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Social Justice in Child Welfare

Permanent Planning in a Social Justice Framework

(Originally published August 2020)

This Sounding Board  is the third in a series of commentaries on social justice issues in child welfare. The first commentary, “A Social Justice Agenda in Child Welfare,” discussed poverty, race, use of power and caste in their application to child welfare policy and practice. Last month’s commentary addressed the preference in the Adoption and Safe Family Act (ASFA) for adoption over reunification and the potential for increasing safe reunifications created by programmatic innovations of the past 10-15 years. This Sounding Board continues the discussion around needed revisions to ASFA and the resources required to increase reunification rates while decreasing re-entry into care of reunified children. I also argue that permanent planning law and practice in the U.S. has been influenced by extreme income inequality and the country’s caste/class system which exemplifies vast differences in income, wealth and opportunities among children and families.    


Income inequality and social injustice

Extreme income inequality exacerbates social injustice in three major ways:


  1. Even in a wealthy country (such as the U.S.), the basic lower caste/class persons, including children, are often ignored or minimized. A recent study of food insecurity found that during one week of June 2020, 14 million children did not have enough to eat, i.e., were food insecure. This story received scant attention in major media. Homelessness is an endemic problem that frustrates policymakers in both political parties and which impacts the quality of life for all citizens, especially in urban areas. Millions of Americans lack dental and medical coverage, and even middle-class Americans may lack adequate medical coverage due to cost. Political differences aside, these conditions continue because of widespread indifference to the well-being of low-income children and families, and a refusal to acknowledge the full humanity of persons in the lowest caste/class.

  2. Extreme income inequality in the U.S. goes hand in hand with a high rate of incarceration (5-18 times higher than rates in other developed countries), and with an unforgiving attitude toward ex-convicts who may never regain the right to vote and are often burdened by financial penalties for years.  Police brutality is part and parcel of highly unequal societies.  Also, in South America right wing militias and vigilante groups have taken an active role in punishing alleged criminal activity (including the murder of street kids) and suppressing chaotic political protests.  

  3. In the U.S., public policy and philanthropic initiatives have been utilized to permanently separate children from lower caste/class families in response to parental mistreatment or destitution and/or to offer disadvantaged children a better future. Orphanages, orphan trains, Native American boarding schools, foster care and adoption have been responses to real threats to children’s safety and well-being, e.g.,  destitution, homelessness, child maltreatment, drug/alcohol abuse, domestic violence, chronic mental illness, or failure to educate or socialize children to rules of good citizenship. It is very difficult for many upper caste/ class persons to seriously consider the possibility that permanent separations of children from their parents and placement in upper caste/class families may do children more harm than good, while also damaging extended families, neighborhoods and communities.                                          


This is the social context which should be front and center in the discussion of child welfare reform.  Permanent planning for children placed in foster care does not occur in a social vacuum; it is an important feature of how a society treats its most disadvantaged children and families, including oppressed minorities.  In some countries, e.g.,  Australia, adoption of children is held in low regard because of how it has been used to permanently separate Aboriginal children from their parents and communities. There is far less enthusiasm for adoption in Scandinavian countries than in the U.S., arguably because a much larger percentage of children in foster care in Scandinavia are school age and have strong effective ties to parents and other family members that make adoption emotionally costly to children.


Attitudes toward permanent planning for children in U.S. foster care systems have been shaped by the large number of infants and other young children of substance abusing parents entering foster care, a feature of the U.S. child welfare system associated with the country’s child poverty rate and inadequate social welfare system,  and by the chronically relapsing nature of substance abuse and mood disorders common among neglecting parents.   


National and state child welfare leaders are proud of large increases in adoption (66,000 in FY 2018 vs. 38,000 in 1998) which they generally view as an unqualified benefit to adopted children. Curiously, social justice advocates have been far more concerned with racial disproportionality of children in foster care than with the large increase in adoptions and guardianships and reduction in the percentage of foster children exiting to reunification during recent years.   


