Social Justice in Child Welfare
Reunification Policy and Practice in the Light of Social Justice
(Originally published July 2020)
This commentary is the second in a series of commentaries on “Social Justice in Child Welfare.” Last month’s commentary, ”Poverty, Race and Power in Child Welfare,” argued that poverty and income inequality underlie structural racism in child welfare, and that caste differences between professionals and low income families predispose child welfare systems to overuse coercive practices in working with low income families who have open child welfare cases. This commentary discusses the policy preference for adoption and guardianship in child welfare law and practice, a preference that has had a devastating effect on Black and Native American families and on severely poor Latino and white families.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) was signed into law in November 1997, following a near doubling of the number of children in foster care since 1986. The increase in foster care overwhelmed many state and county child welfare agencies and court systems; and left many thousands of children who entered foster care as infants or toddlers in temporary placements for several years. ASFA established time limits on reunification efforts, required the filing of termination of parental rights on parents whose children had been in foster care for 15 out of the past 22 months (absent compelling reasons to forego termination action), provided adoption incentives to states ($4,000 per adopted child, or $6000 for special needs children) over a baseline number of adoptions, and explicitly stated that child safety was the main goal of child welfare when case planning goals appeared to be in conflict.
ASFA was intended to greatly increase the number of adoptions out of foster care. It accelerated a trend toward increased adoptions that was already evident before the law’s passage. In FY 1998, there were 38,000 adoptions from foster care; within a few years the number of exits from foster care to adoption increased to more than 50,000, and 63,000 nationally, in FY 2018. The change in the percentage of children exiting foster care to reunification and adoption has been even more striking than the large increase in the annual number of adoptions. In FY 1998, two thirds of foster children (66%) exited to reunification in contrast to FY 2018 when 49% of foster care exits were to reunification. In FY 1998, 14% of foster care exits were to adoption; in FY 2018, 25% of foster children exited to adoption. The ratio of reunifications to adoptions decreased from almost 5-1 in FY 1998 to 2-1 in FY 2018.
Changes in permanency planning outcomes of this magnitude involve more than a change in law. Statutory changes do not usually have major impacts on outcomes unless public agency staff at all levels embrace the new law and implement it with strong commitment. Public child welfare agencies in the U.S. embraced ASFA because the law offered a legal framework for achieving permanency for foster children and a means of reducing the number of children in foster care (567,000 in 1999), a population too large for child welfare agencies to adequately serve or manage or for court systems to process. In the 1990’s, it was evident to many advocates and practitioners that most children in foster care for longer than a few weeks or months would never be reunified with substance abusing parents. Most of these parents did not enter or complete substance abuse treatment despite court mandates. Adoption, guardianship, kinship care or long-term foster care were the only realistic options. The great majority of child welfare experts favored adoption as the best permanent plan for children, especially young children, who could not be safely reunified with a birth parent.
In addition to creating a better defined legal structure and financial incentives to states for increasing adoptions, federal policy supported the creation or expansion of subsidized guardianship as a permanent planning option for many school age children and youth, as well as for some preschool children when kinship families were resistant to adoption. Exits to guardianship have greatly increased since 1998; in FY 2018, 11% of foster care exits were to guardianship. Both adoptions and guardianships intend to effect permanent separation of children from birth parents. In FY 2018, the percentage of foster care exits to adoptions and guardianships combined was 36%. Of the children and youth who remained in foster care without a completed permanent plan, 7% aged out of foster care, 6% lived with relatives in arrangements that may or may not have involved relational permanency and 1% were transferred to other public systems, presumably detention facilities or psychiatric institutions. Every public child welfare agency has a permanent planning casualty rate, i.e., a percentage of foster children and youth for whom a permanent family is not found, or who reenter foster care after a failed permanent plan and then age out of foster care. Nationally, the permanent planning casualty rate is about 10%.
Policymakers at the federal level and most child welfare managers are proud of these outcomes; and would like increased funding to do more of the same, i.e., more adoptions and guardianships with fewer foster youth aging out of care. On June 24, 2020, HHS Secretary Alex Azar stated in an announcement of a Presidential Executive Order: “Since the President took office, we have focused on prioritizing adoption unlike any previous administration and we have begun to see results.”
