Explaining the concept of permanence to children in foster care

by Dina Gerber, MS, LCSW and Kelly Sullivan, PhD •

Dina Gerber

Providing children with permanency is always part of the case plan from a DSS and legal point of view when children enter the child welfare system. However, from the child’s point of view, the term permanence can be abstract and hard to understand. Even understanding why they are in care can be confusing!

Often a child’s therapist is asked to help a child understand the situation or help a resource parent explain to a child what being in care means. While it can be helpful for children to use supports, such as a therapist, it is best when resource parents feel comfortable explaining to children about foster care and their permanency plan because resource parents often are the primary source of emotional support to children in care.

Kelly Sullivan

Though they may not bring it up, children are wondering whether they will have permanency and with whom it will be. Therefore, it is important to talk with children in care about permanency, particularly when reunification is impending, when the plan shifts from reunification to adoption or guardianship, and when real permanency is currently lacking. Generally, humans, children included, function better when there is a sense of consistency and understanding of what to expect. To help a child or youth understand their situation there are several ideas a foster or kinship parent can keep in mind.

The metaphor of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly can be helpful to understand how each phase builds on the other and how each is important in its own way

Three Phases

Ideally, caregivers can help break down the concept of permanence and the three phases that occur during a child’s time in foster care. One way to describe permanence to children is to state it concretely, saying that permanence is when a child is living with the same person or people until they are grown. It is helpful to add that it can take a while to figure out something so important, like studying for a big test or building a house or any other metaphor the child may understand.

To get to a place of permanence there are three different phases the child and those around them will be going through: (1) waiting phase, (2) transition phase, (3) and permanence. Two books that can be helpful in breaking down the foster care situation are Maybe Days: A Book for Children in Foster Care by Jennifer Wilgocki and Marcia Kahn Wright and Kids Need to be Safe: A Book for Children in Foster Care by Julie Nelson.

The metaphor of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly can be helpful to understand how each phase builds on the other and how each is important in its own way. Waiting for a caterpillar in a cocoon can take a while; it may not seem like many things are happening, but that cocoon phase is an important time for the caterpillar. Over time the caterpillar will emerge from the waiting and growing stage and change into a butterfly. The butterfly’s wings need some time to get strong (the transitioning phase) and then the butterfly is able to fly to a permanent home.

Maybe Days and Kids Need to be Safe can help you explain the foster care situation.


The waiting phase can be the hardest for adults and children alike because there aren’t many concrete answers to questions such as: “Where will I be living next month?” “Who will I be living with next?” “Will I get to go back with my mom/dad?” Even though everyone is working towards permanence and there are plans in place to be able to answer these questions one day, often adults don’t know the answers when children ask them.

Questions should be answered as truthfully and age appropriately as possible and it is important to remember that saying “I don’t know, but I will see what I can find out,” is a powerful answer. No matter the situation, it is important to normalize and validate the child’s questions and feelings of anger, fear, disappointment, and confusion. Being transparent about what you do or don’t know can help a child give shape to what is happening and provide some relief from all the confusing feelings and questions that arise. Foster parents and kin caregivers should be prepared to have several conversations about permanency during this phase as information evolves and children change developmentally.


A child is in the transition phase once the permanent arrangement for the child is known and is not expected to change (e.g., reunification efforts have been successful or, conversely, termination of parental rights has occurred and a viable caregiver has agreed to adopt). Sometimes this phase can feel sudden, short, and discombobulating after all the unknowns that occurred during the waiting phase. To a child, and possibly some of the adults, this phase may emphasize the lack of control they have over the child’s permanence, since the judge has the final say in where the child will be living. One way to support children during this transition phase is by giving them control over choices they can influence. You can’t often give them a choice about whether a step happens, but you can give them input into decisions about how or when something will happen. For example, the child’s team may be able to give the child options about the type of continued contact they have with a former caregiver. Being able to exert some influence over their world is important for children to build their confidence and learn to understand how one’s own behaviors affect themselves others.


After waiting and transitioning comes actual permanence. When permanence is achieved there can be many different and mixed feelings, including anger, joy, and grief, sometimes experienced all at once and for years to come. It is important for the permanent caregiver(s) to make space for whatever feelings come up for the child, honoring any sense of loss or grief and realizing that feelings of doubt about true permanence are normal. During permanence, we have also learned from adults with childhood experiences in care that it is important to respect the connections and routines that developed during their time in care rather than pushing children to “move on and forget the past.” While a butterfly may look completely different than the caterpillar, how the butterfly turns out is dependent on the phases that occurred before it.

Dina Gerber is a clinical faculty member and Kelly Sullivan is Director of Mental Health Services at the Center for Child & Family Health (https://www.ccfhnc.org).