Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System

Chapter 7.
Caseworker Decision Making

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Contents

  1. Introduction
    1. Agency Background
    2. An Overview of the Case Process
  2. Caseworker Decision Making
  3. Implications

References

Endnotes

1. Introduction

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) amended the foster care provisions of the Social Security Act for the purpose of promoting safe and permanent living arrangements for children. Prior to ASFA, some foster children continued to linger in out-of-home care while prolonged attempts were made to reunite them with their birth parents. Consideration of the child's need for a permanent home seemed to be forgotten; an alternate permanent home for a child was rarely considered until the child had been in out-of-home care for 18 months. ASFA introduced two key provisions to address the problem of drift and expedite permanency for children. First, the law determines that states need not pursue efforts to prevent removal from home or return a child home if a parent has already lost parental rights to that child's sibling; has committed specific types of felonies, including murder or voluntary manslaughter of the child's sibling; or has subjected the child to aggravated circumstances such as abandonment, torture, chronic abuse, and sexual abuse.(1) In these situations, the courts may find that services to preserve or reunite the family, or "reasonable efforts" required under Public Law 96-272 of 1980, are not required. Second, ASFA directs states to begin the process of terminating parental rights by filing a petition with the courts if an infant has been abandoned, the parent committed any of the felonies included in the first provision, or the child has been in foster care 15 of the last 22 months. States may exempt a child from this requirement if the child is placed with a relative, the state has not provided services needed to make the home safe for the child's return, or there exists a compelling reason why filing a petition to terminate parental rights is not in the child's best interest. In response to ASFA, states enacted their own parallel legislation, and by July 1999, all states had laws that mirrored ASFA or were more stringent than federal law. In some states, such legislation was already in place before passage of ASFA.(2)

This paper focuses on caseworker decision making in reunification cases, and the influence of ASFA and related state laws on the process. This analysis of caseworker decision making provides information and insight into the primary considerations weighed in the decision process, the tools used to facilitate reunification and permanency, agency policy, and caseworker's thoughts and impressions of the rules, tools, and decisions they make that affect children and families. This paper provides a description of how workers said they make decisions, but it is not an evaluation of whether decisions always follow the general principles workers outlined.

Site visits were made to three public child welfare agencies in the greater Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area. Individual one-hour discussions were conducted with a foster care program director and three caseworkers selected by each agency. Additional discussions were held with a county attorney at one agency and a foster parent program coordinator at another, at the request of those agencies. The discussions included questions on agency policy, timelines for permanency, permanency planning practices, services provided, and factors considered when making decisions to return children home or consider other permanency options.

This paper provides

  1. A brief description of the agencies studied,
  2. An overview of the case process,
  3. An examination of caseworkers' decision making, and
  4. Conclusions regarding the implications of the decision-making process for children and families.

1.1 Agency Background

Discussions with caseworkers and other agency staff were conducted at three public child welfare agencies located in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area. The agencies were chosen to reflect a cross-section of geographic and demographic variations in client population. All three agencies were organized under county-administered, state-supervised child welfare systems. One agency had more control at the local level than the others.

Overall, agency workers we talked to were well educated and trained.(3) The average length of time workers had been employed by their current agency was 7.8 years, ranging from 13 months to more than 20 years. Most of the workers had prior work experience at other public and private agencies as caseworkers, protective service workers, or mental health workers. All of the workers had a bachelor's degree and four of the nine had master's degrees.(4) Most of the workers also had many hours of additional training on subjects such as mental health issues, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and handling difficult clients.

Agency A is located in a large, densely populated, resource-rich, suburban county that serves approximately 600 children in foster care per year. The agency has 35 caseworkers and 7 supervisors working with out-of-home cases in the county. The foster care population in the county is 54 percent African-American, 28 percent White, 11 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian, and 5 percent unknown or some other race/ethnicity. About 25 percent of the children in out-of-home-care are placed with relatives. In 1999, 174 children exited the foster care system, about 29 percent of all those in foster care during the year.(5)

Agency A has an intensive reunification unit as well as ongoing foster care units serving children in out-of-home placement. Cases in the intensive reunification unit receive intensive services from the time of placement, provided by a caseworker and a case aide to expedite the family's reunification. Workers in the intensive unit carry smaller caseloads than ongoing foster care workers, typically around 14 children compared to an average of 25 for ongoing workers. All cases entering the foster care system are initially referred to the intensive reunification unit unless the child had been in out-of-home care many times or there are other extenuating circumstances surrounding the case (such as the parent's involvement in the death of another child) that make reunification unlikely.

Cases are served in the intensive reunification unit for up to 9 months, with the goal of reunifying the child and family within that time. The case can be transferred to another unit at any point if it is determined that rapid reunification within 9 months is unlikely. The ongoing units serve children in all types of out-of-home placements and often receive the most difficult cases to reunify -- those transferred from the intensive unit after efforts at rapid reunification have proven unsuccessful.

The agency reported making reunification its first choice for permanency. The agency is committed to giving parents a good chance to have their children returned by providing intensive reunification efforts for several months. Services provided to work toward the goal of reunification are determined on an individual basis and can include substance abuse treatment, mental health services, individual and family therapy, support groups, parenting classes, housing assistance, transportation, job search assistance, and literacy training. If after receiving services for 9 to 12 months the birth parents do not demonstratively make a good effort toward reunification, the agency considers an alternative permanency plan. If the plan for the child is adoption, the agency conducts a legal sufficiency staffing on the case to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant a petition to terminate parental rights (TPR). This is a change in policy for the agency. Prior to ASFA, the agency typically waited at least 15 months before taking any action for TPR and making another permanency plan. Once a decision is made to pursue adoption, the case is transferred to the adoption unit.

When a child is successfully reunified with his or her parents and returned home, aftercare services are provided for 6 months. At this time, the child is still committed to the agency and still under the court's jurisdiction. Policy requires the worker to visit the home once a month to monitor and check on the family and arrange any necessary services, including a parent aide to help the family with budgeting, scheduling, and finding day care.

Agency B is located in a densely populated, less affluent, suburban county. This agency served 976 children in foster care in 1999 with a staff of 57 caseworkers and 10 supervisors. Approximately 85 percent of the foster care population in the county is African-American. About 25 percent of the children in care are placed with relatives in paid or unpaid kinship care arrangements. In 1999, 279 (29%) of the 976 children in foster care during the year exited the foster care system. Of those children who exited foster care, 146 (52%) were reunified with a parent or relative (both return to parent and permanent placement with relatives outside the home of origin were considered as "reunification" in this county), 59 (21%) were adopted, and 78 (28%) were emancipated.

This agency has an intensive reunification unit, four ongoing foster care units in which reunification is the primary plan, two adoption units, two independent living units, and one unit that serves youth in residential placement. The intensive reunification unit has been in operation for about 8 years. Cases in the intensive unit are served by a team of a caseworker and case aide using an approach that emphasizes families' strengths. The workers in this unit generally have more access to flexible funds to provide special services than do workers in other units. Caseworkers in the intensive unit carry a caseload of 10 to 14 children and can provide up to 15 hours of services per week to a single family. The average time for reunification for cases in this unit is 4.5 months.

One of the four ongoing foster care units is a student field placement unit with five to seven students who have very small caseloads. Workers in the other three ongoing foster care units are trained in The Annie E. Casey Foundation's Family to Family model of community-based foster care.(6) Caseworkers in these ongoing foster care units carry caseloads of about 18-20 children and their caseloads include children in long-term foster care, kinship placements, and cases with a goal of reunification. The average length of stay for children in these ongoing units is 18 months.

Cases are typically assigned to the intensive reunification unit if there is a parent or relative who is willing to work toward reunification and if there are sufficient openings in the intensive unit. Services provided by both intensive and ongoing foster care units are based on the particular needs of the family but may include psychological evaluations, parenting classes, anger management classes, counseling, substance abuse treatment, day care, transportation, medical assistance, vouchers for Section 8 housing, furniture, help applying for public assistance, food, and clothing.

