Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 1. An Historical Review


In the last few decades, foster care of children has come to be viewed as an evil. A necessary evil in some cases, but an evil nonetheless. When possible it should be avoided, since a child's birth family is viewed as the best place for the child except in extraordinary circumstances. When foster care cannot be avoided it is viewed as an arrangement that should be short term, even though it sometimes turns out to be otherwise.

So what is to be done when a child is removed from his or her family and placed in foster care? At present, answers to that question are dominated by the concept of permanency. Children should be afforded living arrangements that are nurturing and long lasting. Foster care itself is not thought of as an appropriate permanency plan, so the intention (not always accompanied by action) in most cases is to move the child into other circumstances. There are many options: reunification with parents, placement with relatives, legal guardianship by relatives or others, independent living, adoption. Not all options are available for every child, but there is usually more than one, so decisions need to be made. It is thought that the best option is to return the child home whenever that is possible, so in most cases that is the alternative that is explored first. Usually at least some work is attempted with the birth parents (or other original caretakers) directed at making return home possible. When work with the parents proves unsuccessful, we turn to other alternatives.

In this paper we develop a framework for thinking about permanency. We place particular emphasis on reunification and on the decision processes that are involved in choosing reunification or other alternatives. We begin with a brief review of the social history of child welfare in the last century and consider the legislative initiatives in various periods of that history (with particular emphasis on federal legislation). We describe the current status of permanency and reunification efforts in the states based on information gathered from several sources, and conclude with a discussion of implications of our investigation and an identification of central policy and practice issues.