"I'm still here": adolescent social orphans in Colombian state care: the process of identity formation in the absence of permanency
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There is an absence of research on the process of identity formation and the related sense of social belonging for adolescent social orphans, that is, those youth who live outside parental care despite the presence of at least one living biological parent. In addition, scant attention has been paid to how culture norms influence the experience of ambiguous loss. Yet this population of children is vast; UNICEF (2012) estimates a total of 151 million orphans worldwide of which at least 8 million languish in institutions (RELAF, 2010). Due to complex social conditions, approximately 40,000 children over the age of seven are under the protection of the Colombian government and of this number, 25,000 reside in institutions (RELAF, 2010). Informed by ambiguous loss and attachment theories, this qualitative study's primary aims were to: (1) understand how parental loss influences the social orphan's social construction of biological as well as psychological family; (2) make explicit the role of adult identity agents who participate in the process of the youth's identity formation; and (3) identify how these youth transitioning to adulthood perceive their futures. The data are derived from two in-depth interviews conducted in Spanish with thirty social orphans aged 14 and 19 residing in two Colombian institutions. Results revealed that, despite having histories of abuse, neglect and/or extreme hardship, the absent birth family is psychologically present for the majority of these youth and their future goals include reunification as well as economic support for biological family members. Findings also suggested that those youth who are able to identify available adults who possess the attributes of an identity agent, and can draw upon the emotional and instrumental resources they offer, are better able to navigate the process of identity formation and imagine futures that are replete with hope and success. From a practice perspective, the study's findings offer insights into strategies for the development of culturally informed models of clinical engagement with adolescent social orphans to improve post-institutional outcomes for those youth for whom the world, without the benefit of parental support, is fraught with challenges and increased risk for social disconnection.