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Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System

Publication Date
Nov 30, 2001


  1. Permanency and Reunification Trends in 25 States
  2. Reunification From Foster Care in Nine States 1990-1997: Description and Interpretation
  3. The Role of Race in Parental Reunification
  4. Casework Decision Making
  5. Permanency: A Balancing Act
  6. The Evaluation of Programs for Permanency and Reunification
  7. 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.

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1. Permanency and Reunification Trends in 25 States

Permanency and Reunification Trends in 25 States provides an overview of the types of services and programs provided at the state and local levels to achieve safe reunification outcomes for 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)  The paper also profiles four reunification programs. These programs demonstrate innovative reunification efforts taking place in communities around the country, and offer examples of collaborative efforts among agencies and intensive reunification services that are helping families.

It is evident when looking at state structure and the delivery of services in the 25 states that the majority of child welfare services are administered at the state-level. However, many states reported an increasing amount of autonomy being passed to the county and local levels. In addition, this review illustrates a trend toward the use of privately contracted service providers. Although most state administrators reported that both the public agency and private contractors share service delivery to clients, in many cases, the public agency is focused on investigative and case planning and management, while private contractors are providing direct treatment services to children and families.

State policies enacted in the late 1990s and the enactment of ASFA have produced significant changes in child welfare policy with a strong emphasis on promoting safety, shortening timelines, expediting permanency, and looking to alternatives for reunification.

Discussions with state administrators demonstrate that ASFA is being taken seriously. Legislative changes to bring state policy and statutes into compliance have been instituted, and administrators are working at the state, county, and local levels to implement new policy and practice. All states have adopted ASFA requirements through legislation.

Instituting and adapting to shortened timelines was a dominant topic of our discussions with administrators. States seem to be focused on ways to abide by the timelines for permanency. As a result, states and their foster care staff recognize the need to make permanency decisions sooner and are looking for any and all tools at their disposal to help deal with the rush for permanency. Those mentioned most often by state administrators included concurrent planning, guardianship, and kinship support.

States reported that reunification is the first permanency option they consider for every child entering care. However, the implementation of the new timelines has given adoption considerable attention. Adoption is commanding a great deal of time and money in states, as illustrated by the number of states that mentioned new adoption initiatives. States are putting much effort into locating new adoptive homes for children, particularly for children who have been in the foster care system for a significant period of time.

Relatives also are receiving an enormous amount of attention. States recognize that relatives are an important resource for permanency for children. States are making an effort to locate relatives as soon as a child comes into care and make them part of the permanency process  providing foster care, participating in case decisionmaking, and even providing adoptive homes for children.

Child permanency is dependent on collaboration between agencies. Some states appear to be renewing their efforts to collaborate with other agencies, the courts, and policy makers to expedite permanency within the new timelines. This can be a very difficult task for overburdened child welfare agencies, particularly when dealing with strained court systems and a lack of appropriate community resources.

States seem to be trying to balance the need to expedite permanency with the desire to reunify families. State administrators report that reunification is still the primary goal for families in the child welfare system. However, as much as states want to preserve families through reunification, they also recognize that letting a child linger in the foster care system is not an adequate response to the needs of the child. State administrators report that they believe the expedited timelines instituted by federal and state law were necessary. Some administrators reported relief by staff, as timelines provided a rationale for terminating a parent's rights and seeking a permanency option other than reunification for children whose parents are not able to resolve issues that brought the child into care. But at the same time, administrators spoke about the concern that permanency would become equivalent to adoption, and reunification would become the exception rather than the norm for families.

State policy makers continue to look for programmatic tools to assist in achieving permanency for children in foster care. Looking at initiatives across states, relative and non-relative homes are being sought to provide permanency for children. Children who have spent years in the foster care system are now part of the "backlog" for whom permanent placements must be found. Some of these children are in their teens and do not want to be adopted. They will remain in state custody with a goal of emancipation or independent living. However, many other children will require a legally permanent relative placement or an adoptive home. As a result, states are spending a great deal of time and money to implement initiatives to find adoptive homes and encourage and support relatives who can provide homes for children.

Despite the apparent push toward adoption, foster care administrators are still optimistic about reunification as a priority and, overall, do not see an about-face on the issue of reunification. They declared a need for proper resources for education of staff and training tools to achieve progress in reunifying families under shortened timelines. Most believed that reunification will remain the first priority among permanency options for families and will maintain priority status through the development of methods to speed the progress of reunification with families.