Reunification either with the birth parents or a relative is the first outcome the agency works to achieve in all cases. However, the foster care director noted that the agency had also always been very mindful of the need to move children along in the system and not let them drift in foster care. Reunification services are typically provided to families for up to 15 months and can be extended if it is believed a longer service period will lead to a successful reunification.

When the caseworker determines there has been no progress toward reunification and the parents are not able to achieve the service plan goals, a permanency planning staffing is scheduled to determine if the case goal should be changed to adoption or another permanency plan. Depending on the circumstances of the case, this decision can take place anytime between 6 and 15 months after the child entered care. Reunification services continue to be provided to the parents even after the case plan is changed to adoption, and cases are sometimes reunified from the adoption unit.

When a child is returned home, custody is transferred to the parents, and the department maintains protective supervision of the child for 6 to 12 months while aftercare services are provided to the family. The worker is to contact the family at least monthly, and the worker and/or a case aide assists the family as necessary by providing assistance with parenting skills, helping with budgeting and planning meals, and providing transportation. Aftercare services can be provided to the family for up to 4 to 6 hours per week, as required.

Agency C is located in an area that had traditionally been rural, but in the past few years has increased in population and is rapidly becoming more suburban. The agency served 48 children in foster care between July 1998 and June 1999. There are three foster care caseworkers and one supervisor. Most foster care cases come from the suburban areas of the county, with only a few cases coming from truly rural sections. The foster care population in the county on June 30, 1999 was 42 percent White, 27 percent African-American, 25 percent multi-racial (White/African-American), 3 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent reported as "other." No children in care at this agency are placed with relatives in temporary kinship care arrangements. Twelve children (25% of the foster care population served in Fiscal Year (FY) 1999) exited foster care during FY99. Of those children who exited foster care, 1 child (8%) was reunified, 9 (75%) were adopted, and 2 (17%) were emancipated.

Agency C does not have an intensive reunification unit. All cases that come into foster care are served by workers in the one foster care unit. The agency emphasizes using intensive upfront services such as family preservation for those families at risk of having children placed in foster care. Most of the families whose children eventually come into foster care have received these upfront, in-home services. The agency generally does not serve children in relative placements. Child Protective Service (CPS) workers make a strenuous effort to locate any available relatives prior to placement. When relatives are found, they are nearly always given legal custody of the child upfront, diverting the case from the foster care system. The foster care unit generally serves the most difficult cases--those with very complex, extensive child or family problems that were not addressed successfully through preventive or in-home services -- and cases in which extended family were not available for a child's care. As a result, most children in the foster care unit are not likely to return home. Caseworkers carry an average caseload of 15-20 children.

The agency director reported that the agency expends a great deal of effort trying to keep children out of foster care, as is also the case in the other two agencies. All cases entering foster care have an initial goal of reunification. The only exceptions are cases that had previously been in foster care, which can go directly to the adoption unit under certain circumstances. Once a child is placed in care, services provided to reunify the family include individual and family therapy for the parents and child, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, parenting classes, employment and training services, day care, and medical services. If birth parents refuse to participate in services or make no progress toward remedying their problems within 6 months of placement, the worker considers changing the goal to adoption.

Agency C maintains legal custody of the child and gives physical custody to parents when a child returns home. This custody arrangement generally lasts for a minimum of 6 months and allows the agency to immediately remove the child without going to court if there is any question of the child's safety at home. Aftercare services are provided by a contractual agency for up to 20 hours per week and include services to improve parenting skills and assistance in helping the child make the transition back into the family.

1.2 An Overview of the Case Process

Decisions that affect the lives of children identified as being at risk of abuse or neglect are made at a variety of junctures and influenced by many different parties in the child welfare system. Caseworkers have a critical role to play in the decision to reunify or establish an alternative permanency plan for a child in foster care, but their decisions are affected by state law and agency policy. It is important to understand the broader context of how cases move through the child welfare system for a full understanding of the ways caseworkers' decisions are influenced and constrained by external forces. In this section, we further describe how cases generally move through the three agencies and the issues that arise and decisions that are made at different points that ultimately affect the decision-making process of the caseworkers themselves. This description presents an overview of the case process as it is designed to occur though exceptions and deviations may occur in individual cases. A section describing how caseworkers actually make decisions follows.

When an allegation of abuse or neglect has been made, the case is investigated by CPS workers. The decision of the CPS worker to remove the child from the home or to provide in-home services to keep the family intact is the first that affects the types of cases that caseworkers ultimately work with in foster care. All three agencies espoused a strong belief in providing preventive services to families so that children need not be removed from the home, except under the most extreme circumstances when their safety is in peril. In-home services and referrals to treatment and other services are commonly provided through CPS or family preservation units to serve children and families in their homes, and workers reported these services are often effective in preventing removal of the children. The cases in which children are removed from the home represent the most serious cases where in-home services have proven ineffective to address the family's problems. Severe mental illness and long-term drug dependency are problems that face many of the parents served by all three agencies and were frequently the underlying cause of the child's removal from the home.

Once the CPS worker determines that the child cannot remain safely in the home, the case may follow a variety of different paths, according to each agency's policy and practice. At Agency C, children are commonly placed in shelter care for up to 60 days as an alternative to the state assuming custody and are typically returned home within this period. This county also has a privately run foster parent program in which children can be placed voluntarily for up to 3 weeks with volunteer foster parents not under the jurisdiction of the agency and without a change in custody from the parent. Therefore, families for whom successful reunification is most likely can be served short-term without the child being brought into the foster care system.

All three agencies stress that keeping children out of foster care whenever possible is of paramount consideration. When it is unsafe for a child to remain in the home with a parent, relative placements can be used in lieu of the state opening a foster care case. In these cases, a change in custody is authorized by the court with the parent's consent. These cases represent ones where permanency with family (though not necessarily with the parents) can be achieved most easily and is accomplished without the child entering the foster care system.

All three agencies expressed a preference for relative care over non-relative foster care, although in Agency C relative care is primarily used as a diversion from the child welfare system. At Agencies A and B, children are often placed with relatives once they are removed from their homes and enter the child welfare system. The relatives can be either licensed foster care providers or unlicensed kinship care homes. Whether relatives are licensed or unlicensed does not make a difference in the types of services provided to reunify the child with the parents but does make a difference in whether the relatives receive payment from the state for their care of the child. Licensed relative foster care providers receive the foster care board rate. Relatives who are not licensed are not eligible for state foster care payments, although they can receive cash assistance through child-only Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Workers and administrators at all three agencies ranked permanency goals similarly: 1) reunification, 2) relative placement, 3) adoption, 4) independent living, and 5) permanent foster care.(7) Independent living is typically used as an option for older teens who are not likely to be adopted (and often do not want to be). These youths are to receive special services to prepare them for emancipation from the foster care system. Permanent foster care is used as a goal when a foster parent is willing to keep the child in the home until emancipation but is not willing to adopt. Agencies A and B also have a goal of long-term foster care as a permanency option. Long-term foster care is typically in a residential or group home setting or foster home where the placement appears stable and long-term but where there is no formal commitment to keep the child in the placement until emancipation. Long-term foster care is also used when there is some chance that the goal could be changed to reunification, relative placement, or adoption at some future date.

Agency policy regarding the use of relatives to provide temporary placements for children has important implications for the ultimate permanency plans made for a child. When a child cannot be returned home, the child's current living arrangement is the likely first choice to become the permanent placement. When a child is placed with a relative, the transition from a temporary to a permanent placement can be made following the hierarchy of preferred placement options without disrupting the child's placement. When a child is living in a non-relative foster home, permanent placement with a relative would mean moving the child from his or her current placement and disrupting the bond the child may have developed with the foster parent. The upfront decision about where the child is placed while in foster care may well be the decisive factor in determining where the child ends up on a permanent basis. Because many children are adopted by their foster parents, agency policy is to try to appropriately match children with foster parents who would provide good permanent placements for the children if return home is not possible.

