“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”[i]
Improvement in achieving permanency has been positive but slow in the 15 years since the Adoption and Safe Families Act became law. Foster children in 2012 still spent an average of 23 months in temporary care. More than 100,000 children who already had their parental rights terminated still waited an average of 13 months for adoption. Ten percent (23,439) were emancipated without a permanent home, each one representing a failure of the system designed to protect them.[ii] We need to do better.
What holds us back? The causes of delay are many. They include bureaucratic malaise, a focus on detail over outcome, the failure to update case plans, multiple placements, overburdened and undertrained welfare staff, the inability of the major players to appreciate one another and work together, irrelevant policies and laws, a failure to understand the importance of attachment and bonding, and more.
Case managers tend to view foster homes as boarding houses or hotels, as a place where a child is provided with food, clothing and shelter. It is seen as unnecessary for foster parents to have a say about the children—as for a hotel manager to concern himself with the lives of his residents.
Many welfare staff believe that bonding does not or should not happen in a foster home. They may even warn foster parents not to become attached. If bonding does occur, it is ignored. This may help explain why some case managers seem to have minimal concern about moving a child from home to home. They are surprised when foster parents want or demand a say about the children in their care.
Foster parents, on the other hand, are the only ones with everyday knowledge of the children in their care. If they have had the child on a daily basis for three months or more, bonding may have occurred. Foster parents should have a significant voice at case conferences and in court. They do not.
Therapists may contribute to this problem when they approach bonding as a skill that can be learned in an office. They may believe that children can learn to adjust to loss repeatedly and adapt to new situations. The truth is otherwise. Bonding is not a skill. It is a deep-seated empathic response developed between people living together over time.
Change never comes easily. Change takes time, time which growing and developing children do not have. Childhood is a relatively brief period to prepare for adult life. The clock is ticking while children linger in foster care, waiting for those in charge to follow the mandated guidelines. Creating a sense of urgency about moving children from foster care to permanency is a first step.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The desired goal for a foster child is a permanent home. We need to do better by our charges. Here are some changes to practices and the system that might help children achieve the goal of permanence within child time.
- Begin immediately with a reunification plan. The case manager should work with the birth parent to prepare an initial but detailed plan for reunification within a day or two.
- Identify and notify all relatives of their option to become a resource for the child within 30 days of removal.
- Follow the federal timelines in updating the case plans. The three-, six- and 12-month mandated deadlines provide a basic guide to move the child from substitute care to permanency. The importance of time is too often downplayed or ignored. Child welfare departments need to provide education for their staff about the dangers of delay and require accountability.
- Train case managers and foster parents together. The case manager has the legal responsibility for the child’s welfare. The foster parent has 24/7 contact and knows best the child’s current circumstances. The laws and policies are mostly the same for both. By being in the same classes together, they might come to know and appreciate one another, improving the atmosphere for future cooperation.
- Focus on teens and preteens. Time is running out. Many foster teens have experienced multiple placements and disrupted relationships. They are at a challenging crossroads between child and adult. They have a naïve trust in themselves and they have learned not to trust family. Listen to them. Involve them in planning for permanence. Many such approaches exist that begin recruitment of a permanent home by asking the teen.
- Consider cooperative adoption. A cooperative adoption has many advantages for all concerned: the child, the birth parents and the adopting parents. Unless the parent-child relationship has been destructive, such an arrangement makes sense. Cooperative adoption is appropriate when the birth parents and adoptive parents know each other, the birth parents realize that they cannot care for their child but don’t wish to sever all contact, and the child is languishing in foster care. By facilitating a voluntary termination of the birth parents’ rights, these laws have permitted hundreds of foster children to be adopted with minimal delay.
- Explore permanency alternatives. When the more durable options of reunification and adoption are not possible, consider alternatives that promote post-emancipation connections. These include legal guardianship, peer bonding and important adult relationships.
- Legal guardianship. Caregivers can assume legal guardianship of a child in out-of-home care without the termination of parental rights that is required for adoption. Guardianship is most frequently used by relative caregivers who wish to maintain relationships between the child and extended family members. Legal guardianships, while not permanent, permit a family-type relationship free of state control.
- Peer bonding. If the agency cannot find adoptive adults, why not look at the young adult’s peers? Who are the foster youth’s friends? With whom do they hang out? Better than facing an unforgiving world alone, can they be emancipated together? Look to young people who share a common interest or task. Setting up a household. Raising their child together. Starting a business. Enjoying a hobby. A gay relationship. While these relationships may sometimes be stormy and may not last, neither do many marriages. Too often agencies try to prevent such relationships, believing them to be counter-productive to making it in a world governed by our rules.
- Relational Attachment. Although child welfare policies often focus on legal permanency, some youth may feel that the establishment of relational or emotional permanency is more important to them.[iii] Youth in foster care may choose to continue connections with mentors, coaches, neighbors, teachers, probation officers and others. Such ongoing relationships can improve outcomes in educational attainment, living situations, emotional well-being, interpersonal relationships, and coping.[iv]
- Adult adoption of emancipated youth. When the adoption of a teen appears problematic for a variety of reasons, some attorneys have opted for legal guardianships as a temporary holding strategy. Once the youth reaches age 18 and becomes an adult, the adoption of a young adult becomes much less complicated. Why not use the legal guardianship as an intermediate step? Permanency is achieved with less red tape. It’s never too late.
