Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. Chapter 1. Introduction


Improving the permanency of living arrangements for children in the child welfare system has been a central focus of federal and state policy for the past two decades. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) creates faster timeframes for decision making and incentives for adoption to move children more quickly out of the foster care system and find them permanent living arrangements.

With the implementation of ASFA and its strong emphasis on expediting permanency, it is important to review reunification efforts and how reunification fits into the larger context of permanency. Specifically, information is needed about:

  • How reunification and permanency are being defined in child welfare;
  • How state and local child welfare staff think about reunification and its role in achieving permanency
  • The core characteristics of reunification efforts; and
  • The implications of service delivery and the future course of reunification in the permanency continuum.

Westat was asked by the Department of Health and Human Services to assess the context of permanency and reunification in the foster care system following ASFA. In response, Westat and Chapin Hall Center for Children provide an examination of reunification and permanency in the child welfare system.

The research conducted consisted of five main components: 1) developing a conceptual framework for thinking about permanency with a focus on reunification, 2) specifying issues to consider in evaluating programs for permanency and reunification, 3) documenting patterns of reunification and reentry to track experiences of children in foster care, 4) examining the reunification decision making process, and 5) identifying and examining reunification efforts.

To address these issues, this report presents a compendium of six papers that together provide a description of current reunification efforts in the foster care system and assess the status of reunification in permanency policy and practice.

The first paper, Permanency:  A Balancing Act, presents a framework for thinking about permanency and explores the status of reunification within the permanency continuum. 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. The paper draws on the literature and the work done on the other components of this study to describe the shifting tensions in defining permanency as a goal for children in the child welfare system. It also explores the status of reunification, the core characteristics of reunification efforts, and implications for service delivery.

Following the framework, Permanency and Reunification Trends in 25 States provides an overview of the types of efforts (services and programs) provided at the state and local levels to improve reunification of children. Information on reunification efforts throughout the country, that was previously collected for A Review of Family Preservation and Family Reunification Programs,was verified and updated.1  A description of four reunification programs is also presented. These programs were visited to discuss the core characteristics of the reunification effort with staff.

The Evaluation of Programs for Permanency and Reunification expands upon the first paper and reviews what must be learned to develop more effective programs for achieving permanency. It considers programs designed to enhance the likelihood of reunification as well as programs focused on permanency more broadly. It also broadens the focus beyond the evaluation of particular programs to consider other empirical work that might inform policy making and program design. Based on information obtained through verifying information with states and local administrators and on site visits, the paper identifies possibilities for evaluation at various levels of rigor. Taking into consideration that reunification efforts often occur outside the context of specific programs and in the everyday work of both public and private providers, as well as the small size of reunification programs that do exist, various research alternatives are suggested.

The fourth paper, Reunification From Foster Care in Nine States, 1990-1997, presents analyses using the Multistate Foster Care Data Archive to describe the basic structure of the exit process from foster care. The pooled multi-state data set of new foster care entrants from 1990-1994 were tracked for three years after entry. The exit distributions (e.g., proportion of children reunified, in relative placement, adopted, in guardianship, etc.) are assessed by child characteristics, foster care experiences, and the combined influence of age at entry and duration in care on exit patterns. Trends over time and variability across states with respect to different types of exits are presented.

Secondary analyses based on data from the 1994 National Study of Protective, Preventive, and Reunification Services Delivered to Children and Their Families is the basis of the fourth paper The Role of Race in Parental Reunification. This paper explores whether race is a strong predictor of reunification when combined with other child, family, or case history characteristics, and whether the main effect of race is reduced when controlling for other important predictors of reunification. The analyses revealed that race is a strong predictor of reunification, and controlling for other key predictors (e.g., age of entry, caretaker job skills, caretaker substance abuse problem, and caretaker receipt of services) does not eliminate the independent effect of race on reunification.

The last paper, 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 up to three 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.

These papers are presented to further the dialogue about policy and program initiatives that are being implemented to affect permanency decisions for children and families serviced by the child welfare system.

1.  This review was done as part of the Evaluation of Family Preservation and Reunification Services, under contract from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ASPE.