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


The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) amended the foster care provisions of the Social Security Act for the purpose of promoting safe and permanent living arrangements for children. Prior to ASFA, some foster children continued to linger in out-of-home care while prolonged attempts were made to reunite them with their birth parents. Consideration of the child's need for a permanent home seemed to be forgotten; an alternate permanent home for a child was rarely considered until the child had been in out-of-home care for 18 months. ASFA introduced two key provisions to address the problem of drift and expedite permanency for children. First, the law determines that states need not pursue efforts to prevent removal from home or return a child home if a parent has already lost parental rights to that child's sibling; has committed specific types of felonies, including murder or voluntary manslaughter of the child's sibling; or has subjected the child to aggravated circumstances such as abandonment, torture, chronic abuse, and sexual abuse.1 In these situations, the courts may find that services to preserve or reunite the family, or "reasonable efforts" required under Public Law 96-272 of 1980, are not required. Second, ASFA directs states to begin the process of terminating parental rights by filing a petition with the courts if an infant has been abandoned, the parent committed any of the felonies included in the first provision, or the child has been in foster care 15 of the last 22 months. States may exempt a child from this requirement if the child is placed with a relative, the state has not provided services needed to make the home safe for the child's return, or there exists a compelling reason why filing a petition to terminate parental rights is not in the child's best interest. In response to ASFA, states enacted their own parallel legislation, and by July 1999, all states had laws that mirrored ASFA or were more stringent than federal law. In some states, such legislation was already in place before passage of ASFA.2

This paper focuses on caseworker decision making in reunification cases, and the influence of ASFA and related state laws on the process. This analysis of caseworker decision making provides information and insight into the primary considerations weighed in the decision process, the tools used to facilitate reunification and permanency, agency policy, and caseworker's thoughts and impressions of the rules, tools, and decisions they make that affect children and families. This paper provides a description of how workers said they make decisions, but it is not an evaluation of whether decisions always follow the general principles workers outlined.

Site visits were made to three public child welfare agencies in the greater Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area. Individual one-hour discussions were conducted with a foster care program director and three caseworkers selected by each agency. Additional discussions were held with a county attorney at one agency and a foster parent program coordinator at another, at the request of those agencies. The discussions included questions on agency policy, timelines for permanency, permanency planning practices, services provided, and factors considered when making decisions to return children home or consider other permanency options.

This paper provides

  1. A brief description of the agencies studied,
  2. An overview of the case process,
  3. An examination of caseworkers' decision making, and
  4. Conclusions regarding the implications of the decision-making process for children and families.

1.  States may expand upon the definition of aggravated circumstances.

2.  United States General Accounting Office. (1999). Report on States' Early Experiences Implementing the Adoption and Safe Families Act.Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.