Relatives' decisions to become licensed foster care providers can also have an impact on the eventual permanency outcomes for a child. Relatives become licensed to receive the foster care payment to help defray some of the costs of caring for the child, to be eligible for certain services, and in some instances to help protect a child. Workers said that licensed relatives may be less likely to establish a permanent legal relationship which would remove the child from the foster care system and terminate the foster care payment. Although these relatives would generally qualify for an adoption subsidy, relatives are often reluctant to adopt their kin because they do not want to disrupt family ties and see parental rights terminated, or they feel that adoption is unnecessary because of existing blood ties. The net result is that children stay in permanent foster care with their licensed relative caregivers until they are emancipated. Only Agency A has a kinship care subsidized guardianship program (as part of a state pilot project) where relatives can receive a subsidy that is somewhat less than the foster care board rate, if they agree to become the child's legal guardian, and the foster care case is closed by the agency.

Once a child is placed into foster care--either with relatives or nonrelatives--the case is sent to a reunification unit to receive services to try to reunify the family. All three agencies stated that reunification is the initial goal of nearly all cases that come into foster care. Exceptions, as allowed by ASFA, are cases where the parent has been involved in the death of a child's sibling or has caused severe bodily harm to the child placed in care. In these cases, TPR and another permanent placement are considered immediately. As described in the previous section, Agencies A and B both have intensive reunification units in which workers have smaller caseloads and work with a case aide to provide services to families. In Agency A, nearly all cases are referred to the intensive unit immediately, unless a child has been in and out of foster care repeatedly. In Agency B, cases are referred to the intensive reunification unit as space permits, with the criterion only that there is someone in the family--either parent or relative--with whom the worker can actively work to reunify the child. This agency includes permanent relative custody in its definition of reunification. The decision about whether a particular case goes to the intensive reunification unit in Agency B is made by the foster care intake worker, who relies largely upon case information provided by the CPS worker and supervisor. If a case seems appropriate for the intensive unit but there are no available slots, the case is referred to one of the ongoing foster care units. All of the workers in the ongoing foster care units are trained in the Family to Family model and can provide the same services as the intensive unit but cannot spend as much time with the family due to higher caseloads.

Decisions made by the foster care intake worker in Agency B determine which unit a case is sent to and the likelihood that reunification will occur. If the child is 16 years old and the information provided by CPS staff indicates that return home is not a likely option for the child, the case is sent to the independent living unit where the child is prepared for emancipation as the eventual exit from foster care. If the child is very young and return home is not likely, the case might be assigned to the adoption unit on a fast track to adoption. The cases that are sent to the intensive reunification unit are the ones determined to have the greatest chance of being reunified.

At all three agencies, once the case is assigned to a reunification unit, a case staffing occurs to assess the case and assign it to a caseworker within the unit. This staffing includes the supervisor, other unit caseworkers, and the CPS worker or supervisor who discuss the case and any services received prior to the child coming into care. In consultation with the birth parents, supervisor, and sometimes other relatives and foster parents, a service plan is prepared that outlines the steps the birth parents need to take for the child to return home and the timeframe for reunifying the family or establishing an alternate permanency plan. As part of the concurrent planning process, in which workers plan for alternative permanency options if children cannot return home, parents are told about time limits they have to meet or risk loss of the child permanently. Parents are to be told they have between 6 and 12 months to address the problems that brought the child into care.

Cases in the intensive reunification units in Agencies A and B are viewed as being on a fast track to reunification, with reunification expected to occur in 6 to 9 months. The average length of time for cases to reunify in the intensive unit in Agency B is 4.5 months. At Agency A, if the caseworker and supervisor of the intensive unit decide that reunification is not likely to occur within 9 to 12 months, the case is generally transferred to an ongoing unit where reunification services continue, but without the intensive effort. However, if the family is approaching the 12-month mark but is making progress toward reunification and has a good relationship with the intensive worker, the case will typically stay with the original worker until the child returns home. At Agency B, cases are transferred from the intensive unit only when it appears that reunification is unlikely. Depending on the circumstances of the case, the case is transferred to one of the ongoing foster care units, particularly if kinship care or long-term foster care seem likely, to the adoption unit if the plan is to terminate parental rights, or to the independent living unit if the child is 16 or older.

The role played by the courts is an important one because the courts make the final decisions to terminate parental rights, to return children home, and to approve changes in goals to permanent or long-term foster care. Under ASFA, courts are required to hold hearings on a case once a child has been in foster care for 6 months. All three agencies replaced 6-month administrative case review hearings with a formal court hearing. At these hearings, the worker discusses efforts made on behalf of the agency to achieve reunification and discusses the parents' progress toward this end. The birth parents (with legal representation) discuss their compliance with their agency contract, a signed agreement made as during joint case planning with their caseworker, and compliance with court-ordered services. Changes in case plans from reunification to other permanency options are based on a review of the progress a birth parent has made, although it is rare that a goal is changed from reunification at the 6-month hearing.

Workers and an attorney interviewed at Agency A noted that these case hearings are very formal, similar to an evidentiary hearing, and include witnesses testifying for the county and birth parents. These hearings can last for several days. ASFA's addition of the 6-month court hearings, along with an increase in the number of TPR cases, places a heavy burden on the court system and delays in 6- and 12-month hearings are common. One worker at Agency A described situations in which it could take 6 to 9 months to get a court date set to hear a TPR petition.

Workers said that judges recognize the requirement to have a permanency plan within 12 months and recognize that decisions must be made on cases. Workers in two agencies told us that prior to ASFA some judges were very lenient and tended to err on the side of the birth parents, causing workers to sometimes feel the safety of the child was in jeopardy. Since the states updated their laws to meet the federal requirements of ASFA regarding timelines and permanency decisions, workers reported that judges have been stricter in their interpretation of the laws and are generally willing to move cases toward permanency faster. Workers reported that judges usually accept their recommendations on cases, though some judges are still reluctant to move as quickly to TPR in some cases as the workers feel appropriate. One agency administrator said that public defenders for parents have been successful in persuading judges to give parents another chance even when the children have been in care for 4 to 5 years. He noted that "Even with ASFA, judges do what they want to do." For these cases, the agency gives the parents an additional 6 months of services before refiling for TPR. Overall, workers indicated that they thought ASFA is helping to expedite the decision for TPR from the court, and they felt the court acts fairly in reviewing evidence and testimony from both the agency and the birth parents before rendering a decision on TPR.

The role played by foster parents in decisions about permanency is also an important one to consider. Traditionally, the role of foster parents has been limited to providing care to children in their homes, and they had little to no contact or interaction with birth parents. More recently, many States and localities have adopted an approach that utilizes foster parents as a resource in the reunification process. Agency C has a staff member dedicated half-time to run a program designed to encourage mentoring of birth parents by foster parents. This program trains foster parents to work with and understand the complex situations of birth parents. Agencies A and B integrated elements of the Family to Family foster parent mentoring model into their foster parent programs and are beginning to train new foster parents on the importance of helping with the reunification process.

Under ideal circumstances, the foster parent has regular contact with the birth parents, allows visitation in his or her home, models good parenting behavior, and serves as a means of social support for the birth parents while the child is in care and even after the child returns home. However at all three agencies, good relationships between foster parents and birth parents were uncommon, and workers reported that foster parents were often resistant to meeting with birth parents, sometimes due to previous negative experiences with birth parents. Caseworkers felt that when foster parents were willing to work with birth parents, there were positive results in terms of greater visitation and the birth parents viewing the foster parents and agency as less of a threat. However, staff at all three agencies also noted that when good relationships were established between foster parents and birth parents, a common, though unintended consequence was the birth parent's decision to voluntarily relinquish parental rights and consent to adoption of the child by the foster parents. In some cases, voluntary relinquishment resulted in open adoptions, with the birth parents continuing to visit and maintain a relationship with the child after adoption by the foster parents.