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2. Reunification From Foster Care in Nine States 1990-1997:  Description and Interpretation

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. Children first entering foster care from 1990-1994 were tracked through administrative data for three years after entry. The proportion of children exiting to various living situations (e.g., reunified, in relative placement, adopted, in guardianship, etc.) were 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.

Reunification Analysis.  There are similarities in reunification patterns across all states. This is seen most clearly in the timing of discharges from care  exits by family reunification tend to occur earlier in foster care episodes than do other types of exits. The likelihood of reunification also tends to be similarly related to the same child and case attributes across most states.

There is also extensive variability in reunification patterns across states. This is seen most clearly in the overall prevalence of reunification  as the proportion of foster care exits that are achieved via family reunification varies widely across the nine states.

These apparently contradictory statements are drawn from empirical observation of reunification patterns during the mid-1990s. It is important to note that foster care reunification is not an isolated process, but rather one that is embedded in many other dynamics of state child welfare systems. Reunification levels are influenced greatly by the composition of the foster care population, and depend in part on the decisions that determine placement in foster care.

The prevailing feature of the reunification process is that the likelihood of exit by reunification is highest at the beginning of a child's stay in foster care, and gradually decreases as time in care elapses. For all foster care episodes observed in these data, approximately 8 percent ended in reunification during the first month of care, about 30 percent during the first year in care, and about 40 percent during the first three years in care.

As a result, reunification tends to occur earlier (or for episodes of shorter duration) than other types of foster care exit. This pattern is consistent with two widely held tenets of child welfare practice: that foster care is intended to serve as a temporary intervention in a time of family crisis, and that family reunification is the preferred outcome of placement in alternative care arrangements. For a certain segment of the foster care population, relatively rapid reunification is achieved.

The likelihood of reunification is related to a number of variables describing both child and case characteristics:

Child characteristics. Children more likely to become reunified are those who entered care between the ages of 1 and 11 years, white and Hispanic children, and children from outside of the largest urban counties. Children less likely to be reunified include those who entered foster care as infants or teens, African-American children, and those from the largest urban counties. A child's gender had no relation to reunification.

Case characteristics. Children are more likely to be reunified when they are in their first foster care placement, when their episode involves only one residence (no moves), and for those states where it is measurable, when they are placed with non-relatives. Children are less likely to be reunified if they have reentered foster care, if their episode involves movement between residences, and if they are in kinship placements.

Trends. Under multivariate controls, the likelihood of reunification was decreasing steadily over time. The children who entered foster care in 1994 were 17 percent less likely to exit by reunification than those who entered during 1990.

States. For the most part, the direction of most of these relationships was consistent across states, although there was some variability in magnitudes. This suggests that the reunification process is similar in the different systems.

Reentry Analysis. Overall, 17 percent of the observed family reunifications resulted in the child re-entering foster care within one year of exit. Reentry to foster care is a significant signal that the reunification was not fully successful. A multivariate analysis was performed on the likelihood of reentry after an exit by reunification.

Higher reentry levels were observed for children who entered care during their teenage years, children who had been placed in congregate care arrangements during their stay in foster care, children whose initial spell in care was shorter in duration, children who had previously experienced a reentry to foster care, children from the non-urban counties, and for African-American children.

Lower reentry levels were observed for children who had entered as pre-teens, children who had been placed in family foster homes, children whose previous spell had been longer in duration, children who had experienced only one stay in foster care, children from large urban counties, and for Hispanic children.

The likelihood of reentry after reunification exits was increasing moderately over time.

Adoption Analysis. The age of the child at entry to foster care is the dominant factor in these models. Children who were placed in foster care as newborns (0-2 months of age) had a much greater likelihood of adoption than other children. (Approximately 3 times higher than children who entered at 3-12 months of age, 5 times higher than 1-2 years, etc.) This is a combination of the "attractiveness" of young children to potential adoptive parents and of the increased chance that the birth parents of newborns placed in foster care are at higher risk of losing their parental rights than parents of older children.

Other factors related to increased likelihood of adoption include: children from non-urban counties, white children, children in first foster placements, children in family foster arrangements, and children with longer duration in alternative care.

Factors related to a lower likelihood of adoption include: children from large urban counties, African-American children, children who have reentered foster care at least once, children in congregate care placements, and children with briefer duration of time in foster care.

