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

12/01/2001

In order to understand patterns of reunification from foster care, it is useful to consider reunification in the context of all exits from care, and in the context of the individual characteristics and the case histories of the children involved.2 Table IIA.1 presents an overview of exits from foster care. The left side of the table contains counts of spells by type of exit, classified first by state, then by four child characteristics, and finally by each of four case characteristics. This series of two-way tables is based on a universe of 404,416 distinct spells in foster care. These are all spells that began with a foster placement between 1990-94 in any of the nine states, and are enumerated in the first column, labeled "All Entries. These spells are each tracked until the child is discharged from foster care or through the end of 1997. So the potential period of observation is at least three years (for children who entered care at the end of 1994), and at most eight years (for children who entered care at the start of 1990.

The second column, labeled "No Exit, Still in Care," indicates how many of these spells were still open at the end of 1997. Just under one-fifth (75,199 or 18.6%) of the children who entered care between 1990 and 1994 remained in care through the end of observation. It is important, to note that exits from some long-term stays in care are not observed and are not reported in this table, so that the completed duration and the eventual discharge destination at exit for these spells are censored from this analysis. However, we do know that all of these censored spells, by definition, have a duration of three years or more, and as will be seen, reunification is a fairly rare outcome after three years. Therefore, we assume that these censored spells would probably add little new information to most of this reunification analysis. However, it should be noted that exits from stays of over three years are incompletely described in these tables. The proportion still in care is computed against a base of all entries.

The exit distribution is presented with six categories for destination at exit:

  • Reunification is defined as a return to the parent or family of origin.
  • Relative care is full custodial placement with a relative outside of the foster care system. It is not formal kinship foster care, which involves state custody and control.
  • Adoption is finalized legal adoption of the child, either by relatives or by unrelated persons. Pre-adoptive placements are considered as foster care.
  • Reach majority occurs when a child ages out of foster care.
  • Runaway occurs when the child leaves placement for a significant period of time without agency authorization.
  • "Other exit" is a catch all for a variety of categories, including "unknown," "service completed," death, and transfer to other agency.

Looking at the first row of Table IIA. I , we see that of the 404,416 spells observed, 187,406 ended with a family reunification. There were also 23,398 exits to other relatives, 38,291 completed adoptions, 9,583 children "aging out" of care, 23,635 runaways, and 46,904 spells that exited to "other" destinations. On the right side of the table, each exit type is presented as a proportion of all observed exits. Therefore, the statistic reporting that the proportion of reunification spells for all nine states combined is .569 should be interpreted as meaning that 56.9 percent of all spells where an exit was observed were exits by reunification.

During the period of observation, the majority of exits (57%) were achieved through family reunification. Of the remainder, 7 percent were to relatives, 12 percent via adoption, 3 percent reached majority, 7 percent involved runaways from care, and 14 percent were in the "other" category. This exit distribution for the spells from the pooled nine-state data provides a yardstick against which the distributions for each state or subgroup will be compared.

It is important to note that the distributions presented in Table IIA. I describe each type of exit as a proportion of all observed exits, not as a proportion of all entries. If the 9-state reunification statistic (.569) were recomputed as a proportion of all spells, we would see that 46.3 percent of all entry spells were observed to end in reunification by the end of 1997. This latter statistic is usually what would be considered as a reunification rate, in that it describes the likelihood of reunification for an entire population at risk. The difference between the two measures is caused by spells where an exit is not observed. The relationship of these statistics is presented in Figure A. Here, we can see that the reunification rate (reunifications/entries) can be described as the product of a) the likelihood of exit (exits/entries), and b) the likelihood that an exit is by reunification (reunifications/exits). Alabama has one of the highest exit rates, so the low reunification rate must be interpreted in the context of knowing that many children exit foster care in other ways. In contrast, the low reunification rate in Illinois must be understood in the context of low overall exit rates -- as relatively few children leave foster care to other destinations.3

 