How to revise ASFA   


ASFA contains three policy preferences that contribute to (rather than diminish) social injustice:  


  1. The preference for legal structure over voluntary agreements

  2. The preference for adoption over reunification as reflected in  federal adoption incentives to states for increased adoptions, but not reunifications

  3. The preference for legal permanency over relational permanency when these different types of permanency conflict


The insistence on legal structure and strict timelines for foster care placements makes sense for infants and other young children whose development depends on legally secure permanent families, but becomes increasingly questionable for children 5 and older who already have strong attachments to parents or relatives, and for children of all ages placed due to disabilities, behavior problems, parent-child conflict, or parents’ economic circumstances. The advantage (and disadvantage) of legal structure for children in foster care is that termination of parental rights becomes a serious possibility, especially when combined with ASFA timelines.  However, there are many children in foster care whose interests are not served by termination of parental rights for a variety of reasons. Insisting on legal structure for all children placed in foster care for longer than 2-3 months greatly increases the threat to parents associated with foster care.


Child welfare agencies should have the option of utilizing voluntary placement agreements for school age children for up to one year, with an additional year to establish a permanent plan through legal action, if necessary.  Allowing voluntary placements for 12 months for school age children would create the possibility of using temporary foster care for therapeutic purposes or as a response to family crises without threatening parental rights;  and recognizes the   “two steps forward, one step back” therapeutic process of treatment for drug/alcohol and chronic mental health problems.    


Some practitioners and child advocates are uncomfortable with the idea that a child’s right to a legal permanency family sometimes needs to be balanced with a child’s need to maintain a stable placement in a family with whom the child has strong emotional connections. Consider the following example:


  • An adolescent, 15 years old, with oppositional behavior has been in multiple placements, including residential care placements. This youth has been stabilized in a foster home for 18 months and has begun to make academic progress, as well as make friends for the first time in her childhood. The foster family is reluctant to adopt the youth or accept a guardianship due to the youth’s volatile placement history and the concern that the child welfare agency might not be willing to assist them if the youth becomes unmanageable. Both the youth and foster family are happy with the current arrangements, and the youth feels safe and cared for in the foster home. Should the child welfare agency give the foster family an ultimatum: agree to a legally permanent plan, or we will place the youth in a potentially legally permanent family?


Child welfare agencies must frequently decide whether a child’s right to a legally permanent family takes precedence over a child’s need to remain with a family that cannot or will not make a permanent legal commitment to the child. Neither a rights-based orientation or needs based perspective offers clear and easy answers to these dilemmas that often divide advocates and child welfare staff, whatever their views on social justice issues.   

The preference in ASFA for adoption rather than reunification as reflected in adoption incentives to states for increased adoptions over a baseline should be reversed.  After more than two decades of adoption incentives, the federal government should (instead) offer incentives for safe and stable reunifications. Providing incentives for reunification would allow state child welfare system to take promising practices (e.g., family treatment drug courts or “baby” courts) to scale and to provide the same economic support for reunified families as for adoptive families, at least for 2 years following reunification.  Under any conceivable child welfare reform proposal, many thousands of American children will continue to need adoptive homes.  Adoption support should continue to be provided for disabled and/or behaviorally troubled children, and for families who cannot otherwise afford to adopt due to economic pressures. Nevertheless, public policy should not embody a preference for adoption over reunification by providing incentives and supports to adoptive families not available to parents of children in foster care. ASFA should be revised to safely increase the ratio of reunifications to adoptions (currently 2-1 vs. 5-1 in 1998). Permanent planning policy should seek to preserve family relationships to the extent possible without endangering children rather than doubling down on policies and practices that increase permanent disruptions of families.  


As children become older, relational permanency should be given additional weight in child welfare case planning and in judicial proceedings. In past years, child welfare agencies have often created  legal orphans by terminating parental rights when there was no family currently ready to make a permanent legal commitment to a behaviorally troubled child or adolescent. This is a dangerous practice that has sometimes done harm to children in the name of permanent planning. Legal permanency is important; but does not justify putting children in danger of losing legal ties to parents when there may be no family ready to make a permanent commitment to the child.


