Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 1.2 An Overview of the Case Process


Decisions that affect the lives of children identified as being at risk of abuse or neglect are made at a variety of junctures and influenced by many different parties in the child welfare system. Caseworkers have a critical role to play in the decision to reunify or establish an alternative permanency plan for a child in foster care, but their decisions are affected by state law and agency policy. It is important to understand the broader context of how cases move through the child welfare system for a full understanding of the ways caseworkers' decisions are influenced and constrained by external forces. In this section, we further describe how cases generally move through the three agencies and the issues that arise and decisions that are made at different points that ultimately affect the decision-making process of the caseworkers themselves. This description presents an overview of the case process as it is designed to occur though exceptions and deviations may occur in individual cases. A section describing how caseworkers actually make decisions follows.

When an allegation of abuse or neglect has been made, the case is investigated by CPS workers. The decision of the CPS worker to remove the child from the home or to provide in-home services to keep the family intact is the first that affects the types of cases that caseworkers ultimately work with in foster care. All three agencies espoused a strong belief in providing preventive services to families so that children need not be removed from the home, except under the most extreme circumstances when their safety is in peril. In-home services and referrals to treatment and other services are commonly provided through CPS or family preservation units to serve children and families in their homes, and workers reported these services are often effective in preventing removal of the children. The cases in which children are removed from the home represent the most serious cases where in-home services have proven ineffective to address the family's problems. Severe mental illness and long-term drug dependency are problems that face many of the parents served by all three agencies and were frequently the underlying cause of the child's removal from the home.

Once the CPS worker determines that the child cannot remain safely in the home, the case may follow a variety of different paths, according to each agency's policy and practice. At Agency C, children are commonly placed in shelter care for up to 60 days as an alternative to the state assuming custody and are typically returned home within this period. This county also has a privately run foster parent program in which children can be placed voluntarily for up to 3 weeks with volunteer foster parents not under the jurisdiction of the agency and without a change in custody from the parent. Therefore, families for whom successful reunification is most likely can be served short-term without the child being brought into the foster care system.

All three agencies stress that keeping children out of foster care whenever possible is of paramount consideration. When it is unsafe for a child to remain in the home with a parent, relative placements can be used in lieu of the state opening a foster care case. In these cases, a change in custody is authorized by the court with the parent's consent. These cases represent ones where permanency with family (though not necessarily with the parents) can be achieved most easily and is accomplished without the child entering the foster care system.

All three agencies expressed a preference for relative care over non-relative foster care, although in Agency C relative care is primarily used as a diversion from the child welfare system. At Agencies A and B, children are often placed with relatives once they are removed from their homes and enter the child welfare system. The relatives can be either licensed foster care providers or unlicensed kinship care homes. Whether relatives are licensed or unlicensed does not make a difference in the types of services provided to reunify the child with the parents but does make a difference in whether the relatives receive payment from the state for their care of the child. Licensed relative foster care providers receive the foster care board rate. Relatives who are not licensed are not eligible for state foster care payments, although they can receive cash assistance through child-only Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Workers and administrators at all three agencies ranked permanency goals similarly: 1) reunification, 2) relative placement, 3) adoption, 4) independent living, and 5) permanent foster care.7 Independent living is typically used as an option for older teens who are not likely to be adopted (and often do not want to be). These youths are to receive special services to prepare them for emancipation from the foster care system. Permanent foster care is used as a goal when a foster parent is willing to keep the child in the home until emancipation but is not willing to adopt. Agencies A and B also have a goal of long-term foster care as a permanency option. Long-term foster care is typically in a residential or group home setting or foster home where the placement appears stable and long-term but where there is no formal commitment to keep the child in the placement until emancipation. Long-term foster care is also used when there is some chance that the goal could be changed to reunification, relative placement, or adoption at some future date.

Agency policy regarding the use of relatives to provide temporary placements for children has important implications for the ultimate permanency plans made for a child. When a child cannot be returned home, the child's current living arrangement is the likely first choice to become the permanent placement. When a child is placed with a relative, the transition from a temporary to a permanent placement can be made following the hierarchy of preferred placement options without disrupting the child's placement. When a child is living in a non-relative foster home, permanent placement with a relative would mean moving the child from his or her current placement and disrupting the bond the child may have developed with the foster parent. The upfront decision about where the child is placed while in foster care may well be the decisive factor in determining where the child ends up on a permanent basis. Because many children are adopted by their foster parents, agency policy is to try to appropriately match children with foster parents who would provide good permanent placements for the children if return home is not possible.