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2. Caseworker Decision Making

Understanding the caseworker decision-making process is key to understanding when and why children are reunified, adopted, or have some other permanency outcome. The decisions made by caseworkers to set and change permanency goals dramatically affect the lives of children and families. With the implementation of ASFA and its strong emphasis on expediting permanency, it is important to consider the influence ASFA has had on how caseworkers make permanency decisions. This section examines caseworkers' decision making in setting and changing permanency goals, the mechanisms used by workers to facilitate reunification and permanency, the primary considerations that weigh in their decisions to return children to their parents or to terminate parental rights, and caseworker's thoughts and impressions on expediting reunification and permanency for children and families. Statements made by caseworkers, in their own words, are presented throughout the section in italics. We caution that the information presented on the decision-making process is a collection of views expressed by the nine caseworkers we spoke to and should not be viewed as representative of the various viewpoints of caseworkers in agencies across the country.

Under ASFA, an agency has 15 months to find a permanent living arrangement for the child who is in foster care. If a child in foster care for 15 out of the most recent 22 months cannot be reunified with his or her parents, TPR proceedings must be initiated and an alternative permanent placement should be found for the child to expedite his or her exit from foster care.(8) With the high number of cases on workers' caseloads, the difficulty in working with families who are often angry about their children's removal, and the high caseworker turnover in the child welfare system, we anticipated that agency officials and caseworkers would be disgruntled over the ASFA time requirements. However, agency officials and caseworkers in the agencies we visited told us that they embraced the new time limits. The primary response of caseworkers was that they believe the time restrictions provide support to expedite their cases. They feel that the time requirements give them "permission" to expedite TPR when parents cannot achieve reunification, thus limiting parents' repeated failed efforts to remedy their problems as children languish in foster care for long periods of time.

. . . people would keep trying to reunify and that's what kept kids in care a long time. We wouldn't say that [reunification ] is not working, but would give the parents chance after chance after chance because we think the child needs to go home. But that's not good for the child, keeping them in care for 2 to 3 years while their parents try to get it together.

Moreover, most workers said they believe the time requirements are in the best interest of children for a permanent home.

Children should have permanency, whether it's permanency back home or permanency with a relative or adoptive family. Children should not be in a system, children should be with a family.

Although some people say we don't have enough time, I think that decisions need to be made about kids before the case lingers too long.

Some caseworkers do have conflicting feelings about the time requirements, especially for families with problems that are difficult to address within the 15-month time limit. However, most still believe that the time limits are fair and appropriate.

In fairness to the children the timelines are long enough. These children need permanency. They change and grow daily. Their emotional needs need to be met. It's really sad because I know that sometimes a parent could turn their lives around if they had more time, but we have to be fair to the children. It's too bad parents' needs and children's needs don't mesh, but we have to go with the children's needs.

Our discussions with caseworkers and agency staff indicated that the new time requirements are taken seriously. Caseworkers reported that although they had always been focused on permanency for children, the new law prompts them to work harder at expediting children's permanency. However, there are also indications that there is flexibility in implementing the time requirements. The agencies, workers, and courts are willing to examine children and families on a case-by-case basis to approve time beyond 15 months to work toward reunification when a family's circumstances indicate that reunification could occur with a few additional months of services.

Concurrent planning is the primary tool used by these agencies to comply with the new time requirements. Concurrent planning involves planning and working with the family towards reunification but also arranging for an alternate permanent placement in case reunification is not achieved. Although some caseworkers noted that their agencies had been doing concurrent planning for some time, most workers said that the ASFA time requirements increase the importance of devising an alternative permanency plan for a child at the time the initial permanency plan is made.

I may look at reunification with the parent as a goal but at the same time I look at reunification with a relative also. I work dually on those goals, so if one doesn't work out, I have the other. That's the law now.

Generally, the concurrent planning process is used throughout the case process to meet the goal of establishing permanency within the 15 of 22 month timeframe. Concurrent planning begins when a child is removed from the home. It starts with the decisions made by agency workers to find a temporary placement for the child, as many temporary placements become children's permanent ones. All three agencies attempt to place children with relatives or with compatible foster parents for the initial placement, with the hope that the relatives or foster parents will be willing to adopt the child if the child cannot be returned home.

When the child is first brought into care, workers meet with birth parents and are frank with them about the concurrent planning process, time limits they must meet, and the consequences they face if they do not remedy their behavior and problems within the time limits. Workers then search for an absent parent, or look to relatives or foster parents as an alternative permanent placement for the child. Birth parents are included in the discussion of possible alternate permanency plans and are asked to provide input into where they want the child to live if the child cannot be returned home. The alternate plan is generally treated as a "secondary" goal or backup plan. Workers most commonly see the child's temporary placement, whether with relatives or non-relative foster parents, as the most probable alternate permanent placement. Caseworkers continue to focus on reunification as the primary goal but begin to make more concrete arrangements for implementing the alternate plan, as reunification appears less likely over time. Once a goal is changed from reunification, the alternate plan is put in place. In two of the agencies visited, concurrent planning continues even after the initial goal of reunification is changed to adoption. Parents continue to receive services for reunification after the case is transferred to the adoption unit and reunification sometimes takes place from the adoption unit.

Workers believe that concurrent planning is a fair and necessary part of the permanency process and helps expedite permanency. They believe it is fair because birth parents are informed from the time of case planning what is expected of them and what the consequences of noncompliance will be.

We work concurrently . . . from the beginning. I think this is fair to parents. I tell parents this may sound like we are threatening them, but we really aren't. We are just explaining what the realities are and what has to be done or the goal will be changed. I feel this is only fair to parents so that they don't lose track of time and what needs to be done to get their kids back.

Although workers have always been responsible for making alternate permanent arrangements for children when they could not return home, in the past workers typically did not begin planning for another option when the child was first brought into care but waited until reunification appeared very unlikely. Parents were informed at that point that alternate arrangements were being made for their children. The net effect was a slower process for establishing permanency both because the worker did not start making concrete arrangements for an alternate plan early on and because the parents often did not believe that their children would truly be removed from them on a permanent basis until there was clear evidence of a viable alternate plan. The real threat of losing their children can create a crisis for the parents which may spur them to try to address the problems that brought the child into care. However, when parents do not start addressing their problems until children have been in care for several months, this prolongs the amount of time a child is in foster care.

Although workers feel that concurrent planning is fair to parents, some indicated that it can create a tension between the worker and the parents when the worker is trying to help the family reunify and at the same time work toward an alternate arrangement.

It [concurrent planning] is very, very difficult for several reasons. It's hard to work with a parent with a goal of reunification while at the same time looking into relative resources and possible adoption resources. . . . I currently have a case with a 7 year old child where I am working with the mother on reunification which is the primary goal, but the case has a secondary goal of relative placement with a godmother. While I am working with the birth mother, I am also doing clearances on the other party to get her ready for a possible placement. I also let the parent know that this is a mandate and there is a timeline that we work towards and why. But it creates a conflict in the helping relationship when we are saying that we want them to get services, to get their job back, and for things to work out. But at the same time we are asking the parent if they don't comply who else would they like to take care of their child.

For parents who experienced the placement of other children in out-of-home care prior to ASFA and were accustomed to open-ended services with little threat of permanent removal of the child, the new concurrent planning process can be particularly contentious.

For these parents it can be frustrating and I often hear from them that they don't feel I am working for them (the parent) but only working to take their kids away and place them with another family.

A worker spoke of the cognitive complexity involved in working on plans for two opposing goals at the same time.

It's hard to make the switch in your brain to work on both [reunification and concurrent planning]. But I tell myself that I have to document what's going on in the case. I may be working on a goal of return home, but need to document everything happening, knowing that the case may have to go to termination.

Concurrent planning weaves through the entire decision-making process as workers evaluate what parents need to do to have a child returned home, what services are necessary and available to help parents meet their goals, the progress of parents, and the best placement for the child if reunification is not possible.

