Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. 5. Permanency: A Balancing Act

12/01/2001

Permanency:  A Balancing Act, presents a framework for thinking about permanency and explores the status of reunification within the permanency continuum. The paper provides an analysis of information gathered across the research components.

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 a shortened timeline for permanency decisions. Although the new schedule conforms to 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 goal of permanency as a continuum rather than competing forces.

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 concerns over their role, the services needed to maintain a child in their custody, and the value placed upon them as resources need to be addressed.

The shortened timeframe of ASFA has shifted the focus 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. A parent's personal responsibility 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 monitoring parents' progress. Greater success in reunifying families comes when agencies and their staff work to share the responsibility with parents. Staff need to assist and support parent treatment and visitation and provide 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.