The current child welfare system is characterized by an emphasis on the safety of the child. Lengths of time before deciding on permanent plans have been reduced, and more weight is being given to permanency options such as adoption and relative placements. The current emphasis on safety and expedited permanency for children has led to new state legislation and regulation. The provisions include holding permanency hearings sooner, practicing concurrent planning, and establishing a more expedited track to filing termination of parental rights (TPR) when reunification is inappropriate. Discussions with state and local child welfare staff about permanency elicit responses about the legal responsibilities of the state to provide safety for the child, limiting the child's time in foster care by expediting the process of the child returning home or being placed in a permanent home outside the child welfare system. Emphasis is on the safety, health, and well-being of a child; and the importance of finding a solution to meet the physical and emotional needs of the child.
Child welfare staff are left to safely expedite the best permanency solution for a child within time limits, while facing the reality of family problems. With a focus on child safety and away from the family unit, there seems to be less emphasis on services to resolve parental problems necessary to maintain the family. Caseworkers must cope with difficult and chronic family problems, and often lack resources and services to adequately address family needs. Yet they must achieve the goals of safety and permanency for a child, and make decisions on where the child will be placed within the timelines set by law. As a result, time is at the forefront of permanency decisions made by caseworkers. Gone are the days when extended periods were granted to assist parents in resolving their problems in order to reunify the family. Instead, workers are pressed to expedite a family assessment and case plan for the family. However, with large caseload sizes, workers have less time to spend with families. Parents can be difficult to engage after a child is removed from the home, particularly when drug or mental health problems are an issue. If parents are apathetic and unresponsive to initial attempts for treatment, workers have little time to spend providing personal support or handholding. If parents are not able to meet case plan goals to rectify problems that brought their child into care within 15 months, they risk losing parental rights to their child. Unfortunately, substance abuse and mental health problems are not easily resolved in short time periods.
So given the time limitations to resolve permanency where does this leave reunification in the permanency continuum? The Adoption and Safe Families Act upheld requirements that reasonable efforts be made to preserve and reunify families. However, at the same time, ASFA instituted a major change in the reasonable efforts requirement by making the safety and health of the child the paramount consideration in decisions to return a child home. ASFA specifies it is not reasonable to reunify children with their parents when: 1) a court determines that a parent has committed murder or voluntary manslaughter of one child, 2) a parent commits serious bodily injury to a child, 3) a parent has subjected the child to aggravated circumstances as defined by state law, or 4) parental rights to a sibling have been involuntarily terminated. In other cases, reasonable efforts must be made within specified time limits.
Despite the changes in regulation, child welfare administrators and staff reported overwhelmingly that reunification is always the first permanency option considered for families, with very few exceptions. However, the questions remain -- to what extent is reunification seen as feasible within the time limits, and as a result, is reunification receiving true commitment by service providers? Are reunification services adequate given the new time limitations?
Many states and localities are working to institute new programs to better serve children and parents working towards reunification within the time constraints.(8) But in many agencies around the country, the reality is that staff work with constrained resources, and as a result, child well-being and permanency take priority over the focus on successfully treating parents and reunifying families.
There appears to be a broadening of the traditional notion of reunification in some states and localities. Several states and localities count permanent placement with a relative as reunification (sometimes called family reunification). It is not clear whether this trend is something new in response to shortened time requirements for permanency, or a longstanding practice for some states or localities.
Emphasis on other permanency options. With the increasing pressures to expedite permanency, states and localities are considering a number of alternative permanency options. Permanency options reported by states now include adoption, relative placement, guardianship placement, and independent living.
Many states and localities now practice some type of concurrent planning on cases. Concurrent planning is the process of planning two strategies for permanency for a child from the start of a case. This process involves a primary plan, usually a goal of reunification, and at the same time the worker plans an alternative permanency goal for the child (e.g., permanent relative placement, guardianship, or adoption) in case the primary goal is not achieved within the set timelines. Workers seek out commitments by relatives and other possible caregivers early in case the parent does not resolve his or her problems within the time limit and termination of parental rights is necessary. Planning alternative options earlier appears to be popular although in many jurisdictions this process does not take shape until after a determination has been made by the worker and supervisor that the family will not reunify. Workers mention that concurrent planning can create tension between themselves and parents, and they also find their "dual role" of simultaneously supporting family reunification and planning alternative permanency conflicting. For these reasons, and also because workers have little time for dual planning, workers may provide some preliminary planning on alternatives (contact relatives or close friends of the family) but true planning for an alternative placement is often left until it is determined reunification for a family is not feasible.