Relatives' decisions to become licensed foster care providers can also have an impact on the eventual permanency outcomes for a child. Relatives become licensed to receive the foster care payment to help defray some of the costs of caring for the child, to be eligible for certain services, and in some instances to help protect a child. Workers said that licensed relatives may be less likely to establish a permanent legal relationship which would remove the child from the foster care system and terminate the foster care payment. Although these relatives would generally qualify for an adoption subsidy, relatives are often reluctant to adopt their kin because they do not want to disrupt family ties and see parental rights terminated, or they feel that adoption is unnecessary because of existing blood ties. The net result is that children stay in permanent foster care with their licensed relative caregivers until they are emancipated. Only Agency A has a kinship care subsidized guardianship program (as part of a state pilot project) where relatives can receive a subsidy that is somewhat less than the foster care board rate, if they agree to become the child's legal guardian, and the foster care case is closed by the agency.

Once a child is placed into foster care--either with relatives or nonrelatives--the case is sent to a reunification unit to receive services to try to reunify the family. All three agencies stated that reunification is the initial goal of nearly all cases that come into foster care. Exceptions, as allowed by ASFA, are cases where the parent has been involved in the death of a child's sibling or has caused severe bodily harm to the child placed in care. In these cases, TPR and another permanent placement are considered immediately. As described in the previous section, Agencies A and B both have intensive reunification units in which workers have smaller caseloads and work with a case aide to provide services to families. In Agency A, nearly all cases are referred to the intensive unit immediately, unless a child has been in and out of foster care repeatedly. In Agency B, cases are referred to the intensive reunification unit as space permits, with the criterion only that there is someone in the family--either parent or relative--with whom the worker can actively work to reunify the child. This agency includes permanent relative custody in its definition of reunification. The decision about whether a particular case goes to the intensive reunification unit in Agency B is made by the foster care intake worker, who relies largely upon case information provided by the CPS worker and supervisor. If a case seems appropriate for the intensive unit but there are no available slots, the case is referred to one of the ongoing foster care units. All of the workers in the ongoing foster care units are trained in the Family to Family model and can provide the same services as the intensive unit but cannot spend as much time with the family due to higher caseloads.

Decisions made by the foster care intake worker in Agency B determine which unit a case is sent to and the likelihood that reunification will occur. If the child is 16 years old and the information provided by CPS staff indicates that return home is not a likely option for the child, the case is sent to the independent living unit where the child is prepared for emancipation as the eventual exit from foster care. If the child is very young and return home is not likely, the case might be assigned to the adoption unit on a fast track to adoption. The cases that are sent to the intensive reunification unit are the ones determined to have the greatest chance of being reunified.

At all three agencies, once the case is assigned to a reunification unit, a case staffing occurs to assess the case and assign it to a caseworker within the unit. This staffing includes the supervisor, other unit caseworkers, and the CPS worker or supervisor who discuss the case and any services received prior to the child coming into care. In consultation with the birth parents, supervisor, and sometimes other relatives and foster parents, a service plan is prepared that outlines the steps the birth parents need to take for the child to return home and the timeframe for reunifying the family or establishing an alternate permanency plan. As part of the concurrent planning process, in which workers plan for alternative permanency options if children cannot return home, parents are told about time limits they have to meet or risk loss of the child permanently. Parents are to be told they have between 6 and 12 months to address the problems that brought the child into care.

Cases in the intensive reunification units in Agencies A and B are viewed as being on a fast track to reunification, with reunification expected to occur in 6 to 9 months. The average length of time for cases to reunify in the intensive unit in Agency B is 4.5 months. At Agency A, if the caseworker and supervisor of the intensive unit decide that reunification is not likely to occur within 9 to 12 months, the case is generally transferred to an ongoing unit where reunification services continue, but without the intensive effort. However, if the family is approaching the 12-month mark but is making progress toward reunification and has a good relationship with the intensive worker, the case will typically stay with the original worker until the child returns home. At Agency B, cases are transferred from the intensive unit only when it appears that reunification is unlikely. Depending on the circumstances of the case, the case is transferred to one of the ongoing foster care units, particularly if kinship care or long-term foster care seem likely, to the adoption unit if the plan is to terminate parental rights, or to the independent living unit if the child is 16 or older.