A substantial increase in adoptions was noted over time, with children who entered foster care in 1993 being over 20 percent more likely to exit via adoption than the children who entered foster care in 1990.

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3. The Role of Race in Parental Reunification

The Role of Race in Parental Reunification 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.

This paper provides information from a secondary analysis of data collected for the National Study of Preventive, Protective, and Reunification Services Delivered to Children and Their Families.(2)  The paper addresses three questions. First, is race a strong predictor of reunification when combined with other important child, family, or case history characteristics? The analyses revealed that race is a strong predictor of reunification when combined with other important child, family, and case history characteristics. White children were more likely to be reunified than black children. Second, what other child, family, or case history characteristics are also strong predictors of reunification? The analysis reveals four important predictors of reunification in addition to race: age of entry, caretaker job skills, caretaker substance abuse problems, and caretaker services. In particular, age of entry was found to be significantly related to reunification. Rates of reunification rose directly with increases in the age that the children entered foster care. Third, are the main effects of race reduced when controlling for other important predictors? The analyses found that controlling for the other key predictors does not reduce the independent effects of race. In sum, it was concluded that race continues to play a major role in the reunification of children in addition to other child, family, and case history characteristics.

The analyses also found kinship placement to be inversely related to reunification: children who were placed with kin were less likely to be reunified than children placed with non-relatives. Moreover, this study found that kinship placement did not continue to be significantly related to reunification, when combined with race and the other predictors in the regression models. Thus, it was concluded that the higher kinship placements of black children do not explain their lower reunification rates relative to white children.

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4. Casework Decision Making

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 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.

The workers reported having adequate staff and sufficient services available to address clients' needs. In addition, the agencies have well-defined decision-making procedures in place that involve input from colleagues, supervisors, service providers, attorneys, and other county staff. This well-defined process  whether or not followed through completely for every case  allows these workers to feel they have sufficient guidance and support to make fair decisions for children and their families. Consequently, the workers we talked with appeared confident about their decision-making capabilities, given the agencies' systems of checks and balances.

However, under ASFA, caseworkers must make decisions faster, while they continue to deal with children and families with difficult problems. The implementation of new time limits, coupled with the troubled families coming into the child welfare system, has created a paradox for caseworkers and administrators. On the one hand, caseworkers and administrators believe that the shortened time limits provided by ASFA are fair and proper in order to expedite permanency for children and avoid foster care drift. On the other hand, workers find it difficult to tackle the intransigent problems and situations of families coming into the foster care system within these shortened time limits. Workers continue to face the overwhelming troubles of children and families entering the foster care system without any new or improved ways to deal with the problems of these families, despite the need to either reunify families or find other permanent living arrangements for children more quickly.

Broadening permanency. The timeframes of ASFA require workers to consider all permanency options from the time the child enters care. Workers and administrators believe strongly in reunifying families and continue to make family reunification the initial goal of all families served by their agencies. However, the focus on keeping children and their parents together if at all possible has diminished under the new time limits. If a family cannot be reunited within 15 months so that the child can live safely at home, then it may be determined that the child must live permanently in an alternative safe and stable household.

To meet the permanency needs of children who cannot return home from foster care, agencies have turned to relative placement as the permanency option of choice when reunification is not possible. Permanency with relatives encompasses a variety of arrangements, including licensed foster care placements, unlicensed or informal placements, custody arrangements in lieu of foster care placement, legal guardianship (subsidized and unsubsidized), and adoption. In fact, one agency referred to relative placements as reunification and counted them as reunifications in their data.

Another agency used relatives as legal guardians (unsubsidized) to divert children from entering foster care. Relatives were located by CPS prior to placement and given legal custody of the child so that the case never entered the foster care unit. This is an obvious way to keep children from foster care placement and avoid the costs of having the child in care. However, diverting the child from foster care also diverted the child's parents from receiving most services through the child welfare system, thereby failing to make any attempt to solve the problems that required placement of the child out of the home.

Relatives' roles with respect to children in the child welfare system are diverse and debated. The increased use of relatives as permanent alternatives for children creates further reason to step back and clearly define the roles they play. Although placement in the family structure can be an ideal permanency placement for a child that can offer family continuity, from a child's point of view living with a relative can be very different from returning home to his or her birth parents. Alternatively, placement with a relative  formally or informally  may be the most permanent arrangement a child will experience. Policy for relative placements has been pieced together over time in response to changing needs. Issues surrounding the emotional and financial implications to birth parents, children, and relatives need to be considered comprehensively. Relatives are a valuable resource and a thoughtful and systematic approach to defining their expanding role is critical.