- Work primarily in therapy with and through the parents rather than the child. The healing of attachment disorders takes place in the home, not in a therapist’s office.
- Streamline the system. Like many inefficient organizations, the child welfare system often seems more focused on process than on outcome. Many large American corporations run very efficiently with minimal waste. Amazon and Costco are two examples among many. Why not invite one of them to help introduce efficiency into a lumbering bureaucracy? Making use of their expertise would be smarter than asking for more money to do things the same old less-than-efficient way. With a clear eye on the desired outcome, the road map to permanence within child time can be documented, with appropriate rewards for achieving intermediate objectives.
- Eliminate barriers to interstate adoption. Americans adopted 11,058 children in 2010, of whom only 537 were foster children from across state lines. There are far more people wanting to adopt foster children than there are children in need of families. Only one family out of every 28 who contacts a child welfare agency actually adopts. Why this discrepancy? The “No Barriers” report recommends a national adoption system to standardize recruitment of adoptive families, criteria for approval, training, and federal funding that shares costs fairly.[v]
- Change the financial incentives for private agencies. Reward the outcome of adoption equally with long-term foster care. When the money is in continuing foster care, why would an agency be highly motivated to recruit an adoptive family?
4. Promote help for overburdened and undertrained case managers. The American Association of Social Workers suggests a maximum caseload of seven children. We need to brainstorm where the money will come from to increase and improve the child welfare staff.
- Provide a significant voice for foster parents in conferences and courts. Support legislative and policy strategies to provide foster parents with notice of hearings and standing. Although they have everyday knowledge and the most immediate information to offer, they are often ignored. They are frequently not invited to case conferences, and are the only players not routinely a party to the legal proceedings.
- Build on success. Learn from the many state and agency programs that have shown promise.[vi]
- Encourage law schools to offer courses and programs about foster/adopt policies and laws. In contested adoptions, attorneys and the courts become the major players.
- Encourage education about attachment and bonding in psychology and social work programs and in the training of child welfare workers. Train case managers to be aware of “child time” as is so clearly expressed in ASFA’s deadlines.
- Train child welfare workers thoroughly in child psychology and development. Case managers need to know what is happening to a growing child when left to drift in foster care.
- Improve the court system. Three major organizations have analyzed the way our court system has served juveniles in substitute care and come up with multiple recommendations.
- The Pew Commission for court reform made many practical suggestions, including encouraging chief justices to create and oversee dedicated dependency courts, and to promote workload and training standards, standards of practice, and codes of judicial conduct that achieve better outcomes for dependent children.
- Casey Family Programs conducted an assessment of 11 court systems that have promising practices for achieving youth permanency. They listed many successful themes, including holding review hearings more frequently, requiring youth to attend, providing cross and joint training, and revising policies to implement new strategies.[vii]
- The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has developed Resource Guidelines: Improving Practice in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases to assist judges and other court staff better manage court practice for child maltreatment cases. The NCJFCJ Model Courts program seeks to institute procedural reforms to improve outcomes for children in foster care.
- Identify appellate court decisions that stand in support of ASFA and have the force of law. Attorneys and judges should be aware of the many decisions that support bonded relationships over genetic ties alone.
Children remain unnecessarily parked for long durations in out-of-home care. Too many are emancipated from the system each year without a permanent home. A sense of urgency in attaining permanency for foster children should prevail throughout the foster care system.
The foster care system needs continuing reform. The desired outcome or goal is permanence for every child within a year. The recommendations for change offered in this chapter come from many sources and merit discussion. Hopefully, they will stimulate other promising ideas and the courage to act in innovative ways. Every child has the right to a permanent home.
Chapter 18: Recommendations for Change: A Blueprint for Action Notes
[i] Margaret Mead
[ii] AFCARS, 2013
[iii] Jim Casey, “The Casey Young Adult Survey: Findings Over Three Years,” Casey Family Programs - Fostering Families, Fostering Change, 2005
[iv] See Kym Ahrens, David Dubois, Michelle Garrison, Renee Spencer, Laura Richardson and Paula Lozano, “Qualitative exploration of relationships with important non-parental adults in the lives of youth in foster care,” Children and Youth Services Review, 33(6), June 2011, 1012-1023; also Rosemary Avery, “An examination of theory and promising practice for achieving permanency for teens before they age out of foster care,” Children and Youth Services Review, 32(3), March 2010, 399–408.
[v] Jeff Katz, “Eliminating Barriers to the Adoption of Children in Foster Care. Recommendations for Nationwide Reform,” Report of Harvard “No Barriers” group prepared by Listening to Parents, 2012.
[vi] Information is available at the Child Welfare Information Gateway, National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.
[vii] Casey Family Programs. Breakthrough Series Collaborative: Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Integration, 2010.