Establishing an initial permanency plan. Regardless of whether a case is served by an intensive or ongoing reunification unit, nearly all cases have an initial goal of reunification. A worker conducts an initial assessment of a family's needs, which often includes clinical evaluations to determine the extent of child and family problems. The factors considered in this initial assessment include the severity of the problems that brought the child into care, the parent's commitment to seeing the child returned, prior services received to prevent placement, and previous history with the child welfare system. The worker also takes these factors into consideration when designing a service plan for the parent and when evaluating the likelihood that reunification can occur within the ASFA time limits.

Agencies' policies call for a planning meeting to be scheduled within 48 hours of the placement if possible. The planning meeting involves the birth parents and may also include family relatives, close friends of the family, foster parents, and the children if they are old enough to participate and feel comfortable in doing so. At the planning meeting, the caseworker outlines the reasons why the child was brought into care, the steps parents need to take to address the conditions that brought the child into care, and the services available to families to help them with their problems. Service goals and timeframes for achieving these goals are set. As described above, caseworkers also discuss the concurrent planning process and the timelines that must be met for reunification to occur or for alternative permanency to be established. Relatives or close family friends who attend the meeting are asked to provide input into the plan, including the discussion of alternate placement options. The purpose of the meeting is to involve as many people as possible who can provide support for the parents and to keep the parents mindful of the timelines that must be met for reunification to occur.

When the initial service plan and goals are being developed, we begin talking to the parent and other parties [telling them] that if we cannot return the child home safely, what to expect with regards to a change of goal-we put the parents and other parties on alert. We discuss the hierarchy of goals and the differences between the goals and what the implications are for the parents, relatives, and child. We discuss the responsibility of the parents financially and regarding visitation; about the legal timelines so that they understand what type of compulsion everybody is under in the process. . . . There is also input from the other parties on what they believe needs to be done to achieve reunification.

The service plan outlines services the worker and parents deem necessary to address the family's problems so that the child can return home. Caseworkers and agency administrators reported a wide range of services available to families, including individual and family therapy, substance abuse inpatient and outpatient treatment, mental health treatment, support groups, parenting classes, anger management classes, job-training, transportation, medical services, access to Section 8 housing, and day care. In addition, workers reported the availability of concrete help with furniture, clothing, and rental deposits. Some agency programs also provide families with in-home services in parenting and household management.

Unlike many other areas in the country, the three agencies are situated in relatively resource-rich environments, and workers reported that they had little difficulty accessing services for children and families, including substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment. Although one worker noted that there was sometimes a waiting list for mental health treatment at one agency, most other workers said that it was rare that necessary services were unavailable to families who wanted them. Workers reported that a much more common problem was parents' failure to utilize available services.

Most caseworkers said that they can tell within the first few months whether birth parents intend to make progress toward reunification. Families who indicate a strong desire to have the children returned and who immediately start services and visit their children on a regular basis are good candidates for reunification. Workers conduct ongoing assessments of parents' progress between the initial planning meeting and the 6-month court review. Workers receive input from a variety of sources as they evaluate the likelihood of reunification and make decisions about the case. Workers most often mentioned peer advice and consultation as important elements in assessing a case, particularly for the benefit of drawing on the various experiences of other agency staff. Workers discuss the progress of their cases with their supervisors on a weekly or bi-weekly basis; they discuss cases with colleagues within their unit on an informal basis, and they have formal staffings to discuss cases when a change in goal from reunification to another option is being considered. Workers also receive provider input from service progress reports (e.g., reports from therapists, substance abuse counselors, mental health counselors) on the compliance and progress of the parents in addressing their problems.

Evaluating parent progress. Decisions to return a child to the home of the parents can be made at any time when the worker determines that sufficient progress has been made to remedy the problems that brought the child into care, and the court concurs with the assessment. Workers reported that the issues essential to their decisions to return a child home are: 1) parent compliance with services, 2) safety of the child, 3) visitation, and 4) the child's wishes and well-being. By far, the issue mentioned most frequently by caseworkers when deciding whether to return a child home was the birth parents' compliance with the court's order and the agency's service agreement. Specifically, caseworkers look at whether the birth parents have complied with service referrals, whether the parents have actively participated in treatment, whether parents' behavior has changed, whether the parents have been drug free if they had substance abuse problems, and whether the parents are actively participating in plans for the child's daily activities and schooling.

This (returning home) is not an easy decision and I have had some uneasy feelings about some cases. We have to look at operating within the letter of the law. Parents may do everything to comply with the court order, but we may still have a gut feeling that something is not right. The court doesn't care about my gut feeling . . . . We look at what parents have done. Have parents followed the court order? Have parents gone to counseling? We talk to the counselor about whether there has been any intrinsic change in the parent. Does the therapist feel the children will be safe? Have parents completed their drug counseling and have been clean for at least 6 to 9 months? Are the parents working? Are parents visiting their kids and what are the visits like? We collect data from all sources and make a decision. This does not mean everything is going to be 100 percent. There may be some soft areas that continue to need to be shored up, which is why we generally return the children under the agency's protective supervision, giving us 6 more months to observe and provide assistance.

The caseworker's evaluation of the safety of the home is also critical in the decision to reunify. Safety issues include an assessment of the risk of further maltreatment, evidence regarding what has actually changed in the home and in the birth parent's behavior to make the home safe for the child, whether the parents can discipline the child appropriately, and whether the parents are capable of caring for the child and meeting the child's daily needs by providing adequate housing, financial stability, and day care.

Visitation is also a key indicator that caseworkers said they use to determine whether a child is ready to go home. Lack of visitation by the birth parents is an early indicator that reunification will not take place. Workers said they monitor visitation closely and that visits generally progress from being supervised visits that occur in the agency office to unsupervised visits in the community. Workers look at whether the birth parent visits regularly and whether there are good child-parent interactions during visits or whether the child acts out around the parents.

Finally, the child's wishes and an assessment of the child's overall well-being are important determinants of whether a child may be returned home. Although the desire to return home is strong for most children, others do not wish to be returned home. In some cases, return home is determined to be contrary to the best interests of the child, even when the parents have complied with services.

In some cases the parents are pretty compliant but it's still not in the kid's best interest to go home, so you have to weigh both of those things. One case is where child is emotionally disturbed and was sexually abused while in the parents' care, though not by them. Mom was a substance abuser and there's sex abuse rampant in this family and in the community where they live. Mom's gotten off drugs and they've gotten one of their children back but this child doesn't feel safe and doesn't feel protected, despite all his therapy. . . . It doesn't work for him. The parents have done everything--there isn't anything else for us to ask the parents to do but it's not working for him and as we have more unsupervised visits to work toward reunification, he regresses and gets suicidal. He's 9. The parents are somewhat limited intellectually and though they've done everything, they really don't understand the impact of the sex abuse on him and why he doesn't feel safe. They think he should be returned home and they don't understand why he doesn't trust them. . . . The plan has recently been changed to adoption. We've been working on this case for about 3 years.

Changing permanency plans. Changing the permanency goal from reunification to another permanency option can occur at any time during the case process but most commonly occurs after the family has received reunification services for 9 to 12 months. Our discussions with workers revealed three general types of birth parents--those who made no effort to achieve reunification during the first 12 months the child was in care, those who made some effort to achieve reunification, and those who actively worked toward reunification from the time of placement. Workers were united in expressing their willingness to give birth parents every opportunity possible to make efforts toward reunification. Workers explained that if parents made some progress toward meeting their goals for reunification, even a small effort, they would continue to work with the parent. However, if the birth parents made little or no effort to comply with referrals to evaluations, attend services, and/or did not visit or have contact with their children, workers began the process of changing the permanency plan and working toward another option.

I look at what progress the parent is making . . . . If a parent refuses to participate in services or to make progress towards remediating the problems that brought the child into care . . . then I may change the goal to adoption at that time.

For caseworkers, case decisions are easier if they have parents who are cooperative and compliant from the beginning or if parents are completely noncompliant. Caseworkers recalled the cases they had where the goal was always reunification and they had no doubt that the parents would eventually get their children back from the first weeks of the case.

