There are a number of shifts in child welfare policies and practices that could make the involvement of non-custodial fathers in child welfare case planning more likely. These include the provisions of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997, the nationwide movement of the field towards concurrent case planning, the increasing use of kinship placements and the growing popularity of family decision-making in case planning. Each of these trends and their potential for increasing the role of non-custodial fathers in case planning is described below. However, no research was identified that examines whether these practices actually increase the involvement of non-custodial fathers.
ASFA requires the reduction of the time in which child welfare agencies must make permanency decisions for children in custody from 18 months to 12 months, making the early identification and location of non-custodial fathers more important. In addition, ASFA both allowed and encouraged states to use the Federal Parent Locator Service (FPLS) employed by child support enforcement programs to locate fathers and other relatives. Child welfare agencies routinely identify and assess non-custodial parents as potential placement resources, and some states’ policies explicitly give preference to them. California’s policy, for example, states that “the first placement priority is for placement in the home of the non-custodial parent, or in the home of a suitable relative (if a non-custodial parent is unavailable).” Other states’ policies are more general, such as the policy in Texas that requires the agency to ensure that parents are unable or unwilling to provide care prior to placing a child in out-of-home care. Michigan’s policy manual states that while “return home” is usually the most appropriate goal when a child is first placed in foster care, where indicated, the focus may shift to the non-custodial parent’s home.
Agencies must identify non-custodial parents as early as possible so that termination of their rights, when needed, can occur swiftly. The 2000 Adoption and Permanency Guidelines from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, state that, “At the very first hearing on a petition alleging abuse or neglect, efforts should begin to include all parents involved in the life of the child and to locate absent parents.” The guidelines go on to discuss the importance of putative fathers being located and brought into court early both to resolve paternity issues but also to avoid court delays later in the process (Grossmann, Funk, Mentaberry, & Seibel, 2000). While judicial guidelines have long sought this early identification, the implementation of ASFA has increased the likelihood that this is occurring more consistently. In addition to identifying and locating non-custodial fathers for the express purpose of accelerating the termination of parental rights, finding these fathers is important to the adoption proceedings so that the paternal side of the child’s background and medical history can be obtained prior to adoption. Finally, the resolution of such paternity issues may also be instrumental in locating and securing other paternal relatives that may be utilized in permanency planning.
Another practice within child welfare agencies, increasing nationwide, is the use of concurrent planning (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1999). This practice encourages caseworkers to pursue more than one goal for the child. From the beginning of the case process, caseworkers can simultaneously attempt to locate a permanent or adoptive home for a child while they seek to preserve or reunite the child with his/her family. Efforts to locate non-custodial fathers may occur much earlier when child welfare agencies support concurrent planning because fathers or their relatives may be a placement resource. Moreover, fathers need to be identified and located to obtain termination of parental rights if the adoption option is pursued.
Two other trends in child welfare practice, the increasing use of kinship placements and the use of family decision-making models, may affect the ways in which caseworkers identify, locate, and involve non-custodial fathers. The use of relatives or “kin” as foster parents increased significantly in the 1980s and early 1990s. One of the main factors contributing to the use of kinship care is that child welfare agencies have developed a more positive attitude toward the use of kin as foster parents. In addition, the number of non-kin foster parents has not kept pace with the number of children requiring out of home care. The increased use of kinship care may also reflect recent court decisions upholding the rights of relatives to act as foster parents and to be financially compensated for doing so (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). Policies and practices geared toward identifying and locating relatives as potential placements may lead workers to identify and locate non-custodial parents. Not only have agency policies shifted in favor of placement with relatives, but the focus is on finding these relatives early in the process, prior to having to place the child in a non-kin foster home.
Two studies were identified that have examined the extent to which child welfare agencies use non-custodial fathers as placement resources for children in foster care. These have limited applicability, however, because they rely on very small samples and are dated (Greif & Zuravin, 1989; Lagnese & Green, 1976). The 1989 study examined 17 fathers who had gained custody of their children after removal from a maltreating mother. The authors found that the vast majority did not have much involvement with their children prior to custody and were not eager to gain custody. After gaining custody, these fathers were not particularly cooperative with their caseworkers nor were they dependable. The 1976 study surveyed foster care workers on cases in which the father was the only significant birth parent. In at least half of the father-only cases in this study, fathers were not included in discharge planning. Reasons similar to those found with mothers, such as lack of appropriate housing or a lack of suitable child care, were the most common barriers to planning.
The increased use of kinship care within child welfare can also hasten the involvement of the non-custodial father to the extent that financial support is sought. Relatives who receive a TANF payment or foster care payment on behalf of a related child are required to cooperate with child support enforcement. States are increasingly seeking reimbursement for the cost of care of foster children through child support enforcement efforts. A significant proportion of children in foster care are eligible for federal IV-E reimbursement funds to the state.12 Also, child welfare agencies are increasingly requiring parents to repay the cost of out-of-home placement for children ineligible for IV-E reimbursement. Relatives participating in recent focus groups on kinship care giving, conducted by the Urban Institute, noted that their offspring were upset at being required to repay the monthly foster care payment that was being provided to the relative caregiver.
Increasingly, child welfare agencies are also utilizing family group conferencing or family meetings.13 These techniques seek to include a range of individuals — all immediate and extended family members, child welfare staff, and community provider staff — in the case process. Through the family meetings, agency staff are able to inform family members of the case particulars, the case process, agency and court procedures, as well as to solicit their input on case planning, identification of potential placement options, and permanency outcomes. During the organization and facilitation of these family meetings, agency workers are likely to obtain extensive information about the non-custodial father from other family members. Thus, agencies using this form of casework practice are probably in a better position to identify, locate and involve non-custodial fathers in case planning.