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


In 1994, as part of the Evaluation of Family Preservation and Reunification Services, Westat interviewed state- and county-level administrators from 25 states about the status of reunification in their states and then profiled reunification programs in those states for possible inclusion in the Evaluation of Family Preservation and Reunification Services.1

In the 1990s, the number of children in the child welfare system placed in out-of-home care continued to increase. Officials at the state and federal levels were concerned that, despite state efforts and enactment of the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA), the numbers of children entering the child welfare system continued to rise, and children still lingered in the foster care system for an extended period of time. Additionally, cases of child deaths highlighted by the media fueled critics who believed that preserving and reunifying families was not necessarily an effective way to establish permanen, safe, and stable homes for many children in foster care.

In response, states began enacting legislation and requirements in the 1990s that emphasized child safety and expedited permanency. The provisions included holding permanency hearings sooner for children in state care, practicing concurrent planning, and implementing a more expedited track to filing termination of parental rights (TPRs) for abandoned children or unresponsive parents.

Beginning in spring of 2000, Westat and Chapin Hall Center for Children met with public and private child welfare staff at the state and county levels to discuss issues surrounding permanency for children and reunification policy and practice. Of particular interest was information about the states' policy and practices, how states are adapting to the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requirements, and what changes in policy and practice have taken place in states and localities since ASFA implementation. This report presents an overview of the information on permanency and reunification in child welfare, based on our discussions with state administrators.

Adoption and Safe Families Act

ASFA, Public Law 105-89, was enacted in November 1997. ASFA amended the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act by refocusing efforts to promote safety and permanence for children in the foster care system. Of primary importance was addressing cases where children still lingered in the foster care system for an extended period of time or had returned to foster care after a previous placement because of an unsafe family situation.

ASFA includes criteria to define when efforts to preserve and reunify a family are not required and outlines the court's discretion to make decisions on a child's permanency based on safety considerations. ASFA also limits the amount of time a child can be in the foster care system prior to being placed in a permanent home. Moreover, ASFA requires permanency hearings be held for children no later than 12 months after they enter foster care (6 months earlier than the prior law). The Act also requires, in most cases, that TPR be initiated for any child who has been in state custody for 15 out of the most recent 22 months. ASFA provides financial incentives to states to increase the number of adoptions.

Once enacted, ASFA requirements were effective immediately. The passing of state legislation to comply with ASFA took place in states across the country in 1998 and 1999. By early 1999, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had passed legislation in response to ASFA.2 The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) conducted numerous briefings and training sessions for states and localities on the implementation of ASFA, and DHHS issued final regulations on the Act on January 25, 2000.

ASFA prompted policy and practice changes in state and local child welfare systems across the country. It is important to examine how states perceive permanency post-ASFA and the role reunification plays in the continuum of options to find safety and permanency for children.

1.  For information on the 1994 report, see A Review of Family Preservation and Family Reunification Programs, for the National Evaluation of Family Services, Contract No HHS-100-94-0020, May 30, 1995. See

2.  Children's Defense Fund Action Council Issue Basics, Adoption and Safe Families Act. Retrieved on January 8, 2001 from the World Wide Web: