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


This report is based on discussions with caseworkers and administrative staff at three public child welfare agencies. These three agencies may be unusual compared to many child welfare agencies in the level of resources available to serve families. The workers reported having adequate staff and sufficient services to address clients' needs. In addition, the agencies have well-defined decision-making procedures in place that involve input from colleagues, supervisors, service providers, attorneys and other county staff. This well-defined process -- whether or not followed through completely for every case -- allows these workers to feel they have sufficient guidance and support to make fair decisions for children and their families. Consequently, the workers we talked with appeared confident about their decision-making capabilities, given the agencies' systems of checks and balances.

However, under ASFA, caseworkers must make decisions faster, while they continue to deal with children and families with difficult problems. The implementation of new time limits, coupled with the troubled families coming into the child welfare system, has created a paradox for caseworkers and administrators. On the one hand, caseworkers and administrators believe that the shortened time limits provided by ASFA are fair and proper in order to expedite permanency for children and avoid foster care drift. On the other hand, workers find it difficult to tackle the intransigent problems and situations of families coming into the foster care system within these shortened time limits. Workers continue to face the overwhelming troubles of children and families entering the foster care system without any new or improved ways to deal with the problems of these families, despite the need to reunify or find permanency more quickly.

Broadening permanency. The timeframes of ASFA require workers to consider all permanency options from the time the child enters care. Workers and administrators we spoke with believe strongly in reunifying families and continue to make family reunification the initial goal of all families served by their agencies. However, the focus on keeping children and their parents together if at all possible has diminished under the new time limits. If a family cannot be reunited within 15 months so that the child can live safely at home, then it may be determined that the child must live permanently in an alternative safe and stable household. Because decisions like this are happening more frequently, there is a serious need to find permanent placements for children within a reasonable time.

To meet the permanency needs of children who cannot return home from foster care, agencies have turned to relative placement as the permanency option of choice when reunification is not possible. Permanency with relatives encompasses a variety of arrangements, including licensed foster care placements, unlicensed or informal placements, custody arrangements in lieu of foster care placement, legal guardianship (subsidized and unsubsidized), and adoption. In fact, one agency we visited referred to relative placements as reunification and counted them as reunifications in their data.

Another agency we visited commonly used relatives as legal guardians (unsubsidized) to divert children from entering foster care. Relatives were located by CPS prior to placement and given legal custody of the child so that the case never entered the foster care unit. This is an obvious way to keep children from foster care placement and avoid the costs of having the child in care. However, diverting the child from foster care also diverted the child's parents from receiving any services through the foster care unit, thereby failing to make any attempt to solve the problems that required placement of the child out of the home.

Relatives have served as a variety of placement options for children. Their roles are diverse and debated. The increased use of relatives as permanent alternatives for children creates further reason to step back and clearly define the roles they play. Although placement in the family structure can be an ideal permanency placement for a child that can offer family continuity, from a child's point of view living with a relative can be very different from returning home to his or her birth parents. Alternatively, placement with a relative -- formally or informally -- may be the most permanent arrangement a child will experience. Policy for relative placements has been pieced together over time in response to changing needs. Issues surrounding the emotional and financial implications to birth parents, children, and relatives need to be considered comprehensively. Relatives are a valuable resource and a thoughtful and systematic approach to defining their expanding role is critical to their being an effective resource.

With the implementation of ASFA, we expected to see a reduction in the use of long-term foster care for children at agencies we visited. However, all of the agencies used long-term or permanent foster care placements under certain circumstances. These cases usually involved pre-teen or teen children who had strong bonds with their parents, did not want to be adopted, and where placement with a relative was not feasible. Workers were still required to place these children in long-term or permanent foster care placements. These were the most difficult and frustrating cases for workers to make decisions on because they had few choices for permanency other than keeping the children in some type of foster care placement until emancipation. It was clear that these cases complied with ASFA's exceptions for compelling reasons. It is evident that a number of children in the child welfare system will continue to stay in long-term foster care until emancipation because there are no other permanency alternatives. Agency administrators expressed a concern about children being made legal orphans, as required by ASFA, and parental ties are severed but no adoptive home identified.

