As the critical times of development pass, great harm is inflicted on abused and neglected children. Despite this, America has a bad track record when it comes to permanence.
Consider the following statistics:
- The mean amount of time spent in foster care is 24 months, according to recent federal data. The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), passed in 1997, requires states to initiate the termination of parental rights after a child has been in care for 15 of the most recent 22 months.
- On average, children today wait in temporary care for more than a year after the parental rights of their birth parents have been terminated.
- Between 1999 and 2012, the percentage of children aging out of foster care to so-called “independent living” increased from eight to ten percent.
The remedy is obvious. Return the child to the birth home or find a new one with minimal delay. The child is the client, not the state nor the birth parents nor the foster parents. Time is not on the side of a growing child.
Yet despite our understanding of developmental psychology and the statistics about poor outcomes for children when they are allowed to remain overly long in temporary care, unacceptable delays occur. We must and can do better. Child care workers need more than a pep talk. Why not adapt some successful business strategies?
Clarify the outcome. Reunification and adoption are the only two truly permanent outcomes. We have sometimes excused ourselves by clever relabeling of other partial resolutions.
Involve all the “players.” Management invites input from customers, suppliers, and workers. This is less true in the foster care system. Foster parents are the only ones with 24/7 knowledge of the children in their care and may be one of the options for a permanent home. Yet they are frequently ignored in case conferences and court.
Recognize effectiveness. “Pay” most attention to those activities that enhance and ultimately achieve permanence. Give the birth parent an immediate plan to remedy the reasons for removal so he or she can begin at once. Check compliance weekly from the start. Recognize when the birth parent is on track to meet the ASFA timelines.
Welfare supervisors need to monitor and encourage their staff. Recognize when the case manager checks on compliance weekly. Note the presence in the file of a contingency plan for permanence. Publicly applaud each reunification and adoption.
Rewards come in many forms. Use bulletin boards to display progress toward permanency goals. Recognize a case manager of the month. Keep a scrapbook for managers with pictures of those children he or she helped to find a permanent home. Celebrate each small success.
Provide quality control. Whenever we buy something on the Internet or stay at a hotel, we are asked to comment on our experience. Child welfare departments can similarly solicit, welcome, and review feedback from foster parents, older children, and other involved agencies.
Get beyond the adjustment cure. The primary goal is to find a permanent home. Providing “adjustment therapy” for a foster child is like trying to help someone in a burning building learn how to deal with fire. Like the fire victim, the child in temporary care needs to get to a permanently safe place as soon as possible.
Redirect the funding. Focus limited funds on those services more directly related to permanence, e.g. parent training, homemaker services, and recruitment of adoptive homes. Support the permanence option by continuing to make post-adoption payments at least equal to the per diem for foster care.
Once agencies and their staff recognize the importance of timely permanence, a business model along these lines can drive success.
Jim Kenny is a retired psychologist with over 50 years of clinical experience. The author of 13 books on family and child care, Dr. Kenny’s recent books are Attachment and Bonding in the Foster and Adopted Child and What Foster Parents Need to Know.