Infants in Foster Care
U.S. child welfare systems have several distinctive features that are associated with the country’s high child poverty rate, i.e. which has been approximately 20% for the past decade:
Most CPS reports contain allegations of neglect; children substantiated for neglect outnumber children substantiated for physical abuse by 4-1 and children with substantiated sexual abuse by more than 10-1.
Approximately one-fifth of children who enter foster care are infants, 0-1; infants are almost three times more likely to be placed in foster care than any other age group, and reunification rates of infants are much lower than older children.
Black and Native American infants have entry into care rates 2-3 times higher than the entry rate for white infants.
In some states, at least 50% of infants are adopted after relinquishment or termination of parental rights; and a small percentage of infants are placed in guardianships.
More than a third of infants reunified with a birth parent reenter foster care; short stays in foster care are associated with higher rates of reentry, according to a recent study of reentry rates in 20 states.
Public policy and child welfare practices such as concurrent planning have led to a reunification rate for infants that is much lower than the adoption rate, the reversal of the pattern for most older children who exit from foster care. Currently, 50% (or more) of infants in foster care are adopted or placed in guardianship; and more than a third of reunified infants reenter foster care. Many children who enter foster care as infants reenter foster care following failed reunifications, guardianship actions or adoptions; and spend much of their childhoods and adolescence in foster care or congregate care, a hard road for a child or teenager with multiple early adversities. One sixth of adolescents in foster care were initially placed out of the home in their preschool years.
What’s the Alternative?
Policymakers, practitioners and advocates should reflect on the pain and suffering of parents of children in foster care resulting from a reunification rate that has fallen below 50%, and a rate of permanent separation (adoptions and guardianships combined) of more than one third of foster children, along with a permanent planning casualty rate of about 10%. This should be painful and distressing news to practitioners and advocates even if there was no alternative, i.e., no other way to achieve permanency for children. However, there has been widespread understanding of how to safely increase reunification rates for the past 10-15 years. Reunification has been the subject of large numbers of studies over several decades; and is one of the most thoroughly researched subjects in child welfare. Furthermore, Jill Berrick’s outstanding book, Take Me Home: Protecting America’s Vulnerable Children and Families (2008), provides excellent concrete recommendations for how to safely increase reunification rates. Research studies offer a broad consensus regarding best practices:
Utilize family treatment drug courts, and/or “baby courts,” with an enhanced array of mental health services and other support services for parents and children.
Assign every parent of a legally dependent child in foster care a paid mentor, e.g., a parent who has been through the child welfare dependency process and regained custody of their child, or a recovery coach, or
Mobilize a cadre of specialized foster parents to provide concrete support and coaching of parent-child interactions for the parents of the child in her/his home.
Make a major investment in housing services and other concrete services for birth parents who enter and complete substance abuse treatment.
Provide ongoing weekly case management services to parents with developmental disabilities prior to and following reunification until their child enters kindergarten.
Provide crisis intervention mental health and family support services in cases of parent-child conflict following reunification.
Legally extend the dependency status of reunified children for at least one year (or longer as needed).
Provide 20-40 hours per week therapeutic child-care (such as Seattle’s Child Haven model) for pre-school children following reunification, including infants and toddlers.
Repurpose use of family preservation services to support reunification and provide post-reunification services.
In Take Me Home, Berrick describes reunification as a lonely, compliance driven process for low income birth parents struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues. The stories of women who regained custody of their child in Take Me Home reflect child welfare agencies which engaged in token efforts (at best) to support reunification efforts. In my experience in Washington State, I have encountered many caseworkers who actively and skillfully supported parents of children in foster care struggling with a myriad of economic, mental health and interpersonal challenges. However, the federal government’s child welfare policy (and state level policy) is explicitly tilted toward adoption and guardianship, rather than reunification:
The federal government offers states financial incentives for adoptions over and above a baseline, and reimburses the cost of subsidized guardianships, but does not offer incentives for stable reunifications.
Neither the federal government or most state governments have made significant investments in family treatment drug courts or “baby courts” by funding judicial costs, leaving the salary of a judicial officer who presides over a family treatment drug court to be funded by the city or county.
Child welfare agencies with acute and chronic workload pressures have difficulty assigning specialized staff to a family treatment drug court or “baby court”.
State governments and the federal government have not made a large investment in housing for families with open child welfare cases. Some state child welfare agencies have little or no poverty related services to offer parents.
Some states such as Washington extend the dependency status of reunified children for only 6 months, despite the understanding that substance abuse and mood disorders are chronically relapsing conditions that may continue for many years, or for a lifetime.
