Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 2.1 Program Dimensions


There are some identifiable programs8 around the country, and it would be well to review here some of the dimensions of difference among them:

  • Intensiveness. Reunification programs usually involve some degree of intensiveness of service with families, having relatively small worker caseloads. Sometimes they are very intensive, with extensive worker involvement and employing approaches such as wrap-around services.
  • Program theories. Programs have differing theories as to the central problems clients face and as to the activities necessary to deal with those problems.
  • Use of community resources. Programs can rarely do it all themselves so they make varying uses of community resources. They vary in the extent of dependence on and involvement with other agencies and community organizations.
  • Time limits. Programs usually have time limits, although there often are exceptions made to them. Programs based on family preservation models are generally short (e.g., Missouri's Family Reunion, 8-12 weeks; New Jersey's Natural Parent Support Program, 3-6 months). Most other programs last for a year or two (e.g., Florida's Homeward Bound, 18 months; Georgia's Mothers Making a Change, 12-15 months extendable to 2 years).
  • Target groups. Programs receive specific referrals for service, but there is great variation in their target groups. One dimension of targeting is the timing of the referral in the course of the case. Programs could take cases at the time of or shortly after placement of a child in foster care, but this appears to be rarely done in specific reunification programs. More often, programs accept cases only after a child has been in care for a time, while others take long-term, difficult to work with cases. Some programs specialize in cases with particular problems, for example, substance abusing parents or mentally ill children.
  • Work with foster parents. Some programs make considerable use of foster parents in working with birth parents while others do not. Experience seems to indicate that foster parents must be specially selected for such work. Many foster parents resist involvement with birth parents and are less than enthusiastic about the prospect of the child returning home.
  • Emphasis on pre- or post-reunification, or both. Some programs focus on work to prepare families for return of children and do little with families after the reunification. Others do most of their work shortly before and after reunification has occurred (they could be considered post-reunification family preservation programs). Still others work with families both before and after reunification.
  • Use of concurrent planning. As described previously, some programs are quite committed to concurrent planning from the beginning of their work with families while others begin it in earnest only when it becomes evident an alternative plan may be necessary.
  • Auspices. Some programs are located in public child welfare agencies while others are conducted by private agencies under contract with the public agency.
  • Use of various program components. Examples are family group conferencing and visitation. Some programs use family group conferencing while others do not. While visitation is a part of virtually all reunification practice, the emphasis placed on it varies.

8.  By an "identifiable program" we mean a set of activities involving an identified group of staff who spend a substantial portion of their time (though not necessarily full time) on the work, referral of specific cases, and specification of goals and of activities designed to achieve them.