points are much harder to define, but these types of connections are essential for young people who have experienced child welfare. Having at least one individual to call on in times of stress can make a difference between a young person who is simply surviving and one who is thriving and resilient.

Despite these challenges, there are substantial benefits to moving beyond legal permanency for children and young people, including the following (Williams-Butler, 2017):

  • Positive long-term effects on young people’s social, psychological, and financial outcomes
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Improved educational achievement and social skill development

Child welfare agencies could experience the following potential benefits (Williams-Butler, 2017):

  • Improved turnover rates for young people returning to care
  • Better permanency outcomes and opportunities for young people and families

By working on relational permanency, agencies will be able to apply lessons learned and best practices when working on legal permanency with children and young people.

How Children and Young People Can Strengthen Permanent Connections

Agencies can better support relational permanency for children and young people by exploring strategies to help them nurture, strengthen, and maintain permanent and personal connections. Instead of solely focusing on replacing connections young people had before entering care, child welfare agencies should strive to support them in maintaining existing connections while also nurturing new ones. Offering this support can help build positive relationships between young people, families, and agencies.

Some steps agencies can take toward encouraging relational permanency and moving from the standard legal lenses of permanency include the following (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2019):

  • Begin involving young people and families in permanency planning as early as possible, including discussing how they define “family” and “permanency.” Agencies can create space to allow young people and families to advocate for themselves during family team meetings, organize permanency planning calls, and be open-minded to nontraditional permanency solutions proposed by families.
  • Strengthen reunification services. Train new and existing staff about the different permanency options, how to determine which option is best for individual young people in their care, and how to better involve young people and families when discussing permanency options.
  • Listen to young people about which connections they value most and what they feel would be most beneficial to them.
  • Help young people maintain or establish relationships with kin and other essential connections if they wish to do so.
  • Continue to explore relational permanency throughout a young person’s time in child welfare. Hold ongoing conversations with young people and families about building supportive connections and systems in their lives.

Supporting emotional, physical, and relational stability is at the core of helping children and young people thrive. By moving past legal permanency as the goal and investing in relational permanency, agencies can help children and young people build a community of supportive connections that last a lifetime.



Child Welfare Information Gateway. (n.d.-a) Permanency. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (n.d.-b) Relational permanency. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2019). Promoting permanency for older youth in out-of-home care. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau.

Thompson, A. E., & Greeson, J. K. P. (2015, August). Legal and relational permanence in older foster care youths. Social Work Today, 15(4), 24.

Williams-Butler, A. (2017). The role of relational permanence in positive outcomes among African American adolescents in foster care. [Doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan]. Deep Blue Documents. abigwill_1.pdf?sequence=1