A Guide for Limiting the Use of Long-Term Foster Care as a Permanent Plan —
Empirical research and child development theory emphasize that the best place for children to be raised is in a family environment, either with their birth parents or with new, permanent families. These forever families provide children with the continuity and stability they need to develop into healthy, secure adults, as well as ongoing support they can rely on for a lifetime. It was this recognition that led to the 1980 enactment of Public Law 96-272, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. In the 20 years before enactment, numerous studies documented long stays in care, unstable placements, little contact between social workers and families, and infrequent visits between children and their birth parents. By 1977, well over half of the 500,000 children in care had been there over two years. On average, children stayed in care for 47 months?nearly four years of their lives. The foster care system, intended to provide temporary care, had become home for far too many neglected and abused children.
Public Law 96-272 was designed to address these problems by refocusing child welfare practice on permanence for children. The legislation institutionalized the notion of permanency planning?"the systematic process of carrying out, within a time-limited period, a set of goal-directed activities designed to help children live in families that offer continuity with nurturing parents or caretakers and the opportunity to establish lifetime relationships" (Fein et al., 1990). Permanency options were designated in order of priority: 1) family maintenance and reunification with the birth family; 2) adoption; 3) guardianship; and 4) long-term foster care. This order was determined by how likely each placement was to provide long-term stability for the child within a family environment.
From 1979 to 1985, this renewed focus on permanence, accompanied by fiscal incentives to states, helped significantly decrease the number of children in out-of-home care and their lengths of stay. In the mid-80s, however, the emergence or increasing severity of family problems such as drug and alcohol addictions, AIDS, poverty, and violence reversed this positive trend. The number of children in out-of-home care increased approximately 75 percent from 1985 to 1995, and is once again nearing an all-time high of over 500,000 (CWLA, 1997).
Overwhelmed by the increasingly complex needs of families and children, systems are clearly struggling to achieve timely permanence for children in their care. In part, foster care rolls are growing because more children are staying in care longer (Wulczyn & Goerge, 1992). While the majority?roughly two thirds?return to their birth parents, the others, particularly those in care over 18 months, are never reunited (U.S. House of Representatives, 1996). Approximately 100,000 of the children in foster care will not return home, yet only 20,000 were adopted in 1995 and a mere 7,000 were permanently placed with guardians (CWLA, 1997). Although least likely to offer a child family continuity and stability, LTFC is designated as the permanent plan for a significant number of children. An APWA survey of 18 states revealed that 14.9 percent of children in care had long-term foster care as their case plan goal (APWA, 1994).
Given its significant role in permanency planning, the question remains: Can a long-term family foster care placement provide a child with a forever family?a family that will be a source of support for life, not just until a child turns 18? Achieving Permanence for Every Child is designed to address this question and encourage practitioners to challenge themselves to explore alternatives to long-term family foster care.
In this section, we reexamine what permanence means for children in foster care and explore why LTFC is used as a permanent plan. The section also identifies long-term effects of LTFC on children and the system, targets barriers to alternative permanency options, and suggests practical policy, management, and practice solutions.
Key Findings on the Use of Long-Term Foster Care
- Nearly all of the states we surveyed include LTFC among their permanency planning options. While most have an agency policy guiding the use of LTFC, few have a statute. Overall, the policies are not clear on when the use of LTFC as a permanent plan is appropriate and when it is not.
- The states we survey varied dramatically in their designation of LTFC. While in a few states as many as 17 to 23 percent of children in care have LTFC as their permanent plan, in others the percentage ranges from three to 12. Most children with this disposition are over age 12, but a significant number are under age 10. A high percentage are children of color.
- We examine why children have long-term foster care as their case plan from two viewpoints. First, we look at the explanations typically given by child welfare practitioners, which tend to focus on the circumstances of the child or family. Second, we explore the system barriers that, in many cases, are at the root of why children are relegated to long-term care.
The Effects of Long-Term Foster Care
- Long-term foster care is by far the most costly permanency planning option. Studies show that placing more children into adoptive or guardianship homes rather than with long-term foster families saves money, even when those placements are subsidized.
- Long-term foster care placements have the potential to provide permanence. But they often do not. A significant number of these placements disrupt, and the impact of frequent moves affects a child?s ability to function as an adult. Studies show that even when children grow up with stable, loving foster families, continued status as a foster child can adversely affect their self-esteem and identity. Based on their extensive review of the research, McDonald et al. (1993) conclude that adopted children fare better overall than those who remain in long-term foster care.
Alternatives to Long-Term Foster Care
We examine the system barriers to ensuring permanence for more children in care and offer practical front- and back-end solutions to these impediments.
- Systems do not collect data that portray an accurate picture of the children with LTFC as a permanent planStates need to collect descriptive data on children in LTFC placements and assess the stability of these placements.
- Permanency alternatives do not exist for relatives or tribes who are uncomfortable with termination of parental rights and adoptionSystems need to explore innovative options such as subsidized guardianship.
- Permanency alternatives are not available for children who have ongoing relationships with birth parents but cannot be reunitedSystems need to explore options such as subsidized guardianship and cooperative adoption.
- A number of child welfare professionals still view many special needs children as unadoptable, and do not devote sufficient resources to finding and supporting adoptive familiesAgencies need to allocate more time and resources for adoptive family recruitment and retention.
- Because many systems do not conduct conscious planning when children are initially placed, children may develop attachments to foster parents who are committed to long-term care of the child but are unwilling to adoptSystems need to conduct early assessment and planning to ensure that children do not drift into long-term foster care placements.
- Financial incentives encourage keeping children in foster care rather than moving them into adoptive homesAdoption assistance policies and practices need to be modified at the state and federal level to provide increased incentives for adoption.
Summary of Recommendations
The recommendations we proposed require reforms within several contexts?public policy, management, and practice.
- Systems should conduct early assessment and planning to ensure that children do not drift into long-term foster care placements.
- Agencies need to develop guidelines and procedures for making decisions about permanent plans.
- Public agency resources need to be redirected to allow targeted staff, in partnership with community-based agencies, to focus exclusively on achieving and maintaining permanence for specific children.
- States need to collect descriptive data on children in LTFC placements and assess the stability of these placements.
- Systems should locate and involve kin in case planning.
- Agencies need to explore mediation and cooperative adoption for children with emotional ties to their birth parents.
- Case workers need to offer adolescents more information and encouragement about adoption.
The President's recent Executive Memorandum challenges child welfare systems to increase the number of foster children who find permanent homes. Since LTFC offers children limited opportunities to achieve true permanence, agencies who rely heavily on the plan are unlikely to meet this goal. Agencies need to stop relying on LTFC and start addressing system barriers so that more children find forever families.
This section includes a tool for assessing the use of the long-term foster care as a caseplan. The tool provides exercises focused on gathering information, developing consensus around the use of long-term foster care as a case plan, and devising solutions to barriers for children with this plan.