Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 1. Background


The purpose of this paper is to review what must be learned to develop more effective programs for assuring that children taken into foster care have permanent, nurturing arrangements for their care. It considers programs designed to enhance the likelihood of reunification with original caretakers but goes beyond that to look at programs focused on permanency more broadly. It also broadens the focus beyond the evaluation of particular programs to consider other empirical work that might inform policy making and program design.1

Our discussion is framed by the character of the current child welfare system, the values that drive it, the legislation that guides its operation, and the nature of practice within it. In the last decade there has been a shift away from emphasizing efforts to preserve or restore families whenever possible to emphasizing the importance of assuring the safety of children and achieving permanency for them as soon as possible. The shift in emphasis is reflected in and promoted by the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) which affirmed the primacy of safety in determining the best interests of the child and placed limits on the time spent on attempts to reunite children with original caretakers before implementing other permanency options. However, when most children are removed from their homes, the initial case goals are still return home.2 Child welfare professionals have hierarchies of permanency options in their minds, and although there is not universal agreement on a single hierarchy, return home is thought to be the best alternative whenever possible. In this sense, a central requirement for the evaluability of programs is at least minimally met: the necessity for agreement among relevant stakeholders as to objectives of programs.

The discussion here is guided by an updated review of the reunification and permanency practices and programs in 25 states originally included in the 1995 Review of Family Preservation and Family Reunification Programs undertaken as part of the Evaluation of Family Preservation and Reunification Programs. The program update was supplemented by site visits to four programs. We also undertook an examination of decision making processes in three agencies in the Washington, DC vicinity. A framework for what we present here is provided in section 2 of this report entitled "Permanency: A Balancing Act."

1.  We limit ourselves here to services for families in which children have been removed from caretakers, not considering "front-end" services or services to intact families, although such services can properly be thought of as part of a continuum of permanency activities.

2.  ASFA does, for the first time in federal legislation, specify conditions under which "reasonable efforts" to return children home do not have to be made, so that in these cases the initial case plan objective does not have to be reunification.