Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 2.Prior Research


This review focuses on five reunification studies (Goerge 1990; McMurty and Lie 1992; Courtney 1994; Barth at. al. 1987; Wells and Guo 1999). These studies were selected because: (a) reunification was a major dependent variable; (b) race was an important independent variable; (c) they had adequate size samples of African Americans; and (d) they employed rigorous multivariate statistical techniques. Four studies used event history or hazard rates analyses that focused on reunification patterns for first-time cohorts of children based on administrative records (Goerge 1990; Courtney 1994; Wells and Guo 1999; McMurty and Lie 1992). The study by Goerge (1990) tracked a statewide sample of children in Illinois who entered foster care for the first time from 1977 to 1984. He employed proportional hazards analysis to describe the declining probability of reunification the longer children remained in foster care. Interestingly, his analysis did not find lower reunification rates for blacks than whites, nor that race alone had any independent or main effects on reunification rates. But he did find interactions between race and region. For example, black children in Cook County had a lower probability of reunification than non-black children in Cook County. He also found that children with non-relatives had higher reunification rates than children in kinship care.

Another reunification study was conducted by Courtney (1994) in California. He also used the proportional-hazard regression model to track the experiences of a cohort of children who entered foster care for the first time between January 1988 and May 1991. His analysis revealed that less than half of the children entering foster care for the first time would be reunified with their families within three years. Among the half reunified, about half went home within six months and about 70 percent returned within one year. Thus, he concluded the probability of reunification is greatest immediately following placement. His analysis also revealed important differences in reunification patterns between children placed with relatives and those placed with non-relatives: about half of the children placed with non-relatives during the first six months of the study were reunified, compared to only 36 percent of those placed with relatives. But the differences declined between the two groups for children who had been in care for more than six months. As a result of these deviations from the proportional-hazards framework, he decided to stratify his analysis between kin and non-kin.

Courtney found racial differentials in reunification. Whether the children were placed with kin or non-kin, African American children were reunified at about half the rate as white children--even after controlling for child disabilities, family structure and economic deprivation. Further analyses revealed that these differences may have been due in part to the lower reunification rates of black children who were infants or older youth than white children who were infants or older youth. In fact, race and age interactions revealed that--among children placed with non-kin--black children between the ages of 1-12 years old have similar reunification rates as comparable-age white children. Yet, no similar race and age interactions between blacks and whites were found among children placed with relatives.

Wells and Guo (1999) conducted a longitudinal study of children who entered the foster care system in Cuyahoga County, Ohio for the first time between January 1, 1992 and December 31, 1993. Their experiences were tracked--based on administrative records--over four years and three months from January 1, 1992 through March 31, 1996. Rates of reunification were examined 24 months after each child's first entry into foster care. They employed proportional hazards regression models to conduct event history analysis of rates of reunification and reentry. However, this study will focus on their findings related to reunification. These researchers also identified racial differentials in reunification: black children had lower rates of reunification than white children. They also found an interaction between race and age of entry. African American infants were reunified more slowly than non-African American infants. However, these differentials declined as the children got older, such that, by age 13, there were no differences in reunification rates between the racial groups. Interestingly, the researchers did not find different reunification rates between children placed with kin and non-kin.

McMurty and Lie (1992) conducted an events history analysis of the exit patterns of white and minority children who had been placed in foster care in Maricopa County, Arizona from 1979 through 1984, and whose cases were closed from 1979 through 1986. The authors found: (1) African American children were half as likely to be reunified as white children; and (2) children with disabilities were less likely to be reunified than children without disabilities. Barth and colleagues (1987) conducted a stepwise discriminant analysis of the discharge status of children who had been placed in foster care for physical abuse in San Mateo County, California. Among the study sample of 101 children who had been discharged between 1980 and 1984, 80 were reunified and 21 had other permanent out-of-home placements (including adoption, placement with kin, guardianship, and emancipation). The study sought to determine which background characteristics or type of services more strongly predicted reunification or other permanency placements. The authors concluded that black children were less likely to be reunified than white children. They also found the intensity of direct services (i.e, the total hours of phone or face-to-face contact between social workers and clients in the home, the worker's office, or in the courtroom) to be a stronger predictor of reunification than the intensity of in-home services (i.e., the total hours of all services received in the home and rendered by all providers.)

What conclusions can be drawn from these five studies? Four studies found lower rates of reunification for black than white children (Barth et. al. 1987; McMurty and Lie 1992; Courtney 1994; Wells and Guo 1999). Two studies found interactions between race and age of entry: wide racial differentials in reunification rates at younger ages, which declined as the children grew older (Courtney 1994; Wells and Guo 1999). Two studies found lower reunification rates among children who were placed with kin than among those placed with non-relatives (Courtney 1994; Goerge 1990).