Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 2. Caseworker Decision Making


Understanding the caseworker decision-making process is key to understanding when and why children are reunified, adopted, or have some other permanency outcome. The decisions made by caseworkers to set and change permanency goals dramatically affect the lives of children and families. With the implementation of ASFA and its strong emphasis on expediting permanency, it is important to consider the influence ASFA has had on how caseworkers make permanency decisions. This section examines caseworkers' decision making in setting and changing permanency goals, the mechanisms used by workers to facilitate reunification and permanency, the primary considerations that weigh in their decisions to return children to their parents or to terminate parental rights, and caseworker's thoughts and impressions on expediting reunification and permanency for children and families. Statements made by caseworkers, in their own words, are presented throughout the section in italics. We caution that the information presented on the decision-making process is a collection of views expressed by the nine caseworkers we spoke to and should not be viewed as representative of the various viewpoints of caseworkers in agencies across the country.

Under ASFA, an agency has 15 months to find a permanent living arrangement for the child who is in foster care. If a child in foster care for 15 out of the most recent 22 months cannot be reunified with his or her parents, TPR proceedings must be initiated and an alternative permanent placement should be found for the child to expedite his or her exit from foster care.8 With the high number of cases on workers' caseloads, the difficulty in working with families who are often angry about their children's removal, and the high caseworker turnover in the child welfare system, we anticipated that agency officials and caseworkers would be disgruntled over the ASFA time requirements. However, agency officials and caseworkers in the agencies we visited told us that they embraced the new time limits. The primary response of caseworkers was that they believe the time restrictions provide support to expedite their cases. They feel that the time requirements give them "permission" to expedite TPR when parents cannot achieve reunification, thus limiting parents' repeated failed efforts to remedy their problems as children languish in foster care for long periods of time.

. . . people would keep trying to reunify and that's what kept kids in care a long time. We wouldn't say that [reunification ] is not working, but would give the parents chance after chance after chance because we think the child needs to go home. But that's not good for the child, keeping them in care for 2 to 3 years while their parents try to get it together.

Moreover, most workers said they believe the time requirements are in the best interest of children for a permanent home.

Children should have permanency, whether it's permanency back home or permanency with a relative or adoptive family. Children should not be in a system, children should be with a family.

Although some people say we don't have enough time, I think that decisions need to be made about kids before the case lingers too long.

Some caseworkers do have conflicting feelings about the time requirements, especially for families with problems that are difficult to address within the 15-month time limit. However, most still believe that the time limits are fair and appropriate.

In fairness to the children the timelines are long enough. These children need permanency. They change and grow daily. Their emotional needs need to be met. It's really sad because I know that sometimes a parent could turn their lives around if they had more time, but we have to be fair to the children. It's too bad parents' needs and children's needs don't mesh, but we have to go with the children's needs.

Our discussions with caseworkers and agency staff indicated that the new time requirements are taken seriously. Caseworkers reported that although they had always been focused on permanency for children, the new law prompts them to work harder at expediting children's permanency. However, there are also indications that there is flexibility in implementing the time requirements. The agencies, workers, and courts are willing to examine children and families on a case-by-case basis to approve time beyond 15 months to work toward reunification when a family's circumstances indicate that reunification could occur with a few additional months of services.

Concurrent planning is the primary tool used by these agencies to comply with the new time requirements. Concurrent planning involves planning and working with the family towards reunification but also arranging for an alternate permanent placement in case reunification is not achieved. Although some caseworkers noted that their agencies had been doing concurrent planning for some time, most workers said that the ASFA time requirements increase the importance of devising an alternative permanency plan for a child at the time the initial permanency plan is made.

I may look at reunification with the parent as a goal but at the same time I look at reunification with a relative also. I work dually on those goals, so if one doesn't work out, I have the other. That's the law now.

Generally, the concurrent planning process is used throughout the case process to meet the goal of establishing permanency within the 15 of 22 month timeframe. Concurrent planning begins when a child is removed from the home. It starts with the decisions made by agency workers to find a temporary placement for the child, as many temporary placements become children's permanent ones. All three agencies attempt to place children with relatives or with compatible foster parents for the initial placement, with the hope that the relatives or foster parents will be willing to adopt the child if the child cannot be returned home.

