Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System. Executive Summary


In the 1990s, officials at the state and federal levels were concerned that despite state efforts and enactment of the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA), the number of children entering the child welfare system continued to rise, and children lingered in foster care for an extended period of time. The Congress responded to these concerns with the Adoption and Safe Families Act 1997 (ASFA). ASFA amended the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act by refocusing efforts to promote safety and permanence for children in the foster care system. Of primary importance was addressing cases where children still lingered in the foster care system for an extended period of time or had returned to foster care after a previous placement because of an unsafe family situation. ASFA's intent is to promote permanent placements for children. To reach this end, the law included criteria to further define when efforts to preserve and reunify a family are required, outlined the court's discretion to make decisions on a child's permanency based on safety considerations, and provided financial incentives to states to increase the number of adoptions.

States' efforts to address the needs of children in foster care and to prevent further maltreatment are dominated by the concept of permanency. Children should be afforded living arrangements that are nurturing and long lasting. Foster care itself is not considered an appropriate permanency plan, so the intention in most cases is to move the child into other circumstances. There are many options: reunification with parents, placement with relatives, legal guardianship by relatives or others, independent living, adoption. Not all options are available for every child, but there is usually more than one, so decisions need to be made. Child welfare professionals prefer to return the child home safely whenever that is possible, so in most cases that is the alternative that is explored first. Usually at least some work is attempted with the birth parents (or other original caretakers) directed at making return home possible. If work with the parents proves unsuccessful, other alternatives are sought.

The research presented in this report is a compendium of six papers that, as a group, provide a description of current reunification efforts in the foster care system and assess the status of reunification in permanency policy and practice. The papers address six main components:

  1. Identification and examination of reunification practice and services in 25 states,
  2. An analysis of the patterns of reunification and reentry to track experiences of children in foster care,
  3. An exploration of the role of race in reunification,
  4. An examination of the reunification case decision making process,
  5. A framework for thinking about permanency with a focus on the status of reunification within the permanency continuum, and
  6. Consideration of the issues involved in evaluating programs for permanency and reunification.

This executive summary provides a brief abstract of each.