Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 1. Permanency and Reunification Trends in 25 States


Permanency and Reunification Trends in 25 States provides an overview of the types of services and programs provided at the state and local levels to achieve safe reunification outcomes for children. Information on reunification efforts throughout the country that was previously collected for A Review of Family Preservation and Family Reunification Programs,was verified and updated.1  The paper also profiles four reunification programs. These programs demonstrate innovative reunification efforts taking place in communities around the country, and offer examples of collaborative efforts among agencies and intensive reunification services that are helping families.

It is evident when looking at state structure and the delivery of services in the 25 states that the majority of child welfare services are administered at the state-level. However, many states reported an increasing amount of autonomy being passed to the county and local levels. In addition, this review illustrates a trend toward the use of privately contracted service providers. Although most state administrators reported that both the public agency and private contractors share service delivery to clients, in many cases, the public agency is focused on investigative and case planning and management, while private contractors are providing direct treatment services to children and families.

State policies enacted in the late 1990s and the enactment of ASFA have produced significant changes in child welfare policy with a strong emphasis on promoting safety, shortening timelines, expediting permanency, and looking to alternatives for reunification.

Discussions with state administrators demonstrate that ASFA is being taken seriously. Legislative changes to bring state policy and statutes into compliance have been instituted, and administrators are working at the state, county, and local levels to implement new policy and practice. All states have adopted ASFA requirements through legislation.

Instituting and adapting to shortened timelines was a dominant topic of our discussions with administrators. States seem to be focused on ways to abide by the timelines for permanency. As a result, states and their foster care staff recognize the need to make permanency decisions sooner and are looking for any and all tools at their disposal to help deal with the rush for permanency. Those mentioned most often by state administrators included concurrent planning, guardianship, and kinship support.

States reported that reunification is the first permanency option they consider for every child entering care. However, the implementation of the new timelines has given adoption considerable attention. Adoption is commanding a great deal of time and money in states, as illustrated by the number of states that mentioned new adoption initiatives. States are putting much effort into locating new adoptive homes for children, particularly for children who have been in the foster care system for a significant period of time.

Relatives also are receiving an enormous amount of attention. States recognize that relatives are an important resource for permanency for children. States are making an effort to locate relatives as soon as a child comes into care and make them part of the permanency process — providing foster care, participating in case decisionmaking, and even providing adoptive homes for children.

Child permanency is dependent on collaboration between agencies. Some states appear to be renewing their efforts to collaborate with other agencies, the courts, and policy makers to expedite permanency within the new timelines. This can be a very difficult task for overburdened child welfare agencies, particularly when dealing with strained court systems and a lack of appropriate community resources.

States seem to be trying to balance the need to expedite permanency with the desire to reunify families. State administrators report that reunification is still the primary goal for families in the child welfare system. However, as much as states want to preserve families through reunification, they also recognize that letting a child linger in the foster care system is not an adequate response to the needs of the child. State administrators report that they believe the expedited timelines instituted by federal and state law were necessary. Some administrators reported relief by staff, as timelines provided a rationale for terminating a parent's rights and seeking a permanency option other than reunification for children whose parents are not able to resolve issues that brought the child into care. But at the same time, administrators spoke about the concern that permanency would become equivalent to adoption, and reunification would become the exception rather than the norm for families.

State policy makers continue to look for programmatic tools to assist in achieving permanency for children in foster care. Looking at initiatives across states, relative and non-relative homes are being sought to provide permanency for children. Children who have spent years in the foster care system are now part of the "backlog" for whom permanent placements must be found. Some of these children are in their teens and do not want to be adopted. They will remain in state custody with a goal of emancipation or independent living. However, many other children will require a legally permanent relative placement or an adoptive home. As a result, states are spending a great deal of time and money to implement initiatives to find adoptive homes and encourage and support relatives who can provide homes for children.

Despite the apparent push toward adoption, foster care administrators are still optimistic about reunification as a priority and, overall, do not see an about-face on the issue of reunification. They declared a need for proper resources for education of staff and training tools to achieve progress in reunifying families under shortened timelines. Most believed that reunification will remain the first priority among permanency options for families and will maintain priority status through the development of methods to speed the progress of reunification with families.

1.  This review was done as part of the Evaluation of Family Preservation and Reunification Services, under contract from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ASPE.