I currently have a case where it is clear that there should be success. The parent has received services and continues to be sober, the child is doing very well in a group home and is succeeding in school, and the parent is participating in his planning at the group home. It is clear when things are going to work out because everything is going as it should--parents' work hard to do what they know needs to get done.

However, caseworkers more often discussed cases where the birth parents made no effort to remedy the situation that brought their child into care. Caseworkers reported that they began moving these cases toward other permanency options within the first few months after they received the case, particularly if they were ongoing foster care workers who received a case that had already received intensive services from an intensive reunification unit. Noncompliance was often due to a parent's chronic substance abuse or mental illness.

I have a lot of parents who are absolutely noncompliant--heavily substance-abusing who basically disappear and parents who are on their sixth or seventh child the department has been involved with. I have one case right now where I have never met the mother. She never came to a court hearing and she never responded to a letter. In those cases, I send a letter saying we've changed the plan and in those cases they usually don't end up objecting to the guardianship petitions.

If there's no response over a long period of time or [the parent] made minimal progress and no time likely in the near future would make enough progress to adequately care for the children . . . . I've had a few cases where the person had such significant mental health issues that we've moved to adoption quickly because we already had documentation from a clinician that this person would never be able to parent safely.

Cases where parents are very compliant or very non-compliant with service plans are the easy ones for workers to decide what the permanency goals should be. Caseworkers told us that the real difficulty comes when they have to decide whether parents who are making some effort toward reunification will ever truly meet their service goals and be able to have the children returned home. These decisions are particularly difficult when the parents' problems involve substance abuse or mental illness, problems that are not easily addressed within ASFA's 15 month timeframe for achieving permanency.

My biggest concern, timewise, is with substance abuse issues because they tend to take a lot longer time to assess and treat. And if a parent relapses, they have to go back into treatment. Plus the monitoring that takes place for a parent that has a substance abuse problem.

We are now getting more families with a history of mental illness and a lot of drug stuff, which is very difficult to change in 9 months. Someone can be using [drugs] for 10 years and we are expected to change this in 9 months?

Some caseworkers felt that families with severe problems could ultimately be reunified, if they were able to receive services for more than 15 months.

When we offer services for more than 15 or 24 months, more kids go home. People take and need a long time to deal with very serious problems that they have. That's a dilemma. The law says kids need permanent places but we know mental health and substance abuse issues take a long period of time, even with a parent who is ready, willing, and able. I know more parents would get their kids returned if services were longer, but is that fair to the kids? It's a difficult question.

Often workers found it was difficult to engage parents in actively working to have their children return home, and it was not until the point of TPR that parents began actively seeking services to keep from losing their children permanently. A few workers were critical of parents who waited until this point. However, some birth parents were successful at turning things around at this late point in the process and could be successfully reunified.

For these most difficult cases, workers and the court often have to weigh the various aspects of cases and decide what is truly in the best interest of the child. Based on the individual characteristics of the children and families, sometimes the case moves to TPR, and other times the worker continues to work toward reunification. One worker discussed a case where she believed that reunification would not be successful, and she should terminate parental rights, despite progress made by the parents.

I had one case with two parents who had not been taking care of themselves. They were in poor health and said they didn't know if they would keep using drugs. They didn't have adequate housing or employment. One and a half years had gone by and the parents were pretty consistent with visits but didn't have a good understanding of one child's special educational needs . . . . Even though there was something of a bond and they had nice visits with the kids, the parents could barely take care of themselves, how were they going to take care of two kids and one with special needs? I could have worked with these parents forever but they couldn't do it.

Workers and administrators also noted that there were cases that reached the 15- month time limit and where the parents continued to have significant problems that barred the return of the child but where decisions were made by workers and the court to continue to work toward reunification.

The most difficult cases for courts is when the children are between ages 7 and 11. These kids have bonded relationships with their parents, even though the parents are dysfunctional and not improving. When you weigh in the best interest for the children and you are talking about doing TPR with kids that are least likely to be adopted, you see everyone including the courts wanting to give these situations more time and chances. It doesn't matter what the legislation says, if the reality is there are not going to be permanent homes and the kids are going to be traumatized by the separation, there is a tendency to give the case more time.

At the point at which a worker decides that reunification is not going to take place, the worker needs to move on the backup permanency plan. The alternate permanency plan may or may not include a decision to seek TPR. A TPR petition must be filed before a child can be adopted. However, many children are given alternate permanency plans that do not include adoption. These cases may occur when the child is considered to be a poor candidate for adoption, either because the child is living with relatives who feel adoption is not necessary, because the child is older, or because the child does not want to be adopted. As children age, they become less and less likely to be adopted. Although some workers stated that they were getting more adoptions completed with older children who were once considered to be unadoptable due to their age, adoption of teens is still rare. When workers consider whether to file a petition for TPR, the child's age, the availability of adoptive homes, the child's attachment to the birth parents, and his or her bonding with the foster parents are all important factors that weigh into the worker's decision.

We have to justify a lot now. We give parents a reasonable amount of chances and all kinds of services and if they can't achieve the goals of the service plan then we have to move along. Of course, each case is different. If a child is 10 years old and has been with the parent for his whole life and desperately wants to go back, we're not going to ride roughshod over that child's attachment. But if the child has bonded with relatives or foster parents and is ready to move on, the child's needs are primary.

Under ASFA, workers must justify why TPR and adoption are not being pursued after the child has been in the system for 15 months. If a child is not going to be adopted or placed in the permanent custody of a relative, ASFA requires that the child still have some type of permanency established. Permanency options other than reunification, adoption, and relative placement include independent living and permanent foster care. Independent living is the permanency goal for children who are close to emancipation, generally 16 or 17 years of age. While workers at all three agencies stated that permanent foster care is an option of last resort, the courts are willing to sanction permanent foster care as a permanency goal for children who do not want to be adopted, who are living with relatives licensed as foster parents who do not wish to adopt, and those children for whom adoptive placements are not likely to be found.

Children may be 14 or 15 and not want to be adopted or relatives may not want to adopt and it's considered in the child's best interest not to disrupt a placement that's working for them by looking for some other placement that may or may not lead to permanency.

I have five teens on my caseload who came into care as teens and could not return home so we set up permanent foster care placements. The kids didn't wish to have their identity changed at this stage of their lives.

The dilemma of how to establish permanency for older children is one with which agencies and workers struggle.

I do not think 15 months is long enough in these cases with older kids. I would like to be able to have some type of open arrangement with pre-teens and adolescent kids where it is acceptable for the kids to be in long-term foster care and also have a relationship with their birth parent. So it is clear the kids won't be going home, but they can still maintain some type of relationship. In essence, I think the kids should be allowed to grow up. When these kids get to be 18, it doesn't matter what their legal status is, they will go and find their birth parents. So it is very artificial to go and do all the court work on a case, when you know the kid will end up returning to the parents. The problem is that the agency doesn't have a "middle area" that says it is ok to have these kids in long-term foster care.

Caseworkers told us that cases most likely to have a change of plan to adoption and go through TPR are those where the children are younger and where parents are noncompliant, nonresponsive or have simply given up on working toward reunification. Caseworkers explained that as part of their concurrent planning process, they document cases from the very beginning so that if TPR is necessary down the road, they have the information needed to make a strong case for why it is justified. There is a significant burden placed on the department to prove to the court that a case should have a goal changed to adoption with the resulting TPR. As part of the process for TPR, caseworkers hold a staffing meeting with other agency staff and county attorneys to determine if a case warrants TPR, and if not, what additional proof is needed to file the petition.

The process (to determine TPR) is an ongoing one from the beginning. We spend time consulting with each other and practicing peer supervision to bring in the various experiences with workers. We will "staff" a case and discuss what has been done for the family, what has been available to the parents and child. We look at what the parents' participation has been, if they have had treatment then we get a prognosis from the treatment provider. We come to a clinical decision that TPR is what is best for the child and that the prognosis for the family is that they are not going to be able to provide safety for the child in a timely manner. We also run these situations by our attorney and provide all information to him and then we can get from a legal standpoint what our case would be as well. The staffing of a case provides the ability to see proof of a decision -- whether the decision is based on just feelings the worker has or if there is actually concrete proof.

