The first section of this report summarizes information and trends on permanency and reunification in 25 states. Westat and Chapin Hall Center for Children staff spoke to state administrators in 25 states to update information on permanency and reunification policy and practices. Topics discussed included: state system structure, permanency options in the state, state viewpoints on permanency and reunification, service provider structure, changes in the state prompted by ASFA, current child welfare initiatives, and future options for permanency and reunification for families. For a list of all the states included in the report and additional information on individual states, see Appendix A.
State administrators were asked to describe their child welfare system structure to provide context for further state information on permanency and reunification. Data provided by the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) Annual Foster Care Database and Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) Yearbook provide an illustration of the number of children in out-of-home care in their states. Estimates indicate that those states contacted for information represented a good cross-section of states across the country regarding the number of children out-of-home.
a. Data from the AFCARS Annual Foster Care Database, FY 1998 and from the 1999 CWLA Child Abuse and Neglect Stat Book.
Individual state data on the number of children in out-of-home placement are presented in Appendix A.
Administrators were also asked about the structure of the child welfare system. The 25 states were divided between state-administered systems and those that are state supervised but county administered. Of the 25 states, 15 had state-administered child welfare systems, while 10 had county- administered systems.
Within the two general types of administrative structures, there were a variety of sub-structures within states, ranging from systems with strong state management over service delivery to systems where states give autonomy in service delivery to the local level. Many states reported an increasing amount of autonomy being passed to the county and local levels. However, even with the trend of devolution, states tend to maintain control of child welfare through policy and funding and assure compliance with state and federal regulations and requirements.
2.1 Service Delivery
Administrators discussed service delivery arrangements in their states. The responses indicate a trend toward the use of private contractors to deliver direct services to clients. In no state are all reunification services provided by the public agency. The majority of state administrators (56%) reported using both public and private providers to deliver reunification services to families in their state.
There are many different types of public and private service delivery arrangements. In public-private shared arrangements, it is common for states to maintain investigation and case management services for children in state custody, while private contractors provide direct treatment services to children and families. While some public agencies may share in providing direct services to clients, others may contract with private agencies to deliver all direct treatment services to clients. In a couple of states, administrators reported that private contracts were primarily used for high-cost foster care services such as therapeutic, residential, or group home services for children but not for other foster care services.
Nine administrators (36%) reported that child welfare services were primarily privatized or planned to be so within a short time. In other words, the state or local division of the public agency provided oversight on cases, but services to clients were contracted to private agencies. Two administrators responded that all services were provided solely by the public agency, although both of those administrators discussed exceptions in individual counties where private providers are also used. Overall, it is clear that most all of the states are using private agencies to provide some portion of services to clients.
When discussing permanency with state administrators, a variety of issues arose surrounding acclimating to new federal and state timelines for child permanency. Overall, administrators seemed very attentive to the legal timelines and the requirements for expedited permanency. They discussed the timing of permanency in their states, including schedules for dispositional hearings, and the complex process of working through issues and finding tools to expedite permanency. Administrators talked about the effects of ASFA on state law, and several administrators made a point of mentioning that they adhered to ASFA definitions for permanency. But we also found that some states had moved to shortened timelines prior to ASFA. One state administrator commented that her state was in the process of working through issues to get beyond the present belief permeating child welfare that permanency for a child equals adoption. Administrators also remarked on issues of least restrictive, permanent environments for children, and about the importance of meeting a child's physical and emotional needs for lifelong attachment and a permanent home.
Administrators mentioned efforts to expedite permanency, including concurrent planning, guardianship, and adoption. Concurrent planning is the process of planning two strategies for permanency for a child from the start of a case - a primary plan which usually involves a goal of reunification and working with and providing services to the family to achieve this goal and, at the same time, planning and working toward an alternative permanency goal for the child (e.g., permanent relative placement, guardianship, or adoption) in case the primary plan is not achieved within the timeline set. Establishing and simplifying guardianship policy was discussed as a way to find permanent homes for children. Guardianship is a legal means for an adult to assume parental responsibility and authority for a child without severing parental rights of the birth parents. One administrator said the guardianship policy in her state was originally designed for adults needing guardians but that the state was planning to simplify the process by eliminating reporting and fee requirements that made the process cumbersome to families. Administrators also mentioned that adoption is getting more attention, and many states are making a substantial effort to bolster adoption efforts, particularly since new timelines have been in effect.
States were asked about the types of permanency options available for children and the priority they established for those options. Every state responded that reunification with the child's birth parents or with the custodian from which the child was taken was the first permanency option.
a. N=23; Colorado and Georgia did not give order preference.
b. Missouri and Wisconsin do not currently have formal relative placement options; however Missouri has multiple initiatives in the state to encourage relative placement.
The majority of states (65%) ranked "adoption" as the second permanency option, and "relative placement" (including legal custody, guardianship, or some other type of arrangement) usually ranked third (7 of 23 states ranked relative placement above adoption in importance). States' preferences for adoption over relative placement seemed to reflect their concern that relative placements may not be permanent for the child and the need to find legal permanency for a child so that he or she can exit the foster care system. Some states specifically stated a preference for relative adoption or a guardianship (if available in the state) because this secured permanency for the child and discharge from the foster care system. Twenty-two states (92%) had some type of relative placement option for children, and 13 states (56%) had a guardianship option.