You have in your hands a young human life.
Listen to the birth parents, the foster parents, and the child.
Every child has the right to a permanent home.
Act with wisdom and minimal delay.
Foster children are technically “wards of the court,” under the guardianship of the child welfare department and their case managers. The primary legal responsibility for foster children lies with the state. The child welfare department has the power to make and change policies and the responsibility to see that the laws and policies are followed. More than any of the other major players, the child welfare department has the power to facilitate the ultimate goal: assuring safety and achieving permanence within one year.
The failure to recognize the foster child’s compelling need for permanence is a major cause of foster care drift. Too often, case managers take an unwarrantedly long time, providing the birth parents with chance after chance. They assume that the child is in a safe home while time runs on, vacillating back and forth between the needs of the biological parents, the foster/adopt parents and, often in last place, the needs of the child. Children may be reunited with birth parents repeatedly, only to be removed once again when birth parents are unwilling or unable to care for the child. Delaying to “get it right” becomes a silent but very real form of child abuse.
Bureaucracy is another major cause of delay. The system has many rules and many players: child protection services, child welfare case managers, private child welfare agencies, the courts, specialists and therapists, Guardians ad Litem, Court-Appointed Special Advocates, the birth parents and the foster parents. Each party may have its own vested interests and its own attorney. When one party fears losing and sees waiting as an advantage, that party may use the time-tested legal strategy of postponement and continuances. The child is harmed by delay, yet rarely does anyone represent the child’s right to a timely solution.
The child welfare system is understaffed. Case managers are undertrained and overburdened. Turnover is high. Attention is necessarily focused on immediate crises. Children who have food, a roof over their heads and no reported problems are seen as safe and often left to remain in foster care.
Child welfare departments make and enforce the policies that provide the framework for action. Here are five general policy recommendations that would help shorten the time in foster care and move temporary care toward permanence.
- Strengthen the casework staff to support permanency. Workers overburdened with caseloads are not able to provide optimum services to youth and families. Provide practical training to include youth-centered strategies, preparation for permanency and post-placement support. Avoid frequent changes in the worker assigned to a child.
- Classify foster homes into three simple categories: (1) Foster homes open to adoption. (2) Temporary foster homes. (3) Homes open to both temporary and permanent possibilities. When reunification seems unlikely at the start, the child can begin in a foster home that offers the best permanency alternative. Moves can be kept to a minimum.
- Keep detailed public statistics: The availability of county-by-county and statewide statistics on reunifications, adoptions and emancipations would hold welfare departments accountable. Interested parties could note the average length of time spent in foster care and which counties appeared to be doing a better job. By documenting successes and failures, the child welfare administration would know where improvement was necessary.
- Reverse the financial gain for licensed child-placing agencies handling children in foster care. Make it less and less rewarding to keep a child in care after 12 months, or as adolescence approaches. After a child turns 10, begin lowering the amount incrementally that the agency receives, and offer a bonus for safe and appropriate permanence.
- Rethink home-finding for children in care, especially older children. Nearly one-half of foster children are 11 or older and about 20 percent are over 15. We need to seek out new ways to search for permanent homes. Pat O’Brien in New York offers one such approach.
The key role of the Child Protective Services investigator is to determine if the child is at risk. When the danger is immediate and severe, the CPS worker must work with law enforcement to ensure the child’s safety. Often a safety plan can be developed to keep the child safe within the home. If that cannot be done, the child may be placed elsewhere, with acceptable relatives or in a foster home.
If the facts make clear that the child is in immediate danger and there is no safe family alternative, everyone would agree that an emergency removal is appropriate. What happens, however, when the evidence is not incontrovertible, but the CPS worker senses from experience that something is amiss. While the evidence may be incomplete, the worker believes that danger lies ahead. The CPS worker has a hard choice. Should I remove the child just to be on the safe side?
In that case, the investigator may try to influence or encourage the parent/caregiver to voluntarily relinquish custody for a time. What happens when persuasion fails? Can the investigator resort to coercion, using various threats or forcibly take custody of the child. If persuasion crosses the line into coercion, has that CPS worker behaved unethically or illegally?
Taking a child from his or her home is not an easy choice for the CPS worker. Whatever choice is made, risk is involved. The removal probably disrupts a significant relationship and begins an uncertain period in temporary care. There is rarely a clear “safe side.” Separation from the family is life-changing event with both positives and negatives. Here are a few suggestions to help the CPS worker maintain the birth home when possible and still act to protect the child when necessary.
- Beware of the easy solution to remove. There is rarely a choice without negatives.
- When in doubt, take history. Gather more facts. And do it quickly.
- Assess the motivation and willingness of the birth parents to make the necessary changes. Follow up by checking daily during the critical period.
- Consult with your supervisor and/or other child protection workers.
- Explore all alternative strategies that would allow the family to remain intact. An immediate change of housing? The departure of an abusive boyfriend? Daily drug and alcohol screens? A responsible relative willing to live in for a time? Check regularly to make certain of compliance.
- Write down what alternatives you have considered, and document why you have chosen to maintain or remove.
A good case manager is more than a bureaucratic functionary. The case manager can make the difference in achieving timely permanence for the child. For the case manager to be wise and effective, however, he or she needs to be fully informed. Continuing professional education is a must. Here are a few neglected items that need to be a part of case manager education.
- Know what bonding means and what happens when it is interrupted. Bonding and permanence are critically important. Acknowledge the fact that every child has the right to a permanent home.
- Know ASFA’s timelines and why they are important. Call for case planning conferences and court hearings to assure that they are followed.
