Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 28, Number 2

by Stacie Tao and Julie Collins

CWLA’s Standards of Excellence: Raising the Bar for Children, Families, and Communities (CWLA National Blueprint) details numerous standards that aim to address best practices and policies for all children. The National Blueprint highlights the need for trauma-informed engagement and approaches, mental health equity and justice, and ongoing training for professionals and resource parents to gain knowledge of best practices. The standards serve as tools to encourage the provision of quality services and responsiveness from professionals and community partners to circumstances not readily acknowledged for children, including those involved with child welfare.

A key trauma-related area that calls for attention is the ambiguous loss children in the child welfare system experience. While children from all walks of life may experience loss, children who are part of the child welfare system have an increased likelihood of experiencing it—which is exacerbated over time and compounded by other adversities they may face. Pauline Boss, who coined the term ambiguous loss in the 1970s, identifies intangible forms of loss that are not readily acknowledged. She defines ambiguous loss as taking form in two ways: (1) a family member or loved one who is psychologically present and yet physically absent (e.g., losses due to divorce, being in foster care, or a parent being incarcerated); or, (2) a family member or loved one who is psychologically absent yet physically present (e.g., losses due to dementia or mental illness). However, in recent years, researcher Monique Mitchell has applied Boss’s original theory to describe the manifestation of ambiguous loss for individuals in the child welfare system— primarily in instances of children who are in the foster care system and/or are adopted—as they grapple with the losses of their family of origin and/or previous families they lived with while in out-of-home care.

You might ask: How do we know whether ambiguous loss is affecting a child? What is the impact for children who experience ambiguous loss through the physical and/or psychological absence of their family while the child is in foster care or is adopted? Does a child experience ambiguous loss through the physical and/or psychological absence of their parent when there is intimate partner violence in the family and the perpetrator is removed from the home? From the incarceration of a parent? Or when their parent/caregiver misuses substances such as opioids? Are there ways to mitigate the impact of ambiguous loss, especially for children in the child welfare system?

Expressions of ambiguous loss vary drastically between individuals depending on their age, circumstance, and severity of the loss in relation to their situation. Identified as a “complicated loss,” Boss cites the source of the pathology to be the ambiguity itself.

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Stacie Tao served as an intern at CWLA in 2019.

Julie Collins is CWLA’s Vice President of Practice Excellence.