Table IIA.1
Type of Exit from Spells in Foster Care, by State and selected covariates. Nine States Pooled . 1990-1994 Entry Cohorts, spells starting before 1995. Exits observed through December 1997.
  Counts Proportion of Entries Proportion of Exits
All Entries No Exit Exit Type No Exit Exit Type
Still in Care Reunify Relative Care Adopt Reach Majority Run Away Other Exit Still in Care Reunify Relative Care Adopt Reach Majority Run Away Other Exit
State
Alabama 9,224 774 2,423 2,668 454 50 269 2,586 0.084 0.287 0.316 0.054 0.006 0.032 0.306
California 143,973 30,944 75,910 2,838 10,571 4,181 6,351 13,178 0.215 0.672 0.025 0.094 0.037 0.056 0.117
Illinois 56,354 20,767 17,661 915 5,506 684 4,475 6,346 0.369 0.496 0.026 0.155 0.019 0.126 0.178
Maryland 14,003 2,512 5,155 2,346 1,629 676 401 1,284 0.179 0.449 0.204 0.142 0.059 0.035 0.112
Michigan 31,537 1,750 14,442 3,074 5,734 619 1,264 4,654 0.055 0.485 0.103 0.193 0.021 0.042 0.156
Missouri 22,629 2,315 10,732 983 2,457 390 1,204 4,548 0.102 0.528 0.048 0.121 0.019 0.059 0.224
New Mexico 5,889 275 3,342 448 553 172 344 755 0.047 0.595 0.080 0.099 0.031 0.061 0.134
New York 94,758 13,474 41,949 8,528 9,854 1,806 8,064 11,083 0.142 0.516 0.105 0.121 0.022 0.099 0.136
Wisconsin 26,049 2,388 15,792 1,598 1,533 1,005 1,263 2,470 0.092 0.667 0.068 0.065 0.042 0.053 0.104
Nine State Total 404,416 75,199 187,406 23,398 38,291 9,583 23,635 46,904 0.186 0.569 0.071 0.116 0.029 0.072 0.142

Child Characteristics

Age at Entry

< 3 mos. 51,521 13,215 15,095 2,772 15,492 0 0 4,947 0.256 0.394 0.072 0.404 0.000 0.000 0.129
3-11 mos. 31,028 6,835 13,733 2,060 5,161 0 0 3,239 0.220 0.568 0.085 0.213 0.000 0.000 0.134
1 to 2 yrs. 57,188 13,032 28,155 3,773 6,835 0 0 5,393 0.228 0.638 0.085 0.155 0.000 0.000 0.122
3 to 5 61,649 15,148 31,406 3,897 5,525 0 9 5,664 0.246 0.675 0.084 0.119 0.000 0.000 0.122
6 to 8 46,372 11,556 24,199 2,924 3,036 0 209 4,448 0.249 0.695 0.084 0.087 0.000 0.006 0.128
9 to 11 40,943 8,822 21,637 2,545 1,514 165 1,817 4,443 0.215 0.674 0.079 0.047 0.005 0.057 0.138
12 to 14 62,742 5,498 31,067 3,315 601 2,294 10,611 9,356 0.088 0.543 0.058 0.010 0.040 0.185 0.163
15 to 17 52,973 1,093 22,114 2,112 127 7,124 10,989 9,414 0.021 0.426 0.041 0.002 0.137 0.212 0.181

Age at Exit

0 years 20,487 0 13,813 2,558 1,217 0 0 2,899 0.000 0.674 0.125 0.059 0.000 0.000 0.142
1 to 2 47,325 0 29,317 4,090 8,375 0 0 5,543 0.000 0.619 0.086 0.177 0.000 0.000 0.117
3 to 5 80,501 17,848 35,440 4,578 15,529 0 0 7,106 0.222 0.566 0.073 0.248 0.000 0.000 0.113
6 to 8 62,543 20,868 26,189 3,160 7,041 0 0 5,285 0.334 0.628 0.076 0.169 0.000 0.000 0.127
9 to 11 46,650 13,449 22,288 2,592 3,484 0 359 4,478 0.288 0.671 0.078 0.105 0.000 0.011 0.135
12 to 14 58,176 10,620 27,935 3,101 1,883 59 7,220 7,358 0.183 0.587 0.065 0.040 0.001 0.152 0.155
15 to 17 69,444 8,747 30,330 3,016 682 1,960 14,573 10,136 0.126 0.500 0.050 0.011 0.032 0.240 0.167
Over 17 yrs 19,290 3,667 2,094 303 80 7,564 1,483 4,099 0.190 0.134 0.019 0.005 0.484 0.095 0.262

Gender

Female 207,204 37,079 95,132 12,124 18,895 6,095 14,803 23,076 0.179 0.559 0.071 0.111 0.036 0.087 0.136
Male 197,212 38,120 92,274 11,274 19,396 3,488 8,832 23,828 0.193 0.580 0.071 0.122 0.022 0.056 0.150

