Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 3. Conclusions


Looking at state structure and the delivery of services in the 25 states, we see that the majority of child welfare services are administered at the state-level, although many states reported an increasing amount of autonomy being passed to the county and local levels. In addition, our review of information on delivery of services illustrates a trend toward the use of privately contracted service providers. Although most state administrators told us that both the public agency and private contractors share service delivery to clients, in many cases, the public agency is focused on investigative and case planning and management, while private contractors are providing direct treatment services to children and families.

State policies enacted in the late 1990s and the enactment of ASFA have made for significant changes in child welfare policy with a strong emphasis on promoting safety, shortening timelines and expediting permanency, and looking to alternatives for reunification.

Our discussions with state administrators demonstrate that ASFA is being taken seriously. Implementation of the law is taking place. Legislative changes to bring state policy and statutes into compliance have been instituted, and administrators are working at the state, county, and local levels to implement new policy and practice. All states have adopted ASFA requirements through legislation.

Instituting and adapting to shortened timelines was a dominant topic of our discussions with administrators. States seem to be focused on ways to abide by the timelines for permanency. As a result, states and their foster care staff recognize the need to make permanency decisions sooner and are looking for any and all tools at their disposal to help deal with the rush for permanency. Those mentioned most often by state administrators included concurrent planning, guardianship, and kinship support.

States say that reunification is the first permanency option they consider for every child entering care. However, the implementation of the new timelines has given adoption a great deal of attention. Adoption is commanding a great deal of time and money in states, as illustrated by the number of states that mentioned new adoption initiatives. States are putting much effort into locating new adoptive homes for children, particularly for children who have been in the foster care system for a significant period of time (i.e., backlog cases).

Relatives also are receiving an enormous amount of attention. States recognize that relatives are an important resource for permanency for children. States are making an effort to locate relatives as soon as a child comes into care and make them part of the permanency process - providing foster care, participating in case decisionmaking, and even providing adoptive homes for children.

Child permanency is dependent on collaboration between agencies. Some states appear to be renewing their efforts to collaborate with other agencies, recognizing the benefits of cooperation and collaboration with other agencies, the courts, and policy makers to expedite permanency within the new timelines. However, the burden for cooperation continues to lie with the child welfare agencies, which forces them to take the lead. This can be a very difficult task for overburdened agencies, particularly when dealing with overburdened court systems and lack of appropriate community resources.

States seem to be trying to balance the need to expedite permanency with the need to reunify families. State administrators report that reunification is still the primary goal for families in the child welfare system. However, as much as states want to preserve families through reunification, they also admit that letting a child linger in the foster care system is not an adequate response to the needs of the child. State administrators report that they believe the expedited timelines instituted by federal and state law were necessary. Some administrators reported relief by staff as timelines provided rationale for terminating a parent's right and seeking a permanency option other than reunification for children who have been in the system for an extended period and whose parents were not able to resolve issues that brought the child into care. But at the same time, administrators spoke about the concern that permanency would become equivalent to adoption, and reunification would become the exception rather than the norm for families.

While administrators and child welfare staff grapple with the issues of reunification and expedited permanency, state policy makers continue to look for tools to adequately address finding permanency for children in foster care. By looking at initiatives across states, relative and non-relative homes are being sought to provide permanency for children. Children who have spent years in the foster care system are now part of the "back log" for which permanent placements must be found. Some of these children are in their teens and do not want to be adopted. They will remain in state custody with a goal of emancipation or independent living. However, the rest of the children will require a legally permanent relative placement or an adoptive home. As a result, states are spending a great deal of time and funding to implement initiatives to find adoptive homes and encourage and support relatives who can provide homes for children. State policy seems to emphasize adoption, which indicates that states may find adoption more feasible than locating relative placements. The fact that states receive a monetary incentive for final adoptions is a factor in the equation to further consider.

Despite the apparent push toward adoption, foster care administrators are still optimistic about reunification as a priority and, overall, do not see an about-turn on the issue of reunification. They declared a need for proper resources for education of staff and training tools to achieve progress in reunifying families under shortened timelines. However, despite these needs, most believed that reunification will remain the first priority among permanency options for families and will maintain priority status through the development of methods to speed the progress of reunification with families (i.e., assessment and engaging family). Appendix D provides an in-depth look at four reunification programs. These programs demonstrate innovative reunification efforts taking place in communities around the country, and offer examples of collaborative efforts among agencies and intensive reunification services that are helping families.