Watching the clock. The time limits instituted by ASFA require workers to make decisions on permanency when a child has been in care 15 of the past 22 months. It is clear that workers are mindful of the time they have to work with birth parents. Workers found that the time limits relieved them of some of the responsibility for deciding how many months -- or years -- services should be provided to parents while their children remain in foster care. Most workers said they believe the time limits are fair to birth parents and in the best interest of children. There were a few workers who mentioned conflicting feelings over struggling to reunify families within 15 of 22 months. The conflict of these workers is understandable as agencies move from allowing families an extended period of time to achieve reunification to an emphasis on watching the clock and expediting permanency.

When a case is assigned to a worker's caseload, workers reported that they typically go through the process of meeting with the family, making permanency plans with members of the family, choosing the services they feel are appropriate for a family, documenting the family's progress, consulting with peers and colleagues to determine whether the family should be reunified or if the alternate permanency plan should move forward, and reporting to the court about the family's progress at the 6- and 12-month court reviews. However, as regimented as the process appeared, the workers found some room for flexibility. There were times when workers adhered to the time limits, but they also understood how to bend the time requirements when they felt that a family deserved more time for reunification. Workers reported that if birth parents made a diligent effort to comply with the goals set forth in the case plan and court orders but had not completed the necessary requirements to remedy the situation that brought their children into care within 15 of the past 22 months, judges were willing to allow the family an extra 6 or 9 months to receive services and work towards reunification. Critical to making these difficult decisions in shorter time periods is having sufficient information to assess a family's strengths and weaknesses, but workers reported that the assessment procedures they use have not changed since ASFA but have remained fairly constant.

Concurrent planning, although implemented by the agencies prior to ASFA, is the primary tool used to comply with the new time requirements. Concurrent planning has changed the focus and approach of case planning and decision making. Agencies and workers use concurrent planning as a tool to convey clearly to parents early in the planning process that they have a limited amount of time to resolve the problems necessary for reunification or they may lose parental rights to their child. However, we found that workers did not actively work toward an alternative permanency plan until they determined that reunification was unlikely. Moreover, some workers reported that they continued to try and reunify families even after the child's goal had been changed. Concurrent planning requires delicate balancing of coercion and encouragement. With the balancing act come tensions due to the inherent difficulties of working toward reunification while planning for the possibility of alternative permanency for the child and tension between the client and caseworker that sometimes occurs during the planning process. For these reasons, concurrent planning is dependent upon systematic training and supervision of casework practice. While some tensions were reported by workers, overall workers embrace the concept because it allows them to establish consequences for parent noncompliance early in the relationship.

In search of new tools to assist in working with families, agencies reported using foster parent mentoring and family or group planning as part of their foster care practices. Two of the agencies had recently begun implementing foster parent training on mentoring, and the third agency had an established foster parent mentoring program. However, our discussions with agency staffs revealed that these efforts, designed to enhance and support the reunification process, were not achieving that specific purpose in most cases. The supervisor in charge of the established foster parent mentoring program reported that the program conducted training for foster parents on mentoring birth parents and that the agency had an existing pool of foster parents willing to take on the mentoring role. Workers reported that when foster parents formed a relationship and worked with birth parents, it often made a significant difference in helping the birth parents achieve reunification. However, we heard that more often the program resulted in the birth parents voluntarily relinquishing parental rights to allow the foster parents to adopt their child. In cases where birth parents' problems are so severe and persistent that they can never care for their children, the voluntary relinquishment of parental rights was seen as a positive step, making permanency occur faster and more easily. Nonetheless, given evidence of this unanticipated effect, it is important to determine if the program may be covertly coercing birth parents to give up their children due to feelings of inadequacy brought on by personal comparisons to the mentoring foster parents' more substantial parenting skills and financial resources.

All three agencies reported using some form of family conferencing or group planning as an enhancement to concurrent planning. This type of planning is predicated on bringing together birth parents, relatives, close friends of the family, and even foster parents, to participate in the case planning process and to ensure a safety network for the parents and children in support of reunification. However, this type of planning is usually successful only if the birth parents and children have relatives and close friends willing to participate in the reunification process. For families who lack this community support, the planning process includes little more than a meeting between the birth parents and caseworker. Also, relatives can act to aggravate birth parents if they are not supportive of reunification efforts. Workers discussed meeting with family groups for case planning but also said that they had cases without relative support. Discussions with some workers indicated that relatives were often included in the case planning to prepare them to care for the child. Some workers referred to these meetings as a time to put relatives on alert -- telling them that if the birth parents did not comply with the reunification plan, the children would need another permanent home. Workers reported using the planning session more as a resource to find and prepare relatives as caretakers rather than to provide support for reunification.

