Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 1.1 Agency Background


Discussions with caseworkers and other agency staff were conducted at three public child welfare agencies located in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area. The agencies were chosen to reflect a cross-section of geographic and demographic variations in client population. All three agencies were organized under county-administered, state-supervised child welfare systems. One agency had more control at the local level than the others.

Overall, agency workers we talked to were well educated and trained.3 The average length of time workers had been employed by their current agency was 7.8 years, ranging from 13 months to more than 20 years. Most of the workers had prior work experience at other public and private agencies as caseworkers, protective service workers, or mental health workers. All of the workers had a bachelor's degree and four of the nine had master's degrees.4 Most of the workers also had many hours of additional training on subjects such as mental health issues, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and handling difficult clients.

Agency A is located in a large, densely populated, resource-rich, suburban county that serves approximately 600 children in foster care per year. The agency has 35 caseworkers and 7 supervisors working with out-of-home cases in the county. The foster care population in the county is 54 percent African-American, 28 percent White, 11 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian, and 5 percent unknown or some other race/ethnicity. About 25 percent of the children in out-of-home-care are placed with relatives. In 1999, 174 children exited the foster care system, about 29 percent of all those in foster care during the year.5

Agency A has an intensive reunification unit as well as ongoing foster care units serving children in out-of-home placement. Cases in the intensive reunification unit receive intensive services from the time of placement, provided by a caseworker and a case aide to expedite the family's reunification. Workers in the intensive unit carry smaller caseloads than ongoing foster care workers, typically around 14 children compared to an average of 25 for ongoing workers. All cases entering the foster care system are initially referred to the intensive reunification unit unless the child had been in out-of-home care many times or there are other extenuating circumstances surrounding the case (such as the parent's involvement in the death of another child) that make reunification unlikely.

Cases are served in the intensive reunification unit for up to 9 months, with the goal of reunifying the child and family within that time. The case can be transferred to another unit at any point if it is determined that rapid reunification within 9 months is unlikely. The ongoing units serve children in all types of out-of-home placements and often receive the most difficult cases to reunify -- those transferred from the intensive unit after efforts at rapid reunification have proven unsuccessful.

The agency reported making reunification its first choice for permanency. The agency is committed to giving parents a good chance to have their children returned by providing intensive reunification efforts for several months. Services provided to work toward the goal of reunification are determined on an individual basis and can include substance abuse treatment, mental health services, individual and family therapy, support groups, parenting classes, housing assistance, transportation, job search assistance, and literacy training. If after receiving services for 9 to 12 months the birth parents do not demonstratively make a good effort toward reunification, the agency considers an alternative permanency plan. If the plan for the child is adoption, the agency conducts a legal sufficiency staffing on the case to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant a petition to terminate parental rights (TPR). This is a change in policy for the agency. Prior to ASFA, the agency typically waited at least 15 months before taking any action for TPR and making another permanency plan. Once a decision is made to pursue adoption, the case is transferred to the adoption unit.

When a child is successfully reunified with his or her parents and returned home, aftercare services are provided for 6 months. At this time, the child is still committed to the agency and still under the court's jurisdiction. Policy requires the worker to visit the home once a month to monitor and check on the family and arrange any necessary services, including a parent aide to help the family with budgeting, scheduling, and finding day care.

Agency B is located in a densely populated, less affluent, suburban county. This agency served 976 children in foster care in 1999 with a staff of 57 caseworkers and 10 supervisors. Approximately 85 percent of the foster care population in the county is African-American. About 25 percent of the children in care are placed with relatives in paid or unpaid kinship care arrangements. In 1999, 279 (29%) of the 976 children in foster care during the year exited the foster care system. Of those children who exited foster care, 146 (52%) were reunified with a parent or relative (both return to parent and permanent placement with relatives outside the home of origin were considered as "reunification" in this county), 59 (21%) were adopted, and 78 (28%) were emancipated.

This agency has an intensive reunification unit, four ongoing foster care units in which reunification is the primary plan, two adoption units, two independent living units, and one unit that serves youth in residential placement. The intensive reunification unit has been in operation for about 8 years. Cases in the intensive unit are served by a team of a caseworker and case aide using an approach that emphasizes families' strengths. The workers in this unit generally have more access to flexible funds to provide special services than do workers in other units. Caseworkers in the intensive unit carry a caseload of 10 to 14 children and can provide up to 15 hours of services per week to a single family. The average time for reunification for cases in this unit is 4.5 months.

One of the four ongoing foster care units is a student field placement unit with five to seven students who have very small caseloads. Workers in the other three ongoing foster care units are trained in The Annie E. Casey Foundation's Family to Family model of community-based foster care.6 Caseworkers in these ongoing foster care units carry caseloads of about 18-20 children and their caseloads include children in long-term foster care, kinship placements, and cases with a goal of reunification. The average length of stay for children in these ongoing units is 18 months.

