Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 4. Casework Decision Making

12/01/2001

Caseworker Decision Making examines the reunification decision making process and those factors that are considered by caseworkers and staff in determining whether to work towards reunification. Discussions were held with staff at three different child welfare agencies, to obtain an overview of their decision making processes. Emphasis was placed on understanding the impact of shortened timeframes on reunification decisions, who was involved in decision making, how concurrent planning was implemented, and how caseworkers handle the ongoing changes in emphasis on safety and permanency.

The workers reported having adequate staff and sufficient services available 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 either reunify families or find other permanent living arrangements for children 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 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.

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 referred to relative placements as reunification and counted them as reunifications in their data.

Another agency 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 most services through the child welfare system, thereby failing to make any attempt to solve the problems that required placement of the child out of the home.

Relatives' roles with respect to children in the child welfare system 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.

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 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.

Critical to making these difficult decisions in shorter time periods is having sufficient information to assess a family's strengths and weaknesses. However, workers reported that the assessment procedures they use have not changed since ASFA.

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 children. However, we found that, in practice, 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 to 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, most embraced 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 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, agency staff revealed that these efforts, designed to enhance and support the reunification process, were not achieving that specific purpose in most cases.

All three agencies reported using some form of family conferencing or group planning as an enhancement to concurrent planning. This type of planning involves bringing together birth parents, relatives, close friends of the family, and sometimes 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 social 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, 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.