"I Wasn't Actually Theirs": Exploring Belonging and Ambiguous Loss Within the Experience of Foster Care

Monday, 30 October 2017: 9:30 AM

Catherine Schoenewald, PhD
School of Nursing, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, OH, USA

The imminent threats to a child’s physical and mental health from dangerous or dysfunctional family systems can result in children being placed in foster care, often for extended periods of time. With research indicating foster children have increased physical, mental and developmental health needs compared to non-fostered peers (Braciszewski & Stout, 2012; Courtney, Hook and Lee, 2012; Kools, Paul, Jones, Monasterio & Norbeck, 2013; Mersky & Janczewski, 2013), it is important to better understand the experiences of foster care.

On a basic level, foster care, while protecting the child from unsafe environments, has the potential to increase loss and and disrupt the experience of belonging. The purpose of this study was to explore ambiguous loss and belonging within the experience of foster care. Accepting Boss’ (2004) two-fold definition of ambiguous loss as 1. the loss of physical presence while maintaining a psychological presence, or 2. the psychological absence in spite of a physical presence, ambiguous loss was explored. Ambiguous loss has been identified with many populations and circumstances, most recently with traumatic brain injury patients and families (Kreutzer, Mills & Marwitz, 2016), missing persons (Wayland, Maple, McKay & Glassock, 2015) and specifically with foster care children (Mitchell, 2016). Using Hagerty, Lynch-Sauer, Patusky Bouwsema and Collier’s (1992) definition of belonging as “the experience of personal involvement in a system or environment so that persons feel themselves to be an integral part of that system or environment” (p. 173), data were also collected about a sense of belonging. Belonging has previously been found to be protective against depression in adults and adolescents (Cockshaw, Shochet & Obst, 2012; McLaren, Schurmann & Jenkins, 2015; McLaren, Turner, Gomez, McLachlan & Gibbs, 2013). Few studies have examined belonging and foster care out side of the United States (Biehal, 2014; Hedin, 2012).

Using a photo elicitation technique and repeated in-depth interviews, this qualitative study explored the foster care experiences of 10 foster care alumni, aged 18 – 23 years old. Data from 22 interviews evolved into six major themes: 1. Belonging, 2. Moving...Again, 3. Ambiguous Loss, 4. I am Different, 5. I am Responsible, and 6. Gaining Perspective. Four major conclusions developed from this study: 1. A consistent and strong sense of belonging while in foster care may be difficult to achieve, 2. Adolescents in foster care feel different and are different from their peers, 3. Adolescent responsibilities come early for adolescents in foster care, potentially foreclosing opportunities for an emerging adulthood, and 4. As time separates them from foster care, young adult alumni tend to develop new perspectives on their foster care experiences.

Although many difficulties experienced in foster care were identified in this study, the majority of participants ultimately perceived foster care to be a positive experience with a positive impact on their lives both while in foster care and as foster care alumni. Nursing and multidisciplinary practice implications involve ways to support children living the foster care experience. Within these implications include improving screening for belonging, as belonging has been found to be protective against some mental health issues, supporting foster children experiencing ambiguous loss, and use of multidisciplinary care teams including social workers, health care providers, school personnel and child advocates to provide care. Further research should include initiating cohort studies to examine issues more common in foster children compared to their non-fostered peers, measurement of the impact of support groups for foster children while in foster care, development of screening tools for belonging for foster children and adolescents, and quantitative measurement of the association and impact of ambiguous loss on belonging.