Race/Ethnicity

African American 161,625 44,281 59,368 11,302 16,070 2,794 9,057 18,753 0.274 0.506 0.096 0.137 0.024 0.077 0.160
Hispanic 61,343 11,049 32,146 2,544 4,301 1,381 4,046 5,876 0.180 0.639 0.051 0.086 0.027 0.080 0.117
Other 31,480 4,167 14,730 2,367 2,866 795 2,683 3,872 0.132 0.539 0.087 0.105 0.029 0.098 0.142
White 149,968 15,702 81,162 7,185 15,054 4,613 7,849 18,403 0.105 0.604 0.054 0.112 0.034 0.058 0.137

Case Characteristics

Spell Sequence

First Spell 352,029 67,390 166,035 20,842 34,935 7,833 15,624 39,370 0.191 0.583 0.073 0.123 0.028 0.055 0.138
Reentry Spell 52,387 7,809 21,371 2,556 3,356 1,750 8,011 7,534 0.149 0.479 0.057 0.075 0.039 0.180 0.169

Duration

< 1 mo 49,767 0 34,820 5,027 271 90 4,048 5,511 0.000 0.700 0.101 0.005 0.002 0.081 0.111
1 to 3 months 46,432 0 30,905 4,336 510 216 4,297 6,168 0.000 0.666 0.093 0.011 0.005 0.093 0.133
4 to 6 months 35,492 0 23,517 2,862 459 334 3,309 5,011 0.000 0.663 0.081 0.013 0.009 0.093 0.141
6 mos to 1 year 48,657 0 33,358 3,197 1,706 872 3,661 5,863 0.000 0.686 0.066 0.035 0.018 0.075 0.120
1 year to 18 mos 36,557 0 24,329 2,210 2,170 1,041 2,165 4,642 0.000 0.666 0.060 0.059 0.028 0.059 0.127
18 mos to 2 year 26,752 0 15,077 1,655 3,141 1,097 1,529 4,253 0.000 0.564 0.062 0.117 0.041 0.057 0.159
2 to 3 year 36,103 0 14,327 2,040 9,777 1,948 2,098 5,913 0.000 0.397 0.057 0.271 0.054 0.058 0.164
3 years + 124,656 75,199 11,073 2,071 20,257 3,985 2,528 9,543 0.603 0.224 0.042 0.410 0.081 0.051 0.193

Placement Type

Congregate Care 64,836 4,602 30,990 3,529 739 2,195 11,932 10,849 0.071 0.514 0.059 0.012 0.036 0.198 0.180
Foster Care 214,991 31,805 103,302 14,303 30,038 4,955 8,029 22,559 0.148 0.564 0.078 0.164 0.027 0.044 0.123
Kinship Care 108,750 35,027 46,611 5,084 6,738 1,478 2,356 11,456 0.322 0.632 0.069 0.091 0.020 0.032 0.155
Mixed Type 15,839 3,765 6,503 482 776 955 1,318 2,040 0.238 0.539 0.040 0.064 0.079 0.109 0.169

Placement Stability

1 placement 207,134 22,650 117,125 14,699 12,216 3,958 11,212 25,274 0.109 0.635 0.080 0.066 0.021 0.061 0.137
2 placements 97,561 18,850 42,557 5,317 12,391 2,260 5,284 10,902 0.193 0.541 0.068 0.157 0.029 0.067 0.139
3-4 placements 66,504 19,090 21,272 2,688 9,981 2,025 4,161 7,287 0.287 0.449 0.057 0.211 0.043 0.088 0.154
5+ placements 33,217 14,609 6,452 694 3,703 1,340 2,978 3,441 0.440 0.347 0.037 0.199 0.072 0.160 0.185

 

Figure A
Likelihood of Reunification from Foster Care Components of Reunification Rates

Figure A1. Likelihood of Reunification from Foster Care Components of Reunification Rates

Figure A2. Likelihood of Reunification from Foster Care Components of Reunification Rates

The proportions in Figure A.1 report the likelihood that a child or youth entering foster care between 1990 and 1994 exited before 1998 via reunification with their family. 
One decomposition of the proportions in Figure A.1 is represented in Figure A.2, which presents the likelihood of any exit from care and the proportion of exits that are achieved via reunification. Mathematically, the likelihood of reunification is the product of these two separate proportions.


2.  Ideally, we would also consider attributes of the family of origin, the parents (or other home caregivers), and the home environment; but this type of information is not generally available through child welfare tracking systems.

3.  The analysis in later sections will focus almost exclusively on reunification rates (the likelihood of reunification among entrants). The focus on exit distribution in this section is to highlight the differences between children who are reunified and children who exit in other ways.