States are increasingly turning to relatives as a permanency option. In fact, relatives seem to be the main avenue to permanency when reunification is not possible. A majority of state administrators reported an increase in the use of temporary and permanent relative placements over the past few years. Relative placement may be more popular as an option because children placed with relatives are exempt from the ASFA timelines, although some state law time limitations apply to relative placements.
Placing children with relatives when a parent is unable to care for the child has been practiced among families for generations. But in the past many of these arrangements were informal kin placements outside the child welfare system. Once in the foster care system, states and localities use relatives in a variety of ways to create permanency for children including as licensed foster care placements, informal placements, legal guardians (subsidized and unsubsidized), adoption, and some local communities recognize placement with a relative as reunification. In some cases, the process of finding relative caregivers begins at the time it is suspected that a child may enter the foster care system. Identifying and relying on kin for placements early can divert children from foster care, but at the same time may also lessen the use of services necessary to alleviate problems between birth parents and their children, leaving little chance for reunification.
States prefer transferring legal custody of children in kin placements to relatives so that the child is no longer in state custody. This decreases expenditures by reducing both foster care and administrative costs. Moreover, states believe that legal custody by kin provides a more stable permanent placement for a child and reduces the chance that the child will return to foster care. To this end, many states have implemented a more stringent policy, requiring relatives to take legal custody or adopt children, if they are to remain in the relative's care. Such policies are intended to provide a more permanent home for the child and reduce the chance that the child will re-enter the foster care system. However, this policy may not be effective for permanency because relatives may not be willing to legally take a relative's child or become involved in the termination of parental rights due to the delicate nature of family relationships. Kin may also be unwilling to endure the burdensome process of adoption or may be unable to care for a child without financial support. States are working to relieve relative burdens by using mediation and financial support to address relatives' needs. Many states have recently developed guardianship programs and initiatives (subsidized and unsubsidized) to address these concerns. In addition, many states have simplified procedures for guardianship and kinship assistance, and have implemented new programs specifically to support grandparents as guardians. However, despite states' current implementation of programs to alleviate the burden placed on relatives, it is important to recognize that the changing roles of relatives have changed the child welfare system. If the trend continues, service structure, and particularly reunification services, may be affected as states and localities move to address the service needs of children and their relative caretakers.
With implementation of new timelines for permanency, adoption has been given a great deal of attention as a permanency option. Under ASFA, termination of parental rights usually takes place after a child is in foster care 15 of the most recent 22 months. Since ASFA, there has been an increase in the number of children freed for adoption in many states.
Voluntary TPR can be difficult to obtain from birth parents and more states and localities are using mediation counseling to resolve issues between parents and the agency to make the process easier for parents and their children. The voluntary relinquishment of rights is sometimes facilitated by good relationships that have developed between the foster parents and birth parents, and some agencies reported that such relationships are more often cited as leading to open adoptions, allowing the birth parents to maintain some contact with their children. However, the process can be difficult in involuntary TPR cases. With involuntary TPR, workers must document parents' lack of progress in a case and present it at a court hearing, and parents may have legal representation at these hearings and may bring witnesses to support their opposition.
ASFA established a number of incentives to states for placing children in adoptive homes, including financial assistance for states, local communities, and courts that reach targets for increased numbers of adoptions. ASFA also requires states to use cross-jurisdictional resources for adoptive and permanent placements and denies federal assistance to a state that impedes the placement of a child for adoption outside the jurisdiction.
Adoption is commanding a great deal of worker time and public money. There is a good deal of discussion about the expansion of adoption and how that has prompted the need for adoption expertise, increased adoptive services and larger adoption units, and budget changes to addressthese adoption needs. States have found it difficult to find an adequate pool of adoptive parents to meet the needs of children freed for adoption. Changes are ongoing in states focusing on recruiting an increased number of adoptive parents (to meet the increasing numbers of children waiting), using foster families as adoptive homes, broadening the geographic area for adoption home consideration, and promoting adoption through web sites. Despite these efforts, states will likely end up lacking an adequate number of adoptive homes for children in state custody, resulting in an increased number of "legal orphans" -- children whose partents' rights have been terminated but for whom no adoptive family has been identified.
Guardianship has also become a popular permanency option. Guardianship placement can mean many different things -- placement with relatives or non-relatives, subsidized or unsubsidized placement. Guardianship provides states an additional avenue to move children out of state custody. Many states have implemented some type of guardianship option and others have plans to institute guardianship soon. States are quickly realizing the benefits of guardians and are using state funds (or using federal waiver money) to institute financial support to promote guardianship placements.
8. See Section 3 of this paper for more information on reunification efforts.