Only a few states fund mentors or recovery coaches for birth parents; or reimburse foster parents for coaching and supporting a birth parent working toward reunification.
Most states, including Washington State, do not routinely fund therapeutic child-care programs for abused or neglected children prior to foster care or following reunification.
Some child welfare agencies have funded crisis intervention mental health services, an essential service for families with school age children, but many do not.
Some readers may assume that the main reason the Administration for Children and Families and state governments have not developed some or most of these services is inadequate funding, which hopefully has been remedied by Family First. It is not yet clear how states will respond to the opportunity for improved family support services provided by child welfare finance reform. However, it is possible that states’ investment in improved services through Family First will be guided by the same limited commitment to reunification that has characterized child welfare policy and practice in the U.S. for the past 25 years.
Cost considerations are rarely raised in discussions of how to increase adoptions because a large majority of policymakers and child welfare managers believe that adoption is a good outcome (or even the best outcome) for severely maltreated children. Adoption support that continues until age 18 and subsidized guardianships for sibling groups are costly programs that have widespread political support. Policymakers are often quietly skeptical regarding the cost of innovative reunification services, and post-reunification services, because of doubts that reunification serves children’s best interests. Costs are only viewed as prohibitive in policy discussions when stakeholders, child advocates and managers are ambivalent or critical regarding desired outcomes. When child welfare managers and policymakers are fully committed to the goal of increasing reunification rates, the costs of increasing safe and stable reunifications will be viewed as affordable, but not until.
ASFA and structural racism
ASFA has become a prime example of how structural racism shapes American institutions, and of how child welfare policy turns a blind eye to the effects of poverty and income inequality on other low income families as well. The developers and supporters of ASFA did not have racist motives, quite the opposite. Child welfare staff and child advocates wanted Black and Native American children to have the same opportunity for permanent families as white children and ASFA seemed well crafted to achieve that goal. Increasing safe reunifications seemed a lost cause to many during the 1990s drug epidemic. Policymakers at both the federal and state level were proud of the increase in exits to permanency created by adherence to ASFA guidelines. In fact, policymakers and child welfare leaders were so pleased with the large increase in adoptions post-ASFA they were reluctant to revise the law as the potential for increased reunifications improved as confirmed by studies of promising programmatic initiatives such as family treatment drug courts and mentoring programs.
The policy preference for adoption over reunification has become increasingly questionable, but policymakers have been unwilling to make adjustments to the law, or acknowledge that many thousands of Black and Native American children are being unnecessarily permanently separated from their birth parents through adoption and subsidized guardianship. Structural racism is defined by outcomes that harm oppressed minorities, not necessarily by racist intentions. However, policies that strengthen structural racism continue through deliberate indifference to outcomes that harm Black and Native American children and parents. Policies are not debated when child advocates, stakeholders and practitioners stubbornly ignore their harmful effects, and do not provide ongoing opportunities for parents of a foster child or adopted child to communicate their perspective to child welfare leaders.
The August Sounding Board will discuss re-entry into care rates, the main research-based challenge to critics of ASFA who believe that safe and stable reunification rates can be greatly increased. I will also offer recommendations for revisions to ASFA that maintain a commitment to permanency for children in foster care with a commitment to social justice for oppressed minorities, as well as other poor Latino and white families.
AFCARs Report, #26, Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, Washington, D.C., published October 24, 2019.
Berrick, J., Take Me Home: Protecting America’s Vulnerable Children and Families, Oxford University Press, 2008.
Child Welfare Outcomes 1998: Annual Report, Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, Washington, D.C., available through the National Clearinghouse for Child Abuse and Neglect, Washington, D.C.
Phillips, C., and Mann, A., “Historical Analysis of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 23:7, 2013.
“President Trump Signs Historic Child Welfare Executive Order,” press release on June 24,2020, Administration for Children and Families, Washington, D.C.
Wulczyn, F., Parolini, A., Schmits, F., Macgruder, J. & Webster, D., “Returning to foster care: Age and other risk factors,” Children and Youth Services, 116, 2020, published on-line June 2020.
Wulczyn, F., Ernst, M. & Fisher, P., “Who Are the Infants in Out of Home Care: An Epidemiological and Developmental Perspective,” a Chapin Hall Issue Brief, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, May 2011.
All previous Sounding Boards are available at