Watching the clock. The time limits instituted by ASFA require workers to make decisions on permanency when a child has been in care 15 of the past 22 months. It is clear that workers are mindful of the time they have to work with birth parents. Workers found that the time limits relieved them of some of the responsibility for deciding how many months  or years  services should be provided to parents while their children remain in foster care. Most workers said they believe the time limits are fair to birth parents and in the best interest of children. There were a few workers who mentioned conflicting feelings over struggling to reunify families within 15 months. The conflict of these workers is understandable as agencies move from allowing families an extended period of time to achieve reunification to an emphasis on watching the clock and expediting permanency.

Critical to making these difficult decisions in shorter time periods is having sufficient information to assess a family's strengths and weaknesses. However, workers reported that the assessment procedures they use have not changed since ASFA.

Concurrent planning, although implemented by the agencies prior to ASFA, is the primary tool used to comply with the new time requirements. Concurrent planning has changed the focus and approach of case planning and decision making. Agencies and workers use concurrent planning as a tool to convey clearly to parents early in the planning process that they have a limited amount of time to resolve the problems necessary for reunification or they may lose parental rights to their children. However, we found that, in practice, workers did not actively work toward an alternative permanency plan until they determined that reunification was unlikely. Moreover, some workers reported that they continued to try to reunify families even after the child's goal had been changed. Concurrent planning requires delicate balancing of coercion and encouragement. With the balancing act come tensions due to the inherent difficulties of working toward reunification while planning for the possibility of alternative permanency for the child and tension between the client and caseworker that sometimes occurs during the planning process. For these reasons, concurrent planning is dependent upon systematic training and supervision of casework practice. While some tensions were reported by workers, most embraced the concept because it allows them to establish consequences for parent noncompliance early in the relationship.

In search of new tools to assist in working with families, agencies reported using foster parent mentoring and family group planning as part of their foster care practices. Two of the agencies had recently begun implementing foster parent training on mentoring, and the third agency had an established foster parent mentoring program. However, agency staff revealed that these efforts, designed to enhance and support the reunification process, were not achieving that specific purpose in most cases.

All three agencies reported using some form of family conferencing or group planning as an enhancement to concurrent planning. This type of planning involves bringing together birth parents, relatives, close friends of the family, and sometimes even foster parents to participate in the case planning process and to ensure a safety network for the parents and children in support of reunification. However, this type of planning is usually successful only if the birth parents and children have relatives and close friends willing to participate in the reunification process. For families who lack this social support, the planning process includes little more than a meeting between the birth parents and caseworker. Also, relatives can act to aggravate birth parents if they are not supportive of reunification efforts. Workers discussed meeting with family groups for case planning but also said that they had cases without relative support. Discussions with some workers indicated that relatives were often included in the case planning to prepare them to care for the child. Some workers referred to these meetings as a time to put relatives on alert  telling them that if the birth parents did not comply with the reunification plan, the children would need another permanent home. Workers reported using the planning session more as a resource to find and prepare relatives as caretakers rather than to provide support for reunification.

Aside from foster parent mentoring and family group planning, it appears that these agencies are doing very little differently post-ASFA to enhance assessment or services to improve the likelihood of reunification within the shorter timeframe. With the need to achieve reunification more quickly, there is a need for tools to enhance efforts to reunify families within the timeframes.

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5. Permanency:  A Balancing Act

Permanency:  A Balancing Act, presents a framework for thinking about permanency and explores the status of reunification within the permanency continuum. The paper provides an analysis of information gathered across the research components.

The overall goal of the child welfare system has always been to maintain safety and permanency for children. Historically, the path to this goal has been riddled with ambivalence. At any one time, society emphasizes either family or child. A true balance of these interests seems elusive and the result is a child welfare system constantly in tension. Any choice of emphasis results in new tension which must be managed. A comprehensive approach to addressing the needs of both children and their families remains to be found.

The current tension is the result of a shortened timeline for permanency decisions. Although the new schedule conforms to the child's "sense of time," (i.e., his or her developmental needs) it conflicts with the fact that parental change often takes longer than is permitted under the new deadlines. In turn, this has created a tension among permanency options. 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 goal of permanency as a continuum rather than competing forces.