[If] there's been no progress . . . it's going to be staffed for legal sufficiency about whether we should change the case plan . . . . If we don't have legal sufficiency, we discuss what's missing or whether enough time has been given. We may give the parent another 90 days. . . . I would meet with the parent and say, "ok, we have another 90 days and these things have to be accomplished or we'll change the plan to something else."

Caseworkers and administrators said that TPR is a very lengthy and difficult process. It is typically traumatic for all parties involved and can take many months to schedule due to the court's overburdened docket. When possible, workers try to get parents to voluntarily relinquish their rights. Mediation is one method used to expedite court matters in cases and particularly to ease the struggle between birth parents and agency workers and help achieve voluntary relinquishing of parental rights. Mediation programs are either currently used or in the planning stages at the agencies we visited. If mediation is successful, the amount of time for the TPR process is lessened, meaning lower costs for the agency and courts and less time in care for the child. Moreover, voluntary TPR was more often cited as leading to open adoptions, allowing the birth parents to maintain some contact with their children. The voluntary relinquishment of rights is sometimes facilitated by good relationships that have developed between the foster and birth parents.

Caseworkers play a powerful role in shaping children's futures. The decisions they make in developing initial permanency plans, evaluating parent progress, and making alternate arrangements for permanency ultimately determine who is allowed to raise a child. Our discussion of caseworker decision making captures the overarching decision-making process: the procedures that caseworkers follow, the timeframes they work within, the factors they weigh, and the role of other parties in informing and shaping permanency plans. All of the agencies had formal policies and procedures in place to help caseworker decision making occur in a timely fashion with input and oversight from other parties. Workers were very consistent in describing these procedures, but whether they are followed in most cases cannot be determined by this research. Instead, from discussions with agency personnel, we have the opportunity to highlight the critical issues caseworkers consider in determining permanency for children and comment upon the implications for children and family outcomes.

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3. Implications

This report is based on discussions with caseworkers and administrative staff at three public child welfare agencies. These three agencies may be unusual compared to many child welfare agencies in the level of resources available to serve families. The workers reported having adequate staff and sufficient services to address clients' needs. In addition, the agencies have well-defined decision-making procedures in place that involve input from colleagues, supervisors, service providers, attorneys and other county staff. This well-defined process -- whether or not followed through completely for every case -- allows these workers to feel they have sufficient guidance and support to make fair decisions for children and their families. Consequently, the workers we talked with appeared confident about their decision-making capabilities, given the agencies' systems of checks and balances.

However, under ASFA, caseworkers must make decisions faster, while they continue to deal with children and families with difficult problems. The implementation of new time limits, coupled with the troubled families coming into the child welfare system, has created a paradox for caseworkers and administrators. On the one hand, caseworkers and administrators believe that the shortened time limits provided by ASFA are fair and proper in order to expedite permanency for children and avoid foster care drift. On the other hand, workers find it difficult to tackle the intransigent problems and situations of families coming into the foster care system within these shortened time limits. Workers continue to face the overwhelming troubles of children and families entering the foster care system without any new or improved ways to deal with the problems of these families, despite the need to reunify or find permanency more quickly.

Broadening permanency. The timeframes of ASFA require workers to consider all permanency options from the time the child enters care. Workers and administrators we spoke with believe strongly in reunifying families and continue to make family reunification the initial goal of all families served by their agencies. However, the focus on keeping children and their parents together if at all possible has diminished under the new time limits. If a family cannot be reunited within 15 months so that the child can live safely at home, then it may be determined that the child must live permanently in an alternative safe and stable household. Because decisions like this are happening more frequently, there is a serious need to find permanent placements for children within a reasonable time.

To meet the permanency needs of children who cannot return home from foster care, agencies have turned to relative placement as the permanency option of choice when reunification is not possible. Permanency with relatives encompasses a variety of arrangements, including licensed foster care placements, unlicensed or informal placements, custody arrangements in lieu of foster care placement, legal guardianship (subsidized and unsubsidized), and adoption. In fact, one agency we visited referred to relative placements as reunification and counted them as reunifications in their data.

Another agency we visited commonly used relatives as legal guardians (unsubsidized) to divert children from entering foster care. Relatives were located by CPS prior to placement and given legal custody of the child so that the case never entered the foster care unit. This is an obvious way to keep children from foster care placement and avoid the costs of having the child in care. However, diverting the child from foster care also diverted the child's parents from receiving any services through the foster care unit, thereby failing to make any attempt to solve the problems that required placement of the child out of the home.

Relatives have served as a variety of placement options for children. Their roles are diverse and debated. The increased use of relatives as permanent alternatives for children creates further reason to step back and clearly define the roles they play. Although placement in the family structure can be an ideal permanency placement for a child that can offer family continuity, from a child's point of view living with a relative can be very different from returning home to his or her birth parents. Alternatively, placement with a relative -- formally or informally -- may be the most permanent arrangement a child will experience. Policy for relative placements has been pieced together over time in response to changing needs. Issues surrounding the emotional and financial implications to birth parents, children, and relatives need to be considered comprehensively. Relatives are a valuable resource and a thoughtful and systematic approach to defining their expanding role is critical to their being an effective resource.

With the implementation of ASFA, we expected to see a reduction in the use of long-term foster care for children at agencies we visited. However, all of the agencies used long-term or permanent foster care placements under certain circumstances. These cases usually involved pre-teen or teen children who had strong bonds with their parents, did not want to be adopted, and where placement with a relative was not feasible. Workers were still required to place these children in long-term or permanent foster care placements. These were the most difficult and frustrating cases for workers to make decisions on because they had few choices for permanency other than keeping the children in some type of foster care placement until emancipation. It was clear that these cases complied with ASFA's exceptions for compelling reasons. It is evident that a number of children in the child welfare system will continue to stay in long-term foster care until emancipation because there are no other permanency alternatives. Agency administrators expressed a concern about children being made legal orphans, as required by ASFA, and parental ties are severed but no adoptive home identified.

Watching the clock. The time limits instituted by ASFA require workers to make decisions on permanency when a child has been in care 15 of the past 22 months. It is clear that workers are mindful of the time they have to work with birth parents. Workers found that the time limits relieved them of some of the responsibility for deciding how many months -- or years -- services should be provided to parents while their children remain in foster care. Most workers said they believe the time limits are fair to birth parents and in the best interest of children. There were a few workers who mentioned conflicting feelings over struggling to reunify families within 15 of 22 months. The conflict of these workers is understandable as agencies move from allowing families an extended period of time to achieve reunification to an emphasis on watching the clock and expediting permanency.

When a case is assigned to a worker's caseload, workers reported that they typically go through the process of meeting with the family, making permanency plans with members of the family, choosing the services they feel are appropriate for a family, documenting the family's progress, consulting with peers and colleagues to determine whether the family should be reunified or if the alternate permanency plan should move forward, and reporting to the court about the family's progress at the 6- and 12-month court reviews. However, as regimented as the process appeared, the workers found some room for flexibility. There were times when workers adhered to the time limits, but they also understood how to bend the time requirements when they felt that a family deserved more time for reunification. Workers reported that if birth parents made a diligent effort to comply with the goals set forth in the case plan and court orders but had not completed the necessary requirements to remedy the situation that brought their children into care within 15 of the past 22 months, judges were willing to allow the family an extra 6 or 9 months to receive services and work towards reunification. Critical to making these difficult decisions in shorter time periods is having sufficient information to assess a family's strengths and weaknesses, but workers reported that the assessment procedures they use have not changed since ASFA but have remained fairly constant.