When the child is first brought into care, workers meet with birth parents and are frank with them about the concurrent planning process, time limits they must meet, and the consequences they face if they do not remedy their behavior and problems within the time limits. Workers then search for an absent parent, or look to relatives or foster parents as an alternative permanent placement for the child. Birth parents are included in the discussion of possible alternate permanency plans and are asked to provide input into where they want the child to live if the child cannot be returned home. The alternate plan is generally treated as a "secondary" goal or backup plan. Workers most commonly see the child's temporary placement, whether with relatives or non-relative foster parents, as the most probable alternate permanent placement. Caseworkers continue to focus on reunification as the primary goal but begin to make more concrete arrangements for implementing the alternate plan, as reunification appears less likely over time. Once a goal is changed from reunification, the alternate plan is put in place. In two of the agencies visited, concurrent planning continues even after the initial goal of reunification is changed to adoption. Parents continue to receive services for reunification after the case is transferred to the adoption unit and reunification sometimes takes place from the adoption unit.

Workers believe that concurrent planning is a fair and necessary part of the permanency process and helps expedite permanency. They believe it is fair because birth parents are informed from the time of case planning what is expected of them and what the consequences of noncompliance will be.

We work concurrently . . . from the beginning. I think this is fair to parents. I tell parents this may sound like we are threatening them, but we really aren't. We are just explaining what the realities are and what has to be done or the goal will be changed. I feel this is only fair to parents so that they don't lose track of time and what needs to be done to get their kids back.

Although workers have always been responsible for making alternate permanent arrangements for children when they could not return home, in the past workers typically did not begin planning for another option when the child was first brought into care but waited until reunification appeared very unlikely. Parents were informed at that point that alternate arrangements were being made for their children. The net effect was a slower process for establishing permanency both because the worker did not start making concrete arrangements for an alternate plan early on and because the parents often did not believe that their children would truly be removed from them on a permanent basis until there was clear evidence of a viable alternate plan. The real threat of losing their children can create a crisis for the parents which may spur them to try to address the problems that brought the child into care. However, when parents do not start addressing their problems until children have been in care for several months, this prolongs the amount of time a child is in foster care.

Although workers feel that concurrent planning is fair to parents, some indicated that it can create a tension between the worker and the parents when the worker is trying to help the family reunify and at the same time work toward an alternate arrangement.

It [concurrent planning] is very, very difficult for several reasons. It's hard to work with a parent with a goal of reunification while at the same time looking into relative resources and possible adoption resources. . . . I currently have a case with a 7 year old child where I am working with the mother on reunification which is the primary goal, but the case has a secondary goal of relative placement with a godmother. While I am working with the birth mother, I am also doing clearances on the other party to get her ready for a possible placement. I also let the parent know that this is a mandate and there is a timeline that we work towards and why. But it creates a conflict in the helping relationship when we are saying that we want them to get services, to get their job back, and for things to work out. But at the same time we are asking the parent if they don't comply who else would they like to take care of their child.

For parents who experienced the placement of other children in out-of-home care prior to ASFA and were accustomed to open-ended services with little threat of permanent removal of the child, the new concurrent planning process can be particularly contentious.

For these parents it can be frustrating and I often hear from them that they don't feel I am working for them (the parent) but only working to take their kids away and place them with another family.

A worker spoke of the cognitive complexity involved in working on plans for two opposing goals at the same time.

It's hard to make the switch in your brain to work on both [reunification and concurrent planning]. But I tell myself that I have to document what's going on in the case. I may be working on a goal of return home, but need to document everything happening, knowing that the case may have to go to termination.

Concurrent planning weaves through the entire decision-making process as workers evaluate what parents need to do to have a child returned home, what services are necessary and available to help parents meet their goals, the progress of parents, and the best placement for the child if reunification is not possible.

Establishing an initial permanency plan. Regardless of whether a case is served by an intensive or ongoing reunification unit, nearly all cases have an initial goal of reunification. A worker conducts an initial assessment of a family's needs, which often includes clinical evaluations to determine the extent of child and family problems. The factors considered in this initial assessment include the severity of the problems that brought the child into care, the parent's commitment to seeing the child returned, prior services received to prevent placement, and previous history with the child welfare system. The worker also takes these factors into consideration when designing a service plan for the parent and when evaluating the likelihood that reunification can occur within the ASFA time limits.

