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

12/01/2001

Reuniting children in foster care with their families has been a primary goal of public and private child welfare services for many years. In fact, a major objective of the landmark Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 was to institute timelines to expedite children's discharge from foster care and, to the extent possible, to facilitate a timely return to their families. Moreover, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 allows states to use federal funds to provide family reunification services for the first 15 months after a child enters foster care.

However, this legislation also reduces the number of months that a child may remain in foster care without a permanency hearing from 18 to 12 months, and requires states to file for termination of the rights of parents of children who have spent 15 of the most recent 22 months in foster care. These shortened time frames present special challenges for efforts to reunite children with parents who may have serious problems, such as drug addiction and alcoholism (Hohman and Butt 2201).

Such reduced timelines may have special implications for children of color, since many child welfare studies have identified racial differentials among children in out-of-home care. They have documented the fact that black children are more likely than white children: to be placed in foster care, to be placed in kinship care, and to remain in care for longer time periods (McMurty and Lie 1992; U.S. Children's Bureau 1997; Courtney et. al. 1996).

Several studies have also found racial patterns in parental reunification (McMurty and Lie 1992; Courtney 1994; Wells and Guo 1999). For example, white children are reunified more quickly and at higher rates than black children. What are the reasons for the lower reunification rates of African American children? To what extent is it due to the greater economic deprivation and associated social problems among black families relative to white families? Or, is it a result of racial insensitivity, i.e., are black families with the same characteristics and problems as white families treated differently by the foster care system? This study addresses the role of race in reunification patterns.