The multiple meanings of permanency

Content type
Short article

August 2021


Amy Conley Wright, Susan Collings

In Australia, rising numbers of children in out-of-home care, increasing lengths of stay and pressures on existing resources has led to greater emphasis on permanency through reunification to family or alternative legal orders to kin or foster carers. This short article discusses the concept of permanency across multiple dimensions, along with rights to culture. It presents research on what young people in care value in permanency and the implications of this research for practitioners supporting families to develop a sense of permanency for young people in care.

How can permanency be conceptualised?

Permanency is a multifaceted concept, with at least three major dimensions: relational (love, belonging and commitment to continuity); physical (family-based care, permanent availability of accommodation in home, permanent safety net); and legal (clarity of rights and responsibilities through reunification, adoption or legal guardianship).1

The current limited research with young people shows that of these dimensions they most value relational connections with important people and a stable home.1,2,3,4 Some young people have expressed ambivalence over legal permanency, particularly when it means not being restored to family,2,4 while others have valued the security of legal orders.5 What these perspectives make clear is that children and young people have agency and actively co-construct their own sense of permanence rather than passively receiving this from adults in their lives.

How do young people in care perceive the concept of permanency?

Building on the existing research of what young people value in permanency, the Meanings of Permanency study explored what permanency meant to 11 young people who were in or had left the out-of-home care system in New South Wales, using a Photovoice methodology to symbolise permanency with photography.

Three themes emerged, each linked to the relational concept of permanency:

  • Nature as constancy represented nature as an anchor and a reminder that change is inevitable, such as the sun rising no matter what.
  • Cultural connection was represented by images of the land, such as seashells signifying ancestral bones, expressing the pride that Aboriginal youth had in belonging to the most enduring culture on earth.
  • Small acts of belonging were represented through inclusion in family holidays and photos, shared acts of baking together and having one’s own pet.

A sense of connection and belonging has consistently been found to be associated with positive outcomes for those who have exited care.6,7,8,9

What are the implications for practice?

In order to support children and young people in care to construct a sense of permanence, adults need to actively listen to children and young people about what gives them a sense of security and belonging, rather than assuming what permanency means or feels like for them. Hearing what children are trying to express requires imagination and opening a space for them to show rather than tell you what permanency means to them. Here are some practical tips to consider:

  • Invite children to use photos to express their feelings.
  • Recognise that a sense of belonging isn’t automatic and focus on the small things that can cement children’s emotional security. Ask: What could help you feel secure?
  • Have a conversation with the child or young person at the beginning of a new placement to find out what adults around the child or young person can do to help them feel safe and that they belong. Ask: What can we do to help you feel connected to the important people in your life and to your culture?
  • Let the child know that they don’t need to belong to only one person or place – it’s OK to belong to their families as well as their carers.


The concept of permanency is multi-faceted and the needs of each child will differ. Above all, children and young people in care value their relationships, and rely on caseworkers and carers to support and strengthen these connections. It is important for their wellbeing to listen to children and young people about what gives them a sense of security and belonging, to strengthen their connections to important people and to their culture.

Further reading and related resources


1 Osmond, J., & Tilbury, C. (2012). Permanency planning concepts. Children Australia, 37(3), 100–107.

2 Chambers, K., Zielewski, E. H., & Malm, K. (2008). Foster youths’ views of adoption and permanency. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

3 Freundlich, M., Avery, R. J., Munson, S., & Gerstenzang, S. (2006). The meaning of permanency in child welfare: Multiple stakeholder perspectives. Children and Youth Services Review, 28(7), 741–760.

4 Sanchez, R. M. (2004). Youth perspectives on permanency. San Francisco, CA: California Permanency for Youth Project.

5 Luu, B., de Rosnay, M., Wright, A. C., & Tregeagle, S. (2018). Identity formation in children and young people in open adoptions from out-of-home care in New South Wales, Australia. Adoption Quarterly, 21(2), 120–139.

6 Biehal, N., Ellison, S., Baker, C., & Sinclair, I. (2010). Belonging and permanence: Outcomes in long-term foster care and adoption. London: BAAF.

7 Cashmore, J., & Paxman, M. (2006). Predicting after‐care outcomes: The importance of ‘felt’ security. Child & Family Social Work, 11(3), 232–241.

8 Schofield, G., & Beek, M. (2005). Providing a secure base: Parenting children in long-term foster family care. Attachment & Human Development, 7, 3–25.

9 Ward, H. (2011) Continuities and discontinuities: Issues concerning the establishment of a persistent sense of self amongst care leavers. Children and Youth Services Review 33, 2512–2518.


The authors would like to thank NSW Department of Communities and Justice staff Freija Brandie and Miranda Moir for collaborating on this project, members of the Youth Consult for Change Group and other young people for participating and Bobby Hendry for designing the Meanings of Permanency booklet and recording.

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