Agencies' policies call for a planning meeting to be scheduled within 48 hours of the placement if possible. The planning meeting involves the birth parents and may also include family relatives, close friends of the family, foster parents, and the children if they are old enough to participate and feel comfortable in doing so. At the planning meeting, the caseworker outlines the reasons why the child was brought into care, the steps parents need to take to address the conditions that brought the child into care, and the services available to families to help them with their problems. Service goals and timeframes for achieving these goals are set. As described above, caseworkers also discuss the concurrent planning process and the timelines that must be met for reunification to occur or for alternative permanency to be established. Relatives or close family friends who attend the meeting are asked to provide input into the plan, including the discussion of alternate placement options. The purpose of the meeting is to involve as many people as possible who can provide support for the parents and to keep the parents mindful of the timelines that must be met for reunification to occur.

When the initial service plan and goals are being developed, we begin talking to the parent and other parties [telling them] that if we cannot return the child home safely, what to expect with regards to a change of goal-we put the parents and other parties on alert. We discuss the hierarchy of goals and the differences between the goals and what the implications are for the parents, relatives, and child. We discuss the responsibility of the parents financially and regarding visitation; about the legal timelines so that they understand what type of compulsion everybody is under in the process. . . . There is also input from the other parties on what they believe needs to be done to achieve reunification.

The service plan outlines services the worker and parents deem necessary to address the family's problems so that the child can return home. Caseworkers and agency administrators reported a wide range of services available to families, including individual and family therapy, substance abuse inpatient and outpatient treatment, mental health treatment, support groups, parenting classes, anger management classes, job-training, transportation, medical services, access to Section 8 housing, and day care. In addition, workers reported the availability of concrete help with furniture, clothing, and rental deposits. Some agency programs also provide families with in-home services in parenting and household management.

Unlike many other areas in the country, the three agencies are situated in relatively resource-rich environments, and workers reported that they had little difficulty accessing services for children and families, including substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment. Although one worker noted that there was sometimes a waiting list for mental health treatment at one agency, most other workers said that it was rare that necessary services were unavailable to families who wanted them. Workers reported that a much more common problem was parents' failure to utilize available services.

Most caseworkers said that they can tell within the first few months whether birth parents intend to make progress toward reunification. Families who indicate a strong desire to have the children returned and who immediately start services and visit their children on a regular basis are good candidates for reunification. Workers conduct ongoing assessments of parents' progress between the initial planning meeting and the 6-month court review. Workers receive input from a variety of sources as they evaluate the likelihood of reunification and make decisions about the case. Workers most often mentioned peer advice and consultation as important elements in assessing a case, particularly for the benefit of drawing on the various experiences of other agency staff. Workers discuss the progress of their cases with their supervisors on a weekly or bi-weekly basis; they discuss cases with colleagues within their unit on an informal basis, and they have formal staffings to discuss cases when a change in goal from reunification to another option is being considered. Workers also receive provider input from service progress reports (e.g., reports from therapists, substance abuse counselors, mental health counselors) on the compliance and progress of the parents in addressing their problems.

Evaluating parent progress. Decisions to return a child to the home of the parents can be made at any time when the worker determines that sufficient progress has been made to remedy the problems that brought the child into care, and the court concurs with the assessment. Workers reported that the issues essential to their decisions to return a child home are: 1) parent compliance with services, 2) safety of the child, 3) visitation, and 4) the child's wishes and well-being. By far, the issue mentioned most frequently by caseworkers when deciding whether to return a child home was the birth parents' compliance with the court's order and the agency's service agreement. Specifically, caseworkers look at whether the birth parents have complied with service referrals, whether the parents have actively participated in treatment, whether parents' behavior has changed, whether the parents have been drug free if they had substance abuse problems, and whether the parents are actively participating in plans for the child's daily activities and schooling.

This (returning home) is not an easy decision and I have had some uneasy feelings about some cases. We have to look at operating within the letter of the law. Parents may do everything to comply with the court order, but we may still have a gut feeling that something is not right. The court doesn't care about my gut feeling . . . . We look at what parents have done. Have parents followed the court order? Have parents gone to counseling? We talk to the counselor about whether there has been any intrinsic change in the parent. Does the therapist feel the children will be safe? Have parents completed their drug counseling and have been clean for at least 6 to 9 months? Are the parents working? Are parents visiting their kids and what are the visits like? We collect data from all sources and make a decision. This does not mean everything is going to be 100 percent. There may be some soft areas that continue to need to be shored up, which is why we generally return the children under the agency's protective supervision, giving us 6 more months to observe and provide assistance.