Reducing re-entry into care


The main research-based challenge to increasing reunification rates is the rate of re-entry into care. A recently published study (Wulczyn, et al, 2020) of “effectively lifetime reentry rates” for more than 600,000 reunified children in twenty states found that 27% of reunified children re-entered care from first stays in foster care. The most distressing finding of this study is that 36% of reunified infants re-entered foster care, the highest re-entry rate for any age group.  Short stays in foster care (less than 6 months) and unstable placement histories were associated with higher rates of re-entry. Re-entry rates were higher in rural areas and in neighborhoods that were less severely poor than in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods; an unexplained finding described by the authors as “counter-intuitive.”  


Earlier studies of  re-entry rates have found that relapse among mothers with histories of substance abuse is the major cause of re-entry for infants and other young children; and that behavioral problems of adolescents and resulting parent-child conflict is the main cause of re-entry among adolescents.   


The study referenced above found that the re-entry rate from guardianship was 17% ; but does not include information regarding re-entry into care from adoption.  Based on past studies, it’s possible that re-entry rates for adopted infants and other preschool children are much lower, possibly a tenth or less than the re-entry rate for reunified infants.  ASFA supporters and proponents of increased adoptions may view the difference in re-entry rates between reunification and adoption as a conclusive argument; case closed. I have a different view. The investment of governments in post-reunification services has been even more limited and inadequate than the investment in reunification services. I was a regional administrator in Washington State’s child welfare system during the 1990’s and early 2000’s when many child welfare caseworkers and court systems virtually gave up on reunification of children with substance abusing parents before use of family treatment drug courts (FTDC) in some communities restored belief that drug dependent parents could turn their lives around when given the opportunity. One office in the region went from terminating parental rights on almost all parents with histories of substance abuse to reuniting more than three quarters of children whose parents voluntarily participated in a FTDC ; a dramatic change in both practice and outcomes within a few years.     


Much greater investments in (and commitment to) reunification must include similarly large investments in post-reunification services:


  • Extending dependency status of children for at least one year following reunification, or offering voluntary services for at least one year when children are not legally dependent

  • Monthly meetings of the family’s multidisciplinary team

  • Reunification support payments equal to adoption support payments for two years beginning with extended trial home visits

  • Therapeutic child-care of at least 20 hours per week for young children not enrolled in Head Start or kindergarten

  • Mentoring and coaching of a parent (or parents) by a paraprofessional home visitor  (e.g. through PCAP), or foster parent, or parent advocate

  •  Periodic respite care as requested, within reasonable limits

  • Crisis intervention for parent-child conflict and/or to assist parents with a behaviorally troubled child  

  • Support for parents’ enrollment in community college or in a job training program


Should a re-entry into care rate influence public policy?


Some parent advocates believe that a comparison of re-entry rates for adoption vs. reunification is irrelevant in judicial hearings and public policy debates. I agree that information regarding  re-entry  care rates should not be considered in judicial proceedings regarding a specific child, e.g., at a permanency hearing. However, any sensible policymaker wants to know what research studies have to say regarding likely outcomes of proposed policies, though policymakers must still decide how much weight to give to this information.  When serious consideration is given to reversing the ASFA preference for adoption over reunification, re-entry rates will be (and should be ) a part of the policy discussion, in part to assure that post-reunification services are greatly strengthened. Social justice advocates should acknowledge the importance to children of reducing re-entry rates rather than minimizing their significance.


Adequately funded practice-based research of model programs should be able to determine the extent to which re-entry rates for various ages of children and youth can be reduced within a decade.   


Next in Sounding Board  


In next month’s Sounding Board, I will discuss several mistaken ideas  and perspectives regarding child maltreatment, foster care and residential care that have gained traction among some social justice advocates. I will also summarize my views regarding social justice reform in child welfare from prevention and early intervention to permanent planning; and outline the strategies that will be most effective in developing and implementing a social justice based reform agenda in child welfare.  




Wulczyn, F., Parolini, A., Schmits, F., McGruder, J., & Webster, D.,  “Return to foster care: Age and other risk factors,”  Children and Youth Services Review, 116, 2020.   


©Dee Wilson    

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