“We have had our foster child for almost two years and nothing seems to be happening. Mother makes a little progress and then relapses. How long will this go on? When does the state give up on reunification and look for another permanent home?”
A good question, one that concerns many of us. While there are strong understandable reasons to maintain the birth family if it all possible, at some point, the child’s right to grow up in a permanent home becomes primary. The federal Adoption and Safe families Act (ASFA, 1997) has set some wise deadlines based on child development studies. In order to receive federal funding, state laws must generally follow suit.
Reunification is the first choice but another permanency plan can be substituted as early as three months in unusually negative circumstances. At the other end, in the words of a former Indiana Child Welfare Director, “One year is a long time in the life of a child. In third grade, it’s a long time till lunch.” The state is required to file for a termination of parental rights (TPR) after the child has been in temporary care for 12 months, or 15 of the past 22 months.
Foster children in Indiana spend an average of 20 months in foster care. Our average is well above the maximum time that research suggests is safe for any child to spend in temporary care. Why so long?
I could give many reasons for the delay, beginning with a shortage of caseworkers to enforce the law. Add to that, a tendency to give birth mother time initially to work out problems on her own. Underlying this is a strong bias that a genetic parent always has a prior right, that the child “belongs” to the parent. The legal timelines are there to protect the right of a developing child to placement in a safe and permanent home within “child time.”
The best strategy to shorten time in foster care is for the Department of Child Services (DCS) to start immediately. They can have a reunification plan within 24 hours of removing the child. It’s not complicated. The plan should state clearly the reasons for removal and counter them with practical remedies. Then monitor compliance weekly. Everyone benefits. Mother knows immediately what she has to do to get her child back. And DCS knows sooner rather than later whether the plan is working. Childhood is too short to delay.
How can foster parents help? By being aware of the timelines and working together with the caseworkers, CASAs, and court system to move things along.