Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 2. Reunification From Foster Care in Nine States 1990-1997: Description and Interpretation


Reunification From Foster Care in Nine States:  1990-1997 presents analyses using the Multistate Foster Care Data Archive to describe the basic structure of the exit process from foster care. Children first entering foster care from 1990-1994 were tracked through administrative data for three years after entry. The proportion of children exiting to various living situations (e.g., reunified, in relative placement, adopted, in guardianship, etc.) were assessed by child characteristics, foster care experiences, and the combined influence of age at entry and duration in care on exit patterns. Trends over time and variability across states with respect to different types of exits are presented.

Reunification Analysis.  There are similarities in reunification patterns across all states. This is seen most clearly in the timing of discharges from care — exits by family reunification tend to occur earlier in foster care episodes than do other types of exits. The likelihood of reunification also tends to be similarly related to the same child and case attributes across most states.

There is also extensive variability in reunification patterns across states. This is seen most clearly in the overall prevalence of reunification — as the proportion of foster care exits that are achieved via family reunification varies widely across the nine states.

These apparently contradictory statements are drawn from empirical observation of reunification patterns during the mid-1990s. It is important to note that foster care reunification is not an isolated process, but rather one that is embedded in many other dynamics of state child welfare systems. Reunification levels are influenced greatly by the composition of the foster care population, and depend in part on the decisions that determine placement in foster care.

The prevailing feature of the reunification process is that the likelihood of exit by reunification is highest at the beginning of a child's stay in foster care, and gradually decreases as time in care elapses. For all foster care episodes observed in these data, approximately 8 percent ended in reunification during the first month of care, about 30 percent during the first year in care, and about 40 percent during the first three years in care.

As a result, reunification tends to occur earlier (or for episodes of shorter duration) than other types of foster care exit. This pattern is consistent with two widely held tenets of child welfare practice: that foster care is intended to serve as a temporary intervention in a time of family crisis, and that family reunification is the preferred outcome of placement in alternative care arrangements. For a certain segment of the foster care population, relatively rapid reunification is achieved.

The likelihood of reunification is related to a number of variables describing both child and case characteristics:

Child characteristics. Children more likely to become reunified are those who entered care between the ages of 1 and 11 years, white and Hispanic children, and children from outside of the largest urban counties. Children less likely to be reunified include those who entered foster care as infants or teens, African-American children, and those from the largest urban counties. A child's gender had no relation to reunification.

Case characteristics. Children are more likely to be reunified when they are in their first foster care placement, when their episode involves only one residence (no moves), and for those states where it is measurable, when they are placed with non-relatives. Children are less likely to be reunified if they have reentered foster care, if their episode involves movement between residences, and if they are in kinship placements.

Trends. Under multivariate controls, the likelihood of reunification was decreasing steadily over time. The children who entered foster care in 1994 were 17 percent less likely to exit by reunification than those who entered during 1990.

States. For the most part, the direction of most of these relationships was consistent across states, although there was some variability in magnitudes. This suggests that the reunification process is similar in the different systems.

Reentry Analysis. Overall, 17 percent of the observed family reunifications resulted in the child re-entering foster care within one year of exit. Reentry to foster care is a significant signal that the reunification was not fully successful. A multivariate analysis was performed on the likelihood of reentry after an exit by reunification.

Higher reentry levels were observed for children who entered care during their teenage years, children who had been placed in congregate care arrangements during their stay in foster care, children whose initial spell in care was shorter in duration, children who had previously experienced a reentry to foster care, children from the non-urban counties, and for African-American children.

Lower reentry levels were observed for children who had entered as pre-teens, children who had been placed in family foster homes, children whose previous spell had been longer in duration, children who had experienced only one stay in foster care, children from large urban counties, and for Hispanic children.

The likelihood of reentry after reunification exits was increasing moderately over time.

Adoption Analysis. The age of the child at entry to foster care is the dominant factor in these models. Children who were placed in foster care as newborns (0-2 months of age) had a much greater likelihood of adoption than other children. (Approximately 3 times higher than children who entered at 3-12 months of age, 5 times higher than 1-2 years, etc.) This is a combination of the "attractiveness" of young children to potential adoptive parents and of the increased chance that the birth parents of newborns placed in foster care are at higher risk of losing their parental rights than parents of older children.

Other factors related to increased likelihood of adoption include: children from non-urban counties, white children, children in first foster placements, children in family foster arrangements, and children with longer duration in alternative care.

Factors related to a lower likelihood of adoption include: children from large urban counties, African-American children, children who have reentered foster care at least once, children in congregate care placements, and children with briefer duration of time in foster care.

A substantial increase in adoptions was noted over time, with children who entered foster care in 1993 being over 20 percent more likely to exit via adoption than the children who entered foster care in 1990.