Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 1.3 Exit Destination by Case Characteristics


Spell sequence is defined by whether this is the first foster care experience for the child or a reentry spell in care. Children exiting from their first spell in foster care are more likely to be reunified than children who have already left care and then reentered (.583 vs. .479). Children exiting first spells are also more likely to exit to relative care (.073 vs. .057) and to be adopted from care (.123 vs. .075). Runaway and "other" exits are far more common for reentrants (.180 and .169) than for children experiencing a first spell in care (.055 and .138).

Duration of spell is the length of stay in a completed spell in care. By the design of this study population, all spells with duration of less than three years are completed, while approximately three-fifths of the spells with duration of three years or more are censored. The proportion of reunifications decreases as the length of stay in foster care increases. For all spells that exit in less than 18 months, over two-thirds end with family reunification. In contrast, of the completed spells that lasted over 3 years, less than one-quarter (.224) ended through reunification. Exits to relatives follow a similar pattern to reunification. Adoptive exits and exits by aging out are most likely from long spells in foster care. One implication of shorter spells showing high levels of reunification is that reunification tends to occur more quickly than other exits.

Placement type is defined by the of primary type of care experienced during a spell. A spell is classified as kinship care,5 congregate care (institution and group home), or nonrelative foster care if the child spent more than one-half of their days in care in that type of placement. If no care type was primary, then the spell is classified as being of "mixed" type. Among observed exits, children in kinship placements are the most likely to be reunified with their families (.632). This suggests that kinship care can in some cases work to maintain family ties during the period of removal from the home. This statistic must be interpreted cautiously, though, because children in kinship placement also tend to remain in care the longest, and were the least likely to exit at all within the study period.6 Only two-thirds of the kinship placement spells were completed, while 85 percent of children in nonrelative foster placements and 93 percent of children in congregate care facilities have observed exits. Children exiting congregate care spells were the least likely to reunify (.514), and the most likely to exit by runaway (.198) or "other" exit (.180). Children in nonrelative foster care were much more likely to be adopted (.164) than children in other placements.

Placement stability is defined by the number of different physical placements (and caregivers) a child experiences within a spell in care. Reunification is far more likely from a foster care spell that involves placement in only one home or facility. Two-thirds (.635) of the children who exited from a one-placement spell returned home upon exit. As the number of placements within a spell increases, the reunification rate decreases. A similar pattern applies to relative exits.

Adoptions are more common among children exiting spells with multiple placements. One explanation is that adoptive placements usually require some movement, as children on the adoptive track are often shifted into a pre-adoptive foster care arrangements.

5.  Please note that kinship care is not tracked in Alabama, Michigan, and Wisconsin because it is not fully identifiable in their data systems. Kinship placements in these states are combined with nonrelative foster care. Fortunately, for these analyses, none of these states uses kinship placement with the frequency that Illinois, New York, and California do.

6.  Looking at reunification as a proportion for all entries (rather than exits) illustrates the issue discussed here. During the period of observation, about 43 percent of children in kinship care were reunified, as compared to 48 percent of children in nonrelative foster care and congregate care. Therefore, while a higher proportion of exits from kin care were by reunification, a lower proportion of kinship care cases were observed to result in reunification.