The caseworker's evaluation of the safety of the home is also critical in the decision to reunify. Safety issues include an assessment of the risk of further maltreatment, evidence regarding what has actually changed in the home and in the birth parent's behavior to make the home safe for the child, whether the parents can discipline the child appropriately, and whether the parents are capable of caring for the child and meeting the child's daily needs by providing adequate housing, financial stability, and day care.

Visitation is also a key indicator that caseworkers said they use to determine whether a child is ready to go home. Lack of visitation by the birth parents is an early indicator that reunification will not take place. Workers said they monitor visitation closely and that visits generally progress from being supervised visits that occur in the agency office to unsupervised visits in the community. Workers look at whether the birth parent visits regularly and whether there are good child-parent interactions during visits or whether the child acts out around the parents.

Finally, the child's wishes and an assessment of the child's overall well-being are important determinants of whether a child may be returned home. Although the desire to return home is strong for most children, others do not wish to be returned home. In some cases, return home is determined to be contrary to the best interests of the child, even when the parents have complied with services.

In some cases the parents are pretty compliant but it's still not in the kid's best interest to go home, so you have to weigh both of those things. One case is where child is emotionally disturbed and was sexually abused while in the parents' care, though not by them. Mom was a substance abuser and there's sex abuse rampant in this family and in the community where they live. Mom's gotten off drugs and they've gotten one of their children back but this child doesn't feel safe and doesn't feel protected, despite all his therapy. . . . It doesn't work for him. The parents have done everything--there isn't anything else for us to ask the parents to do but it's not working for him and as we have more unsupervised visits to work toward reunification, he regresses and gets suicidal. He's 9. The parents are somewhat limited intellectually and though they've done everything, they really don't understand the impact of the sex abuse on him and why he doesn't feel safe. They think he should be returned home and they don't understand why he doesn't trust them. . . . The plan has recently been changed to adoption. We've been working on this case for about 3 years.

Changing permanency plans. Changing the permanency goal from reunification to another permanency option can occur at any time during the case process but most commonly occurs after the family has received reunification services for 9 to 12 months. Our discussions with workers revealed three general types of birth parents--those who made no effort to achieve reunification during the first 12 months the child was in care, those who made some effort to achieve reunification, and those who actively worked toward reunification from the time of placement. Workers were united in expressing their willingness to give birth parents every opportunity possible to make efforts toward reunification. Workers explained that if parents made some progress toward meeting their goals for reunification, even a small effort, they would continue to work with the parent. However, if the birth parents made little or no effort to comply with referrals to evaluations, attend services, and/or did not visit or have contact with their children, workers began the process of changing the permanency plan and working toward another option.

I look at what progress the parent is making . . . . If a parent refuses to participate in services or to make progress towards remediating the problems that brought the child into care . . . then I may change the goal to adoption at that time.

For caseworkers, case decisions are easier if they have parents who are cooperative and compliant from the beginning or if parents are completely noncompliant. Caseworkers recalled the cases they had where the goal was always reunification and they had no doubt that the parents would eventually get their children back from the first weeks of the case.

I currently have a case where it is clear that there should be success. The parent has received services and continues to be sober, the child is doing very well in a group home and is succeeding in school, and the parent is participating in his planning at the group home. It is clear when things are going to work out because everything is going as it should--parents' work hard to do what they know needs to get done.

However, caseworkers more often discussed cases where the birth parents made no effort to remedy the situation that brought their child into care. Caseworkers reported that they began moving these cases toward other permanency options within the first few months after they received the case, particularly if they were ongoing foster care workers who received a case that had already received intensive services from an intensive reunification unit. Noncompliance was often due to a parent's chronic substance abuse or mental illness.

I have a lot of parents who are absolutely noncompliant--heavily substance-abusing who basically disappear and parents who are on their sixth or seventh child the department has been involved with. I have one case right now where I have never met the mother. She never came to a court hearing and she never responded to a letter. In those cases, I send a letter saying we've changed the plan and in those cases they usually don't end up objecting to the guardianship petitions.

If there's no response over a long period of time or [the parent] made minimal progress and no time likely in the near future would make enough progress to adequately care for the children . . . . I've had a few cases where the person had such significant mental health issues that we've moved to adoption quickly because we already had documentation from a clinician that this person would never be able to parent safely.

Cases where parents are very compliant or very non-compliant with service plans are the easy ones for workers to decide what the permanency goals should be. Caseworkers told us that the real difficulty comes when they have to decide whether parents who are making some effort toward reunification will ever truly meet their service goals and be able to have the children returned home. These decisions are particularly difficult when the parents' problems involve substance abuse or mental illness, problems that are not easily addressed within ASFA's 15 month timeframe for achieving permanency.