- Realize that you are a member of the team. Cooperating with the birth and foster parents rather than trying to dominate them is a better strategy for serving the child. Respect the positions and rights of other team members. Keep them informed about the background and situation of the children.
- Realize that saving money is not your primary job. The money is not yours. You are not the custodian and arbiter of federal and state tax revenues. You are the conduit. Your job is to get the money that is prescribed by law to the recipients who, according to law, are entitled to these funds.
One strong way to promote cooperation would be to train case managers and foster parents in the same sessions. Why not? They are both subject to the same policies and laws. Working together on a common task to best serve the child and understanding the differences in their roles might help them work cooperatively.
- Model the belief that permanency is possible for all youth, regardless of age.
- Encourage case managers to be open to what the youth themselves have to say.
- Be open and encouraging to new workers who want to try something different.
- Be open to other innovations, using online search engines and Facebook to find missing relatives.
- Encourage workers to never give up. Finding a permanent home for a child is too important. Help workers to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
- Celebrate in a big and public way when a worker has helped find a permanent connection for an older youth.
- Listen to the birth parents. The parents, not the case manager, are the important players. Hear not only their words but learn from their behavior. Are they doing what they promised?
- Maintain the birth home without removing the child when possible. If necessary to guarantee safety, provide the birth parents with regular in-home services.
- Start immediately. A case plan can and should be developed within a day or two after removal. The reunification plan should state specific tasks and standards which the legal parents must meet in order to be reunited with their child. This is not brain surgery. Address the problems that led to the child’s removal. If the housing is substandard, the birth parents must find new housing. If the parents have little parenting skill or the child was left alone, require parent training classes. If a boyfriend abused the child, get rid of the boyfriend. If one or both parents were on drugs, they may need to pass random drug screens. And so on. The case manager can take the initial working plan to the judge and get it baptized by court order.
- Monitor the case plan weekly. No better way exists to obtain compliance than to check personally each week. Are the birth parents doing what is necessary for the return of their child? Regular monitoring builds a strong case for or against reunification.
- Revise the case plan. As new information becomes available, make any appropriate changes or additions. The case manager and the judge will have the information about early compliance. The clock will be ticking, either on the way to reunification or toward termination.
- Locate any relatives within two weeks. One major cause of delay is the eleventh-hour relative, sometimes referred to as kin-come-lately. Just when a termination of parental rights is about to happen, an unattached relative from far away emerges: an uncle, a grandmother or a half-sibling. The proceedings come to a halt while this new matter is considered. A thorough immediate search for potential relative placements will avoid this delay.
- Listen to them. They have up-to-date daily knowledge of the child under their care. They will have suggestions about schooling and possible therapy. And they care about the child, or they would not have become foster parents.
- Avoid unnecessary moves. Every placement of a foster child should be made as if it were the last. Patterns of relating are formed and solidified in the child’s personality, only to be disrupted if and when a move is made. Multiple moves are abusive to the child and to the foster parents.
- Implement concurrent planning. Concurrent planning is nothing more than contingency arrangements for a rainy day. If we were to plan a picnic, we would usually have an alternative in case it rained. We do this for all important matters. To avoid delay, the case manager must make a fallback plan, a second choice, something else to implement if and when the primary effort at reunification fails. Our vulnerable children deserve at least that much.
- Eliminate emancipation to independent living as a permanency plan. Five percent of foster children in 2012 had their permanency plan listed as independent living. Independent living is not a permanency plan. Rather, it is an outrageous euphemism for failure.
- Explain entitlement to federal and state subsidies to foster/adopt parents. Don’t imply that the foster parents are being greedy in demanding funds to which, according to law, they are entitled. The child, not the foster parent, is entitled to the funds, and the foster parent must care for the child. As conduit of the funds, the case manager is bound in duty to inform the foster/adopt parent fully and accurately of all the subsidies to which the child and family are entitled.
- Don’t accept delay. When you need the court’s approval to make a change, file a motion and speak up. You are the child’s guardian. Argue against bureaucratic continuances. Indicate that moving matters forward in child time constitutes an emergency.
- Know and follow the federal timelines. File for hearings as indicated. The court generally reviews the status of children in care every three months. If the birth parents do not appear to be making a reasonable effort for reunification by six months, the permanency plan can be changed to adoption. Federal law (ASFA) requires that a termination of parental rights be filed after 12-15 months of out-of-home care. These deadlines are vitally important and need to be honored. In a report to the court, include specific markers indicating progress or the lack of it. Beware of giving your undocumented impressions. If you have an opinion, back it up with facts.
- Provide follow-up services when needed. Reunification has a much higher rate of success if services to the birth parents can be continued. More important than psychological counseling are tangible needs for housing, employment, food and clothing.
The case manager is the power broker in achieving permanence within child time. As the child’s legal guardian, his or her job is to guide the abused child through a complicated system toward a safe and stable outcome. The job begins when neglect or abuse is substantiated. The wise case manager will then work cooperatively with the birth and foster parents. He or she will work with the courts to see that the timelines are followed to avoid drift in temporary care. And through it all, the case manager will keep the desired outcome in the forefront: to find the child a permanent home.
Chapter 14 How the Child Welfare Department Can Help Notes
 O. Ketcham, “Parental laws must put children first,” The Sacramento Bee, B, p.9, 1998.
 D. Pollack, “Coercion and Child Protective Services Investigations, Policy & Practice, 71(6), 30-31. Retrieved December 13, 2013 from Marsh Law Firm’s ChildLaw Blog.