Cases are typically assigned to the intensive reunification unit if there is a parent or relative who is willing to work toward reunification and if there are sufficient openings in the intensive unit. Services provided by both intensive and ongoing foster care units are based on the particular needs of the family but may include psychological evaluations, parenting classes, anger management classes, counseling, substance abuse treatment, day care, transportation, medical assistance, vouchers for Section 8 housing, furniture, help applying for public assistance, food, and clothing.

Reunification either with the birth parents or a relative is the first outcome the agency works to achieve in all cases. However, the foster care director noted that the agency had also always been very mindful of the need to move children along in the system and not let them drift in foster care. Reunification services are typically provided to families for up to 15 months and can be extended if it is believed a longer service period will lead to a successful reunification.

When the caseworker determines there has been no progress toward reunification and the parents are not able to achieve the service plan goals, a permanency planning staffing is scheduled to determine if the case goal should be changed to adoption or another permanency plan. Depending on the circumstances of the case, this decision can take place anytime between 6 and 15 months after the child entered care. Reunification services continue to be provided to the parents even after the case plan is changed to adoption, and cases are sometimes reunified from the adoption unit.

When a child is returned home, custody is transferred to the parents, and the department maintains protective supervision of the child for 6 to 12 months while aftercare services are provided to the family. The worker is to contact the family at least monthly, and the worker and/or a case aide assists the family as necessary by providing assistance with parenting skills, helping with budgeting and planning meals, and providing transportation. Aftercare services can be provided to the family for up to 4 to 6 hours per week, as required.

Agency C is located in an area that had traditionally been rural, but in the past few years has increased in population and is rapidly becoming more suburban. The agency served 48 children in foster care between July 1998 and June 1999. There are three foster care caseworkers and one supervisor. Most foster care cases come from the suburban areas of the county, with only a few cases coming from truly rural sections. The foster care population in the county on June 30, 1999 was 42 percent White, 27 percent African-American, 25 percent multi-racial (White/African-American), 3 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent reported as "other." No children in care at this agency are placed with relatives in temporary kinship care arrangements. Twelve children (25% of the foster care population served in Fiscal Year (FY) 1999) exited foster care during FY99. Of those children who exited foster care, 1 child (8%) was reunified, 9 (75%) were adopted, and 2 (17%) were emancipated.

Agency C does not have an intensive reunification unit. All cases that come into foster care are served by workers in the one foster care unit. The agency emphasizes using intensive upfront services such as family preservation for those families at risk of having children placed in foster care. Most of the families whose children eventually come into foster care have received these upfront, in-home services. The agency generally does not serve children in relative placements. Child Protective Service (CPS) workers make a strenuous effort to locate any available relatives prior to placement. When relatives are found, they are nearly always given legal custody of the child upfront, diverting the case from the foster care system. The foster care unit generally serves the most difficult cases--those with very complex, extensive child or family problems that were not addressed successfully through preventive or in-home services -- and cases in which extended family were not available for a child's care. As a result, most children in the foster care unit are not likely to return home. Caseworkers carry an average caseload of 15-20 children.

The agency director reported that the agency expends a great deal of effort trying to keep children out of foster care, as is also the case in the other two agencies. All cases entering foster care have an initial goal of reunification. The only exceptions are cases that had previously been in foster care, which can go directly to the adoption unit under certain circumstances. Once a child is placed in care, services provided to reunify the family include individual and family therapy for the parents and child, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, parenting classes, employment and training services, day care, and medical services. If birth parents refuse to participate in services or make no progress toward remedying their problems within 6 months of placement, the worker considers changing the goal to adoption.

Agency C maintains legal custody of the child and gives physical custody to parents when a child returns home. This custody arrangement generally lasts for a minimum of 6 months and allows the agency to immediately remove the child without going to court if there is any question of the child's safety at home. Aftercare services are provided by a contractual agency for up to 20 hours per week and include services to improve parenting skills and assistance in helping the child make the transition back into the family.

3.  It is important to remember that the individual workers we spoke with were chosen by their agencies and likely represented the agencies' more exemplary workers. However, the agencies provided access to workers with varied backgrounds and experiences, from different reunification programs (intensive reunification vs. ongoing foster care units), and who served various types of families.

4.  Three of the four had masters in social work degrees.

5.  No information was available on the number of children who were reunified, adopted, or had other exit outcomes.

6.  This site was a pilot site for Family to Family. This model emphasizes a community-based approach to foster care which includes placing children in their neighborhoods, involving foster families as team members in reunification efforts, and investing in the neighborhood as a resource for children and families.