When Policy Meets Practice: The Untested Effects of Permanency Reforms in Child Welfare

Article excerpt

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (P.L. 105-89; ASFA) passed into federal law in 1997. ASFA emphasized child protection over family preservation, and introduced reforms intended to increase the likelihood and the speed with which children in the child welfare system attain a permanent home. This article details two provisions of the law, concurrent planning and reunification exception, and explores challenges in their implementation. These provisions have the potential to shift the nature of how child welfare services are delivered, and which families will receive them. An examination of implementation in the state of California suggests there is a need for further research regarding the application and effectiveness of these reforms to ensure they produce their intended effects.

Keywords: concurrent planning, permanency, reunification exception

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ASFA was developed in a context of concern about the well-being of children served in the child welfare system. Legislators were troubled by the increasing numbers of children in foster care, and the long average length of stay they experienced, feeling that these problems were due to child welfare agencies making "extraordinary" efforts to reunify families (Foster Children, 104th Cong., 1996). Comments expressed during congressional debates are illustrative of these larger sentiments: "... The foster care system is keeping children in foster care for too long.... Abusive parents are, today ... given a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance, a fifth chance, and on and on.... while they try to get their act together ... their poor little children are shuttled from foster home to foster home" (Reasonable Efforts, 105th Cong., 1997). Legislators also expressed concern that children were being inappropriately returned to family situations in which they would still be at risk, due to agencies' misinterpretation of the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (P.L. 96-272). "The principle of making reasonable efforts to reunify families is too often misinterpreted to mean reunifying families at all costs--even abusive families that are really families in name only" (Reasonable Efforts, 105th Cong., 1997).

National data provide some support for these concerns. The number of children in foster care has been rising over time. While at the end of 1986, there were approximately 280,000 children in out-of-home care (Tatara, 1994), that estimate had climbed to 523,000 by 2003 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005a). Part of the growth in the foster care population resulted from an imbalance between foster care entries and exits: throughout the 1990s, entries exceeded exits in most large states (Wulczyn, Hislop, & Goerge, 2000). Based on point-in-time counts of all children in foster care in FY 2002, the mean length of stay for children in out-of-home care was 32 months, and the median length of stay 18 months, while approximately 20% of children who left care in fiscal year 2002 had been in care three years or more (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005b). Moreover, almost half of the 126,000 children in care "waiting" for adoption--children either with a case plan goal of adoption or who had parental rights terminated for both parents--had been waiting three or more years (USDHHS, 2005b). Longitudinal data show similar trends (for California data see: Needell et al., 2005).

For children who have been reunified, there is a relatively high rate of re-abuse and re-entry to care. In 44 states reporting these data, approximately 8% of children experience subsequent maltreatment within six months of the initial referral (USDHHS, 2005c). In California, approximately 13% of children discharged from care re-entered the system within 12 months (Needell et al., 2005).

As one means of addressing these issues, Congress passed P.L. 105-89 in 1997 with expectations of reducing children's stays in foster care, and expediting alternative permanency options for children who can not return home. …