My biggest concern, timewise, is with substance abuse issues because they tend to take a lot longer time to assess and treat. And if a parent relapses, they have to go back into treatment. Plus the monitoring that takes place for a parent that has a substance abuse problem.

We are now getting more families with a history of mental illness and a lot of drug stuff, which is very difficult to change in 9 months. Someone can be using [drugs] for 10 years and we are expected to change this in 9 months?

Some caseworkers felt that families with severe problems could ultimately be reunified, if they were able to receive services for more than 15 months.

When we offer services for more than 15 or 24 months, more kids go home. People take and need a long time to deal with very serious problems that they have. That's a dilemma. The law says kids need permanent places but we know mental health and substance abuse issues take a long period of time, even with a parent who is ready, willing, and able. I know more parents would get their kids returned if services were longer, but is that fair to the kids? It's a difficult question.

Often workers found it was difficult to engage parents in actively working to have their children return home, and it was not until the point of TPR that parents began actively seeking services to keep from losing their children permanently. A few workers were critical of parents who waited until this point. However, some birth parents were successful at turning things around at this late point in the process and could be successfully reunified.

For these most difficult cases, workers and the court often have to weigh the various aspects of cases and decide what is truly in the best interest of the child. Based on the individual characteristics of the children and families, sometimes the case moves to TPR, and other times the worker continues to work toward reunification. One worker discussed a case where she believed that reunification would not be successful, and she should terminate parental rights, despite progress made by the parents.

I had one case with two parents who had not been taking care of themselves. They were in poor health and said they didn't know if they would keep using drugs. They didn't have adequate housing or employment. One and a half years had gone by and the parents were pretty consistent with visits but didn't have a good understanding of one child's special educational needs . . . . Even though there was something of a bond and they had nice visits with the kids, the parents could barely take care of themselves, how were they going to take care of two kids and one with special needs? I could have worked with these parents forever but they couldn't do it.

Workers and administrators also noted that there were cases that reached the 15- month time limit and where the parents continued to have significant problems that barred the return of the child but where decisions were made by workers and the court to continue to work toward reunification.

The most difficult cases for courts is when the children are between ages 7 and 11. These kids have bonded relationships with their parents, even though the parents are dysfunctional and not improving. When you weigh in the best interest for the children and you are talking about doing TPR with kids that are least likely to be adopted, you see everyone including the courts wanting to give these situations more time and chances. It doesn't matter what the legislation says, if the reality is there are not going to be permanent homes and the kids are going to be traumatized by the separation, there is a tendency to give the case more time.

At the point at which a worker decides that reunification is not going to take place, the worker needs to move on the backup permanency plan. The alternate permanency plan may or may not include a decision to seek TPR. A TPR petition must be filed before a child can be adopted. However, many children are given alternate permanency plans that do not include adoption. These cases may occur when the child is considered to be a poor candidate for adoption, either because the child is living with relatives who feel adoption is not necessary, because the child is older, or because the child does not want to be adopted. As children age, they become less and less likely to be adopted. Although some workers stated that they were getting more adoptions completed with older children who were once considered to be unadoptable due to their age, adoption of teens is still rare. When workers consider whether to file a petition for TPR, the child's age, the availability of adoptive homes, the child's attachment to the birth parents, and his or her bonding with the foster parents are all important factors that weigh into the worker's decision.

We have to justify a lot now. We give parents a reasonable amount of chances and all kinds of services and if they can't achieve the goals of the service plan then we have to move along. Of course, each case is different. If a child is 10 years old and has been with the parent for his whole life and desperately wants to go back, we're not going to ride roughshod over that child's attachment. But if the child has bonded with relatives or foster parents and is ready to move on, the child's needs are primary.

Under ASFA, workers must justify why TPR and adoption are not being pursued after the child has been in the system for 15 months. If a child is not going to be adopted or placed in the permanent custody of a relative, ASFA requires that the child still have some type of permanency established. Permanency options other than reunification, adoption, and relative placement include independent living and permanent foster care. Independent living is the permanency goal for children who are close to emancipation, generally 16 or 17 years of age. While workers at all three agencies stated that permanent foster care is an option of last resort, the courts are willing to sanction permanent foster care as a permanency goal for children who do not want to be adopted, who are living with relatives licensed as foster parents who do not wish to adopt, and those children for whom adoptive placements are not likely to be found.

