Waivers Causing a Rush to Reunification?

As the federal government considers whether or not to renew the Title IV-E waiver that Los Angeles County has been operating under since 2007, it is worth examining the recently released final independent evaluation of the effectiveness of the first several years of the

When L.A. County applied for the waiver they outlined four targeted outcomes they wanted to achieve: improved child safety, increased permanency, reduced use of out-of-home care, and increased child and family well-being.

According to the waiver evaluation by Dr. Charlie Ferguson, significant progress was made on the latter two objectives. But the results for improving child safety and increasing
permanency were not all positive.

Perhaps the most alarming finding was the increase in the rate of reentry into foster care following reunification. Since the waiver allowed L.A. County to recapture funds that would otherwise have been lost and gave it flexibility to expand initiatives like Family Team
Decision Making (FTDM), the county actually anticipated reducing the

reentry rate.

Instead, reentries into foster care following reunification increased by 15%.

The county Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) acknowledges the increase, but notes that “such an increase is not unusual when there is system change involving a movement towards taking only children with families with the most challenging needs into care.”

While it’s true that DCFS did reduce the number of removals from the home by 10.1% during the same time period, surmising that this translates into a higher percentage of families with “the most challenging needs” is speculative and does not fully account for
the large increase in reentries.

According to DCFS, increased reentries “may also be associated with an increased number of reunifications and shortened timelines to reunification.” This may be a more relevant explanation, considering the number of children in out-of-home care reunified with their families within 12 months increased by 9.3% under the waiver.

Studies have shown that shorter stays in out-of-home care are associated with an increased risk of reentry.  The concern being that short stays in foster care provide insufficient time to address the family issues that led to the initial removal.

Now consider the tremendous progress that LA County made in reducing its use of out-of-home care: The number of children in out-of-home care was reduced by 21.9% while the average number of days in placement decreased by 26.5%.

Add it all up, and a pattern begins to emerge. To meet its own stated objective under the waiver to reduce its reliance on out-of-home care, L.A. County starts removing fewer children from their homes, reducing the length of stay for children who are removed, and expediting its procedures for reunifying children with their families.

In theory this makes sense. Everyone knows that children in foster care have worse outcomes across the board, and state and federal law requires child welfare agencies to take reasonable steps to keep children with their families.

But problems begin to occur when arbitrary numbers and deadlines begin influencing the process in place of proper assessments and the use of best practices.

It’s very easy to envision a scenario where an agency preoccupied with reducing out-of-home care begins to rush kids back home to their families in order to decrease its out-of-home care use. This may very well have been the situation under the waiver at DCFS.

Reunifying a child with his or her family before all of the underlying problems have been addressed can set up a child for a recurrence of abuse and/or neglect and a family for failure. If DCFS has indeed been reunifying children with their families before they are ready, that would certainly explain the 15% increase in the reentry rate.

Assuming the federal government renews its waiver authority, Los Angeles should focus its attention on reducing the reentry rate during this next phase of the waiver. Any internal pressures or procedures that may be rushing reunification and unnecessarily exposing children to a recurrence of unsafe conditions should be immediately identified and

Post-reunification services should also be enhanced and expanded to support families that have recently been reunified and prevent reentry.

The broader lesson to learn from this reentry data that has implications for federal efforts to reform the child welfare financing system is that it demonstrates the dangers and shortcomings inherent with a narrow focus on out-of-home care reductions.

Improper and unnecessary foster care use should absolutely be eliminated. However, the foster care system plays a critical role in the child welfare continuum, ideally serving as a temporary safe placement for children while efforts are made to get their families
and homes ready for their safe return.

Rather than demonizing the foster care system or attempting to gut its funding, efforts should be made to strengthen it and improve its ability to serve children.

Sean Hughes is a member of The Chronicle of Social Change’s Blogger Co-Op. He is a policy consultant working with child welfare organizations in California and Washington, D.C, and spent 10 years as a Congressional staffer. 

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About Waln Brown, Ph.D. 22 Articles
Dr. Waln Brown spent his adolescence in an orphanage, detention center, state hospital and juvenile reformatory and is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation. Dr. John Seita experienced 15 foster care placements and is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University.