Aside from foster parent mentoring and family group planning, we did not learn of any other changes in services or service delivery being used to enhance reunification with families. It appears that these agencies are doing very little differently post-ASFA to enhance assessment or services to improve the likelihood of reunification within the shorter timeframe. With the need to achieve reunification more quickly, there is a need for tools to enhance efforts to reunify families within the timeframes. Moreover, the example of the foster mentoring program illustrates the need to carefully evaluate all the effects of these tools.

Barriers to reunification. To workers, one of the most frustrating barriers to achieving reunification is engaging the high number of parents who have chronic substance abuse problems or mental illness. By the time a family enters the foster care system, parents' problems are often long-established and difficult to treat. Despite the generally adequate evaluation and treatment services, workers are discouraged by their inability to convince these parents to obtain treatment. Shortened timeframes necessitate the development of new strategies for workers to engage families more quickly and intensively in needed services. However, even when parents are willing to undertake substance abuse treatment, such treatment can take several months to complete, and there are frequently periods of relapse before an individual is drug-free. The substance abuse treatment field cannot provide quick fixes for long-term drug and alcohol addiction, making addiction frequently impossible to address within the new timeframes.

Prior to ASFA, workers were inclined to give birth parents with chronic substance abuse and mental illness substantial periods of time to continue treatment and work toward reunification. Unfortunately, this often meant that the child was left to drift in care for a number of years. ASFA has given workers "permission" to proceed with TPR at 12 or 15 months, and find an alternative home for children if parents have not complied with treatment. Moreover, under ASFA, if parental rights to a sibling have been terminated involuntarily, reasonable efforts may not be required for other children in the family who enter care. Consequently, parents who have chronic substance abuse and mental illness may lose parental rights to all their children. This is an important dilemma that needs to be considered as it has far-reaching consequences on the economic and emotional well-being and viability of families and communities.

Role of the courts. The courts play an important role as they make decisions on the requirements a family needs to meet for reunification, to return a child home, to terminate parental rights, and to approve a change in goal to permanent or long-term foster care. What happens to a family, in large part, depends on a judge's decision. Although in some jurisdictions, judges' views on reunification and TPR can be very diverse and contrary to workers' views, agency staff we spoke with told us that family court judges they deal with are educated about ASFA, recognize the requirements to have a permanency plan within 12 months, usually concur with worker recommendations for families, and act fairly in reviewing evidence and testimony from both the agency and birth parents before rendering a decision on TPR.

ASFA has put additional burdens on the court system. Since the implementation of Public Law 96-272 in 1980, which instituted 18-month court reviews, there have been complaints of overburdened family courts and extensive delays in case reviews. ASFA's additions of the 6-month court review, along with an increase in the number of TPR cases, have placed a heavy weight on the court system, causing delays in scheduling 6- and 12-month hearings and delays of up to several months for TPR petition hearings. Workers at one agency reported that the court reviews were being conducted as formal evidentiary hearings lasting up to 4 days. Workers commented that policy to guide and regulate the implementation of these reviews would be helpful to agencies and the courts. The burden on the courts is a key problem that was not adequately addressed at the time of ASFA's initial implementation. However, the federal government has recently instituted grants to assist courts with their responsibilities under ASFA.

ASFA has prompted changes in the decision-making process to establish permanency for children, based on the premise that shorter timeframes will move children more quickly out of foster care and into permanent living arrangements. According to our research, provisions of ASFA have been adopted into states' laws, and administrators and caseworkers have incorporated some changes in their case planning process and service delivery to meet the new time limit for reunification; however, it is not known whether these procedures are being consistently implemented. It appears that ASFA is stimulating action to address the problem of children languishing in foster care. Nevertheless, as stated above, there are still some important issues to be thought through by policymakers, states, agency administrators and caseworkers. Hopefully the implementation of ASFA and the repercussions will serve as a wake-up call to comprehensively rethink issues that have beleaguered the child welfare system for decades and stimulate the creation of an environment that promotes strategic planning of programs and resources to guide caseworkers' decisions.