The role played by the courts is an important one because the courts make the final decisions to terminate parental rights, to return children home, and to approve changes in goals to permanent or long-term foster care. Under ASFA, courts are required to hold hearings on a case once a child has been in foster care for 6 months. All three agencies replaced 6-month administrative case review hearings with a formal court hearing. At these hearings, the worker discusses efforts made on behalf of the agency to achieve reunification and discusses the parents' progress toward this end. The birth parents (with legal representation) discuss their compliance with their agency contract, a signed agreement made as during joint case planning with their caseworker, and compliance with court-ordered services. Changes in case plans from reunification to other permanency options are based on a review of the progress a birth parent has made, although it is rare that a goal is changed from reunification at the 6-month hearing.

Workers and an attorney interviewed at Agency A noted that these case hearings are very formal, similar to an evidentiary hearing, and include witnesses testifying for the county and birth parents. These hearings can last for several days. ASFA's addition of the 6-month court hearings, along with an increase in the number of TPR cases, places a heavy burden on the court system and delays in 6- and 12-month hearings are common. One worker at Agency A described situations in which it could take 6 to 9 months to get a court date set to hear a TPR petition.

Workers said that judges recognize the requirement to have a permanency plan within 12 months and recognize that decisions must be made on cases. Workers in two agencies told us that prior to ASFA some judges were very lenient and tended to err on the side of the birth parents, causing workers to sometimes feel the safety of the child was in jeopardy. Since the states updated their laws to meet the federal requirements of ASFA regarding timelines and permanency decisions, workers reported that judges have been stricter in their interpretation of the laws and are generally willing to move cases toward permanency faster. Workers reported that judges usually accept their recommendations on cases, though some judges are still reluctant to move as quickly to TPR in some cases as the workers feel appropriate. One agency administrator said that public defenders for parents have been successful in persuading judges to give parents another chance even when the children have been in care for 4 to 5 years. He noted that "Even with ASFA, judges do what they want to do." For these cases, the agency gives the parents an additional 6 months of services before refiling for TPR. Overall, workers indicated that they thought ASFA is helping to expedite the decision for TPR from the court, and they felt the court acts fairly in reviewing evidence and testimony from both the agency and the birth parents before rendering a decision on TPR.

The role played by foster parents in decisions about permanency is also an important one to consider. Traditionally, the role of foster parents has been limited to providing care to children in their homes, and they had little to no contact or interaction with birth parents. More recently, many States and localities have adopted an approach that utilizes foster parents as a resource in the reunification process. Agency C has a staff member dedicated half-time to run a program designed to encourage mentoring of birth parents by foster parents. This program trains foster parents to work with and understand the complex situations of birth parents. Agencies A and B integrated elements of the Family to Family foster parent mentoring model into their foster parent programs and are beginning to train new foster parents on the importance of helping with the reunification process.

Under ideal circumstances, the foster parent has regular contact with the birth parents, allows visitation in his or her home, models good parenting behavior, and serves as a means of social support for the birth parents while the child is in care and even after the child returns home. However at all three agencies, good relationships between foster parents and birth parents were uncommon, and workers reported that foster parents were often resistant to meeting with birth parents, sometimes due to previous negative experiences with birth parents. Caseworkers felt that when foster parents were willing to work with birth parents, there were positive results in terms of greater visitation and the birth parents viewing the foster parents and agency as less of a threat. However, staff at all three agencies also noted that when good relationships were established between foster parents and birth parents, a common, though unintended consequence was the birth parent's decision to voluntarily relinquish parental rights and consent to adoption of the child by the foster parents. In some cases, voluntary relinquishment resulted in open adoptions, with the birth parents continuing to visit and maintain a relationship with the child after adoption by the foster parents.

7.  Although relative placement was given as a permanent option by Agency C, relatives were usually found through CPS prior to foster care placement so relative placements were rarely used once a child was placed in foster care except in cases of relative adoption.