Balancing permanency and child safety in shortened time frames has resulted in a variety of responses throughout the service delivery system. Greater pressure is being placed on the courts to make permanency determinations in shorter timeframes. Since the implementation of PL 96-272 in 1980, which instituted 18-month court case reviews, there have been complaints of overburdened family courts and extensive delays in case reviews. The ASFA requirements of the 12-month court case review, permanency decisions by 15 months, and the increase in TPR cases, have put additional burdens on the court system.

New emphasis on relatives as a permanency option has created tensions between those who believe that relatives are the best way to keep children within the family unit and those who believe that "the apple does not fall far from the tree." Relatives are sought to keep children out of the system, as placements once a child has been put into the system, and as alternative options to reunification. Debate about the role relatives play is complicated by who is defining permanency and whether it is considered an emotional state of being, a legal status, or a fiscal issue. No matter the perspective, relatives are an increasingly used resource and the concerns over their role, the services needed to maintain a child in their custody, and the value placed upon them as resources need to be addressed.

The shortened timeframe of ASFA has shifted the focus from a presumption of reunification to a presumption of permanency, with reunification being a major option. As a result, there is greater emphasis on a parent's responsibility to change despite ASFA's implied expectations for reciprocal responsibilities of agencies and parents. A parent's personal responsibility is important for successful reunification, however, for family reunification to have a chance, the agency must uphold its responsibility to facilitate adequate services. Successful reunification requires addressing the problems of the parent, and that entails more than drawing up plans, setting appointments for treatment and visitation, and monitoring parents' progress. Greater success in reunifying families comes when agencies and their staff work to share the responsibility with parents. Staff need to assist and support parent treatment and visitation and provide adequate concrete and emotional support to bridge the gap between the parent problem and successful treatment.

This agency responsibility puts pressure on the service delivery system to develop targeted services to meet the needs of parents in a timely manner. Programs are varying the intensity of services, the length of time that services are provided, the point in a case when reunification services begin, and the extent to which post-reunification services are available to families. To target services effectively, information is needed on which services work best for which families and under which circumstances, focusing on accomplishing reunification in a time-limited period.

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6. The Evaluation of Programs for Permanency and Reunification

The Evaluation of Programs for Permanency and Reunification expands upon the conceptual paper and reviews what must be learned to develop more effective programs for achieving permanency. It 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 from state and local administrators and from site visits, the paper identifies possibilities for evaluation at various levels of rigor.

The core of all efforts to understand permanency and reunification in the current context is careful monitoring of system performance. Analysis of administrative data is central here, but should be augmented by special studies. Of particular importance are studies tracking children in various permanency arrangements, and collecting longitudinal information that goes beyond the data contained in administrative systems. In addition, studies are needed on topics that include:

  • How decisions are made by child welfare workers, administrators, and judges. This includes the use of risk assessment procedures and their effectiveness and a determination of how concurrent planning is working.
  • Evaluations of components of permanency and reunification practice, such as foster parent mentoring and family group conferencing.
  • Evaluations of family drug courts.
  • Evaluations of other approaches directed at substance abuse in families served by the child welfare system.
  • Evaluations of specific programs for permanency and reunification, in particular, wraparound programs and community oriented programs such as Family to Family.

These studies, if conducted in the most rigorous manner possible, will provide the solid evidence necessary to make policy and program decisions that will serve the best interests of children and families.

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The priority of child welfare agencies is to provide safe and permanent environments for children. The best way to accomplish this goal is to balance the needs of children and their families. These needs often conflict, creating inherent tensions at all levels of the service delivery system. While the tensions can be frustrating and even confusing, it must be recognized that the tensions are intrinsic to the problems being addressed. The challenge is to learn to successfully manage the tensions and use them as a vehicle for positive change. New policies are creating environments that emphasize child safety. Yet, programmatic efforts are being developed to try to balance the needs of children and their families. It will be very important to track the effects of policy changes on child, family, and system outcomes. Some of the questions to be answered include:  Will reunification rates drop significantly?  If they do, will children be in other permanent arrangements or in legal limbo?  Can concurrent planning be implemented effectively and if so, is it an effective approach for permanency?  How will it impact reunification of families?  And how are children faring under the many permanency options?

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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.

2.  U. S. Children's Bureau. 1997. National Study of Protective, Preventive, and Reunification Services Delivered to Children and Their Families. Washington, D. C: U. S. Government Printing Office.