Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 4. Implications


The overall goal of the child welfare system has always been to maintain safety and permanency for children. Historically, the path to this goal has been riddled with ambivalence. At any one time, society emphasizes either family or child. A true balance of these interests seems elusive and the result is a child welfare system constantly in tension. Any choice of emphasis results in new tension which must be managed. A comprehensive approach to addressing the needs of both children and their families remains to be found.

The current tension is the result of shortened timelines for permanency decisions. Although it is in line with the child's "sense of time,"(i.e., his or her developmental needs) it conflicts with the fact that parental change often takes longer than is permitted under the new deadlines. In turn, this has created a tension among permanency options. Reunification remains the initial goal for the majority of children entering foster care. Yet, the concept of permanency has broadened, with an emphasis on other options such as adoption, guardianship, and placement with relatives. The challenge becomes viewing the goals as a continuum rather than competing forces.

New time limits give workers permission to remove a child from foster care by finding an alternative permanent home at 15 months, if reunification is unlikely. Concurrent planning 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. It requires caseworkers to make a primary plan, usually a goal of reunification, and at the same time make plans for an alternative form of permanency. There are inherent tensions in the approach, starting with the conflict it creates around a principle of casework -- that social workers are trained to have full confidence in a client and focus on a client's ability to change. Reunification efforts require total commitment and should not be approached with the expectation of failure. Instead, a worker develops a plan for the purpose of inciting client change, while at the same time the worker develops an alternative permanency plan in case client change does not occur. There is some shaping of the concept in the field. In some locales, emphasis is placed on concurrent planning involving relatives and foster parents, and not on stranger adoptions as an alternative plan. Perhaps this makes the concurrent planning concept more acceptable. Also, many workers initially identify a "back-up" plan but do not actively pursue it until they have determined that reunification is unlikely.

Balancing permanency and child safety in shortened time frames has resulted in a variety of responses throughout the service delivery system. Greater pressure is being placed on the courts to make permanency determinations in shorter timeframes. Since the implementation of PL 96-272 in 1980, which instituted 18-month court case reviews, there have been complaints of overburdened family courts and extensive delays in case reviews. The ASFA requirements of the 12-month court case review, permanency decisions by 15 months, and the increase in TPR cases, have put additional burdens on the court system.

New emphasis on relatives as a permanency option has created tensions between those who believe that relatives are the best way to keep children within the family unit and those who believe that "the apple does not fall far from the tree." Relatives are sought to keep children out of the system, as placements once a child has been put into the system, and as alternative options to reunification. Debate about the role relatives play is complicated by who is defining permanency and whether it is considered an emotional state of being, a legal status, or a fiscal issue. No matter the perspective, relatives are an increasingly used resource and the debate over their role, the services needed to maintain a child in their custody, and the value placed upon them as resources needs to be addressed.

The shortened timeframes of ASFA have shifted from a presumption of reunification to a presumption of permanency, with reunification being a major option. As a result, there is greater emphasis on a parent's responsibility to change despite ASFA's implied expectations for reciprocal responsibilities of agencies and parents. Personal responsibility from the parent is important for successful reunification, however for family reunification to have a chance, the agency must uphold its responsibility to facilitate adequate services. Successful reunification requires addressing the problems of the parent, and that entails more than drawing up plans, setting appointments for treatment and visitation, and checking in with the parent to verify progress. Greater success in reunifying families comes when agencies and their staff work to share the responsibility with parents by assisting and supporting parent treatment and visitation, and providing adequate concrete and emotional support to bridge the gap between the parent problem and successful treatment.

This agency responsibility puts pressure on the service delivery system to develop targeted services to meet the needs of parents in a timely manner. Programs are varying the intensity of services, the length of time that services are provided, the point in a case when reunification services begin, and the extent to which post-reunification services are available to families. To target services effectively, information is needed on which services work best for which families and under which circumstances, focusing on accomplishing reunification in a time-limited period.

The priority of child welfare agencies is to provide safe and permanent environments for children. The best way to accomplish this goal is to balance the needs of children and their families. The needs often conflict, creating inherent tensions at all levels of the service delivery system. While the tensions can be frustrating and even confusing, it must be recognized that the tensions are intrinsic to the problems being addressed. The challenge is to learn to successfully manage the tensions and use them as a vehicle for positive change. New policies are creating environments that emphasize child safety. Yet, programmatic efforts are being developed to try to balance the needs of children and their families. It will be very important to track the effects of policy changes on child, family, and system outcomes. Some of the questions to be answered include: Will reunification rates drop significantly? If they do, will children be in other permanent arrangements or in legal limbo? Can concurrent planning be implemented effectively and if so, is it an effective approach for permanency? How will it impact reunification of families? And how are children faring under the many permanency options?