Concurrent planning, although implemented by the agencies prior to ASFA, is the primary tool used to comply with the new time requirements. Concurrent planning has changed the focus and approach of case planning and decision making. Agencies and workers use concurrent planning as a tool to convey clearly to parents early in the planning process that they have a limited amount of time to resolve the problems necessary for reunification or they may lose parental rights to their child. However, we found that workers did not actively work toward an alternative permanency plan until they determined that reunification was unlikely. Moreover, some workers reported that they continued to try and reunify families even after the child's goal had been changed. Concurrent planning requires delicate balancing of coercion and encouragement. With the balancing act come tensions due to the inherent difficulties of working toward reunification while planning for the possibility of alternative permanency for the child and tension between the client and caseworker that sometimes occurs during the planning process. For these reasons, concurrent planning is dependent upon systematic training and supervision of casework practice. While some tensions were reported by workers, overall workers embrace the concept because it allows them to establish consequences for parent noncompliance early in the relationship.

In search of new tools to assist in working with families, agencies reported using foster parent mentoring and family or group planning as part of their foster care practices. Two of the agencies had recently begun implementing foster parent training on mentoring, and the third agency had an established foster parent mentoring program. However, our discussions with agency staffs revealed that these efforts, designed to enhance and support the reunification process, were not achieving that specific purpose in most cases. The supervisor in charge of the established foster parent mentoring program reported that the program conducted training for foster parents on mentoring birth parents and that the agency had an existing pool of foster parents willing to take on the mentoring role. Workers reported that when foster parents formed a relationship and worked with birth parents, it often made a significant difference in helping the birth parents achieve reunification. However, we heard that more often the program resulted in the birth parents voluntarily relinquishing parental rights to allow the foster parents to adopt their child. In cases where birth parents' problems are so severe and persistent that they can never care for their children, the voluntary relinquishment of parental rights was seen as a positive step, making permanency occur faster and more easily. Nonetheless, given evidence of this unanticipated effect, it is important to determine if the program may be covertly coercing birth parents to give up their children due to feelings of inadequacy brought on by personal comparisons to the mentoring foster parents' more substantial parenting skills and financial resources.

All three agencies reported using some form of family conferencing or group planning as an enhancement to concurrent planning. This type of planning is predicated on bringing together birth parents, relatives, close friends of the family, and even foster parents, to participate in the case planning process and to ensure a safety network for the parents and children in support of reunification. However, this type of planning is usually successful only if the birth parents and children have relatives and close friends willing to participate in the reunification process. For families who lack this community support, the planning process includes little more than a meeting between the birth parents and caseworker. Also, relatives can act to aggravate birth parents if they are not supportive of reunification efforts. Workers discussed meeting with family groups for case planning but also said that they had cases without relative support. Discussions with some workers indicated that relatives were often included in the case planning to prepare them to care for the child. Some workers referred to these meetings as a time to put relatives on alert -- telling them that if the birth parents did not comply with the reunification plan, the children would need another permanent home. Workers reported using the planning session more as a resource to find and prepare relatives as caretakers rather than to provide support for reunification.

Aside from foster parent mentoring and family group planning, we did not learn of any other changes in services or service delivery being used to enhance reunification with families. It appears that these agencies are doing very little differently post-ASFA to enhance assessment or services to improve the likelihood of reunification within the shorter timeframe. With the need to achieve reunification more quickly, there is a need for tools to enhance efforts to reunify families within the timeframes. Moreover, the example of the foster mentoring program illustrates the need to carefully evaluate all the effects of these tools.

Barriers to reunification. To workers, one of the most frustrating barriers to achieving reunification is engaging the high number of parents who have chronic substance abuse problems or mental illness. By the time a family enters the foster care system, parents' problems are often long-established and difficult to treat. Despite the generally adequate evaluation and treatment services, workers are discouraged by their inability to convince these parents to obtain treatment. Shortened timeframes necessitate the development of new strategies for workers to engage families more quickly and intensively in needed services. However, even when parents are willing to undertake substance abuse treatment, such treatment can take several months to complete, and there are frequently periods of relapse before an individual is drug-free. The substance abuse treatment field cannot provide quick fixes for long-term drug and alcohol addiction, making addiction frequently impossible to address within the new timeframes.

Prior to ASFA, workers were inclined to give birth parents with chronic substance abuse and mental illness substantial periods of time to continue treatment and work toward reunification. Unfortunately, this often meant that the child was left to drift in care for a number of years. ASFA has given workers "permission" to proceed with TPR at 12 or 15 months, and find an alternative home for children if parents have not complied with treatment. Moreover, under ASFA, if parental rights to a sibling have been terminated involuntarily, reasonable efforts may not be required for other children in the family who enter care. Consequently, parents who have chronic substance abuse and mental illness may lose parental rights to all their children. This is an important dilemma that needs to be considered as it has far-reaching consequences on the economic and emotional well-being and viability of families and communities.

Role of the courts. The courts play an important role as they make decisions on the requirements a family needs to meet for reunification, to return a child home, to terminate parental rights, and to approve a change in goal to permanent or long-term foster care. What happens to a family, in large part, depends on a judge's decision. Although in some jurisdictions, judges' views on reunification and TPR can be very diverse and contrary to workers' views, agency staff we spoke with told us that family court judges they deal with are educated about ASFA, recognize the requirements to have a permanency plan within 12 months, usually concur with worker recommendations for families, and act fairly in reviewing evidence and testimony from both the agency and birth parents before rendering a decision on TPR.

ASFA has put additional burdens on the court system. Since the implementation of Public Law 96-272 in 1980, which instituted 18-month court reviews, there have been complaints of overburdened family courts and extensive delays in case reviews. ASFA's additions of the 6-month court review, along with an increase in the number of TPR cases, have placed a heavy weight on the court system, causing delays in scheduling 6- and 12-month hearings and delays of up to several months for TPR petition hearings. Workers at one agency reported that the court reviews were being conducted as formal evidentiary hearings lasting up to 4 days. Workers commented that policy to guide and regulate the implementation of these reviews would be helpful to agencies and the courts. The burden on the courts is a key problem that was not adequately addressed at the time of ASFA's initial implementation. However, the federal government has recently instituted grants to assist courts with their responsibilities under ASFA.

ASFA has prompted changes in the decision-making process to establish permanency for children, based on the premise that shorter timeframes will move children more quickly out of foster care and into permanent living arrangements. According to our research, provisions of ASFA have been adopted into states' laws, and administrators and caseworkers have incorporated some changes in their case planning process and service delivery to meet the new time limit for reunification; however, it is not known whether these procedures are being consistently implemented. It appears that ASFA is stimulating action to address the problem of children languishing in foster care. Nevertheless, as stated above, there are still some important issues to be thought through by policymakers, states, agency administrators and caseworkers. Hopefully the implementation of ASFA and the repercussions will serve as a wake-up call to comprehensively rethink issues that have beleaguered the child welfare system for decades and stimulate the creation of an environment that promotes strategic planning of programs and resources to guide caseworkers' decisions.

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References

United States General Accounting Office.. Report on States' Early Experiences Implementing the Adoption and Safe Families Act. (1999)Washington, D.C.: GPO.

Endnotes

1.  States may expand upon the definition of aggravated circumstances.

2.  United States General Accounting Office. (1999). Report on States' Early Experiences Implementing the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

3.  It is important to remember that the individual workers we spoke with were chosen by their agencies and likely represented the agencies' more exemplary workers. However, the agencies provided access to workers with varied backgrounds and experiences, from different reunification programs (intensive reunification vs. ongoing foster care units), and who served various types of families.

4.  Three of the four had masters in social work degrees.

5.  No information was available on the number of children who were reunified, adopted, or had other exit outcomes.

6.  This site was a pilot site for Family to Family. This model emphasizes a community-based approach to foster care which includes placing children in their neighborhoods, involving foster families as team members in reunification efforts, and investing in the neighborhood as a resource for children and families.

7.  Although relative placement was given as a permanent option by Agency C, relatives were usually found through CPS prior to foster care placement so relative placements were rarely used once a child was placed in foster care except in cases of relative adoption.

8.  Certain exceptions to TPR may apply in individual cases. For instance if the child is in the care of a relative, the state documents a compelling reason why filing TPR is not in the best interest of the child, or the state has not provided the family with services deemed necessary for the child to return home safely.


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