Blending Perspectives and Building Common Ground. Improving Time Lines and Decision Making for Children


Among the key issues in improving child welfare services is ensuring that permanency decisions are made in keeping with a child's developmental time line.  Children should not have to wait indefinitely for a permanent home, be that with their biological parents or in an alternate home with adoptive parents or relatives.  The pace of casework, court procedures, and appeals has often meant, however, that children are left in limbo far too long.  By the time many of them find permanent homes, they have spent much of their childhoods and developmental years in temporary living situations.

Among the goals of the Adoption and Safe Families Act is to speed decision making regarding permanent homes for children and avoid such delays.  Rather than only making administrative machinery work faster, many communities are trying also to work smarter.  Innovations being tried include using the leverage of child protective services involvement to require treatment participation, adapting criminal drug court models to the family court, and concurrent planning.  Concurrent permanency planning is an alternative to the traditional sequential case planning process, in which, at the same time services are being provided to achieve family reunification, alternative permanency options for the child are also being explored in the event that the child cannot be safely returned to the biological parent(s).  The goal is to expedite the permanency process for those children who may linger in foster care.

Common to the variety of innovations being developed in communities to improve outcomes for children in foster care are that: 

  1. efforts to resolve the issues which led to maltreatment must begin immediately;
  2. clients should receive up-front, clear disclosure regarding the consequences of a lack of participation or progress;
  3. appropriate intervention plans are developed with the family's involvement and are closely monitored; and
  4. lack of progress or non-compliance is dealt with swiftly. 

Whether initiated from the child welfare agency or the court, the notion of mandating treatment and closely monitoring compliance and outcomes is a relatively new concept in child welfare.  Social services generally, and reunification services specifically, have traditionally been offered on a voluntary basis.  As noted above, however, purely voluntary models have not resulted in high completion rates.  In response, particularly in light of data showing that treatment completion is higher among clients whose participation is mandated by the criminal justice system (Collins et al, 1983; Haller et al, 1993), some child welfare agencies began asking their family court judges to mandate treatment for some clients.

Pressure from a child welfare agency can be helpful for treatment retention.  Carten (1996) reports that interviews with women who successfully completed a substance abuse treatment program in New York City often said that "although they initially experienced their CPS referral as intrusive and unfair ... the ever-present threat that their children would be placed in foster care provided the external pressure to continue in drug treatment."  Similar information is reported from a Rhode Island program (Caldwell, 1998) that found most of its clients entered treatment primarily because of child welfare mandates and indicate that most clients would not have stayed in treatment without them.  Indeed, this program reports that most of those who dropped out did so shortly after such a treatment mandate ended.  A downside of mandatory treatment efforts, and particularly programs that seem to punitively jail women for refusing treatment, is that potential clients are more likely to hide from service systems, possibly placing children at greater risk.

In 1992, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges issued its Protocol for Making Reasonable Efforts to Preserve Families in Drug-Related Dependency Cases.  The protocol suggests factors judges should consider in making custody and permanency decisions regarding child protection cases involving substance abuse, suggests services that should be made available to families as part of "reasonable efforts," and discusses opportunities for judicial leadership.  Juvenile and family courts can provide initiative in mobilizing resources for families coming before them and monitoring agencies' activities and families' progress to assure the best possible outcomes for children.

Building upon the notion of treatment mandates is the swiftly growing innovation of drug courts.  Now common in the criminal court system, the use of treatment mandates with intensive follow-up procedures and strict sanctions for noncompliance is now being tried in several family court settings around the nation.  When used in criminal cases, drug courts have been found consistently to achieve much better treatment retention rates; substantially reduced drug use and criminal behavior during the participation periods; and, to a lesser but still significant extent, reduced criminal behavior following program participation (Belenko, 1998).  Drug courts are designed to improve the court's handling of cases involving substance abuse by providing:

  • immediate intervention and continuous supervision of the family's progress;
  • development of a treatment and rehabilitation program, usually administered by the court or its designee;
  • judicial oversight and coordination of treatment and rehabilitation services to provide accountability and reduce duplication of effort;
  • immediate judicial response to family needs and to episodes of noncompliance; and
  • judicial leadership in bringing together community agencies to achieve the drug court's goals.

Family drug courts were operational in only six jurisdictions nationally as of January 1998, but are expected to proliferate quickly.  Extensive information regarding these programs is available in a recent Department of Justice publication, Juvenile and Family Drug Courts:  A Profile of Program Characteristics and Implementation Issues (Office of Justice Programs Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project at American University, 1998), and several family drug court programs are profiled in a recent publication of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (1999).

Concurrent Planning is a casework approach that has recently become popular as a tool to improve the timely achievement of permanency for children.  Traditionally, case workers have been taught to work diligently toward the singular goal of family reunification.  Only after a year or more of unsuccessful efforts could other permanency options (such as adoption) be considered.  Adoption planning from scratch could then take additional years, further prolonging uncertainty for the child.  Concurrent planning instead emphasizes working toward reunification while at the same time establishing one or more "back up" permanency plans to be implemented if reunification proves unlikely.  By considering a variety of permanency alternatives from the start and by engaging parents and other family members more effectively in early discussions of children's needs and permanency options, children's lives can be stabilized more quickly, in keeping with children's developmental time frames.

Concurrent planning provides the opportunity and the challenge for caseworkers and families to realistically face the problem(s) which prompted the child's removal, collaborate in planning interventions and following through on treatment, within the much more stringent time lines detailed in ASFA.  Agencies and families must honestly acknowledge the external constraints of the new time lines, which imply a new type of accountability.