Children may be 14 or 15 and not want to be adopted or relatives may not want to adopt and it's considered in the child's best interest not to disrupt a placement that's working for them by looking for some other placement that may or may not lead to permanency.

I have five teens on my caseload who came into care as teens and could not return home so we set up permanent foster care placements. The kids didn't wish to have their identity changed at this stage of their lives.

The dilemma of how to establish permanency for older children is one with which agencies and workers struggle.

I do not think 15 months is long enough in these cases with older kids. I would like to be able to have some type of open arrangement with pre-teens and adolescent kids where it is acceptable for the kids to be in long-term foster care and also have a relationship with their birth parent. So it is clear the kids won't be going home, but they can still maintain some type of relationship. In essence, I think the kids should be allowed to grow up. When these kids get to be 18, it doesn't matter what their legal status is, they will go and find their birth parents. So it is very artificial to go and do all the court work on a case, when you know the kid will end up returning to the parents. The problem is that the agency doesn't have a "middle area" that says it is ok to have these kids in long-term foster care.

Caseworkers told us that cases most likely to have a change of plan to adoption and go through TPR are those where the children are younger and where parents are noncompliant, nonresponsive or have simply given up on working toward reunification. Caseworkers explained that as part of their concurrent planning process, they document cases from the very beginning so that if TPR is necessary down the road, they have the information needed to make a strong case for why it is justified. There is a significant burden placed on the department to prove to the court that a case should have a goal changed to adoption with the resulting TPR. As part of the process for TPR, caseworkers hold a staffing meeting with other agency staff and county attorneys to determine if a case warrants TPR, and if not, what additional proof is needed to file the petition.

The process (to determine TPR) is an ongoing one from the beginning. We spend time consulting with each other and practicing peer supervision to bring in the various experiences with workers. We will "staff" a case and discuss what has been done for the family, what has been available to the parents and child. We look at what the parents' participation has been, if they have had treatment then we get a prognosis from the treatment provider. We come to a clinical decision that TPR is what is best for the child and that the prognosis for the family is that they are not going to be able to provide safety for the child in a timely manner. We also run these situations by our attorney and provide all information to him and then we can get from a legal standpoint what our case would be as well. The staffing of a case provides the ability to see proof of a decision -- whether the decision is based on just feelings the worker has or if there is actually concrete proof.

[If] there's been no progress . . . it's going to be staffed for legal sufficiency about whether we should change the case plan . . . . If we don't have legal sufficiency, we discuss what's missing or whether enough time has been given. We may give the parent another 90 days. . . . I would meet with the parent and say, "ok, we have another 90 days and these things have to be accomplished or we'll change the plan to something else."

Caseworkers and administrators said that TPR is a very lengthy and difficult process. It is typically traumatic for all parties involved and can take many months to schedule due to the court's overburdened docket. When possible, workers try to get parents to voluntarily relinquish their rights. Mediation is one method used to expedite court matters in cases and particularly to ease the struggle between birth parents and agency workers and help achieve voluntary relinquishing of parental rights. Mediation programs are either currently used or in the planning stages at the agencies we visited. If mediation is successful, the amount of time for the TPR process is lessened, meaning lower costs for the agency and courts and less time in care for the child. Moreover, voluntary TPR was more often cited as leading to open adoptions, allowing the birth parents to maintain some contact with their children. The voluntary relinquishment of rights is sometimes facilitated by good relationships that have developed between the foster and birth parents.

Caseworkers play a powerful role in shaping children's futures. The decisions they make in developing initial permanency plans, evaluating parent progress, and making alternate arrangements for permanency ultimately determine who is allowed to raise a child. Our discussion of caseworker decision making captures the overarching decision-making process: the procedures that caseworkers follow, the timeframes they work within, the factors they weigh, and the role of other parties in informing and shaping permanency plans. All of the agencies had formal policies and procedures in place to help caseworker decision making occur in a timely fashion with input and oversight from other parties. Workers were very consistent in describing these procedures, but whether they are followed in most cases cannot be determined by this research. Instead, from discussions with agency personnel, we have the opportunity to highlight the critical issues caseworkers consider in determining permanency for children and comment upon the implications for children and family outcomes.

8.  Certain exceptions to TPR may apply in individual cases. For instance if the child is in the care of a relative, the state documents a compelling reason why filing TPR is not in the best interest of the child, or the state has not provided the family with services deemed necessary for the child to return home safely.