In years past, being a foster parent was simpler and much easier. It was enough to be a good person and to provide concerned care for children. What’s more, the children in care were far easier to manage. Children with serious behavior problems or who didn’t adjust easily to foster families were simply sent to children’s homes, group homes, residential facilities, or institutions.
Within those settings, there was much more tolerance for behavior and patterns of adjustment that would have been unacceptable in families. Instead of helping the children deal with and resolve their problems, they were merely seen as children who couldn’t adjust to family life and who had to have group or residential care. Typically, the explanation was that the children had attachment or behavior problems and couldn’t deal with close family relationships.
Even those children placed into care were there conditionally. If the child had trouble adjusting or the foster parent had difficulty managing the child, the child was moved. The child could be “tried” in another foster home or placed in a group or institutional setting. Moving children around was just business as usual.
For far too many children, bouncing from place to place was how they spent their childhoods. Of course, if they didn’t have significant problems with attachment and close relationships when this moving around process started, they usually developed them sooner or later.
In recent years, many of the children who previously would have gone into residential and institutional care are now in foster care. Those children who do go into residential treatment facilities are expected to “step down” into foster care, once their behavior and adjustment problems are lessened. The result is that any child who comes into care is more likely to have serious behavior and adjustment problems than would have been the case only a few years ago.
This shift from institutional to foster care has been very good news for children. Even though they do have behavior and adjustment problems, these difficulties are viewed differently. Instead of seeing them as “conditions” that the children have which are related to attachment or other disorders, they are seen as normal and expected. Children can’t just be abruptly taken away from what they have known and put into a strange environment without some problems adjusting.
Compounding the challenge for foster parents, children coming into care today are more likely than in past years to have been affected by unconscionable family and neighborhood violence, drug abuse, severe poverty, criminal activity, and extreme parental and family dysfunction. This means that children in care may be very challenging. Simply being a good person and assuring a safe home for them will likely, by themselves, not be enough.
Along with the many challenges children in care bring to you (foster parents), the expectations for foster families have changed. At the heart of these changes are changing expectations for public and private child protection agencies. At local, state, and national levels, law-makers have become much more critical of what happens to children once they come into care.
Hundreds of thousands of children remained in out-of-home care for years after they were separated from their families. These children drifted in and out of the system. They moved from foster home to foster home. Many were uprooted from their neighborhoods, their schools, their families, and their personal cultures. Yes, some developed and adjusted successfully; but far too many didn’t. The urgent need to improve the life prospects for these lost children was the main reason why caring foster parents were no longer enough. It was clear that the children deserved and had to have more.
“Safety” has always been and continues to be the primary objective for all public child protection agencies. The bottom line is to get and keep children out of harm’s way. If children can remain safely with their parents while the adults work through their problems and issues, the children stay home. If not, they are placed with other relatives. In about 10% of child protection cases, the children can’t stay at home and there are no suitable relatives to keep them safe. These children come into care, with the primary objective being keeping them safe.
In recent years, it has become clear that safety, by itself, isn’t enough. Children also need permanence. They must have a permanent, stable home where they can develop normally and go about the business of being children. They must not fear for their safety, worry about whether their basic needs will be met, or wonder where they will be living tomorrow.
About 90% of children in care will reunify with their families. In the meantime, they need to know that they are safe and they won’t have to move, except to go home. For the approximately 10% of foster children who can’t ever go home, a safe, permanent home must be there for them, with no delay.
For many reasons, including the dissatisfaction of law-makers, the rules and expectations for placement agencies and foster parents have changed. At the top of the change list is how long a child can remain in care. Although the exact limit varies some from state to state, a child can’t continue on foster care status indefinitely. Planning for the child’s future starts on the first day of placement and has to lead to permanence either back with his family or with another permanent family. In every case, though, foster care is a step toward permanence for the child.
Planning for permanence for children while also working with their families so that children can return home, if possible, is called “concurrent planning.” Those working with children in care have two goals. First, if the child’s parents can work through their problems and issues so that their child can come home within a reasonable amount of time, that is the preferred outcome. Second, if the first goal isn’t reached, there is an alternative permanence plan.
For most children in care, the primary plan is returning to their families. This is called “reunification.” The second, or backup plan, is permanence for the child with other relatives or in an adoptive home. The special challenge is being sure that both the primary and backup plans are receiving everyone’s best and most thoughtful efforts. They must work on both plans concurrently.
Since everyone working with children in care wants permanence for them, let’s revisit concurrent planning from a somewhat different perspective.
Starting February 2, family preservation staff worked with the Renolds family due to concerns about educational and environmental neglect, inadequate supervision, lack of parenting skills, and the immature judgment of Mrs. Renolds.
The home has been, at times, very dirty, in disarray, and in disrepair with broken windows, torn furniture, holes in the walls, and backed-up plumbing. Agency funds were used to correct these conditions the week of February 4 and again the week of March 29. Similar conditions were once more present on April 24.
According to neighbors, Mrs. Renolds allows teenagers in her home at all hours of the day or night. Poor judgment about friends has resulted in domestic violence and alleged drug use in the home, placing the children at further risk. Money has been stolen and the home vandalized by people who frequent the home.
The children are poorly supervised. Mrs. Renolds has allowed Kelly, age 7, and Linda, age 9, to miss over forty days of school during the current school year. Additionally, she permitted the girls to wander around the neighborhood after 10:30 p.m. without adult supervision. This resulted in Mrs. Renolds being unable to find the children on the night of April 23. Her explanation was, “They said they were just going outside to play.” Mrs. Renolds did contact the police, at 3:15 a.m. on April 24. They assisted her in locating the children.
Mrs. Renolds failed, on three occasions, to follow through with counseling referrals, in spite of acknowledging depression and parenting problems with her children.
The children are frequently dirty, improperly fed, and their immediate needs for supervision and nurturing arent being met. Despite extensive efforts by the agency and assistance by relatives, care and supervision of the children remains a concern.
The children’s father is currently incarcerated for a domestic violence conviction. Neither he nor other relatives are able to care for the children.
Based on its investigation and on the recommendation of the family preservation staff, Social Services requested that the court grant temporary custody of the children to the agency. Custody was granted on April 24 and the children were placed into care.
There are many things you will want to think about here. For now, though, focus specifically on permanence for the girls. Workers are continuing services to Mrs. Renolds so she can learn to provide a more appropriate environment for her children. This could take many months and may not succeed. In the meantime, the girls are having to adjust to a new school, are making new friends, are learning about a new home with new people and new expectations, and are re-inventing their lives. They continue to visit with their mother. She is making little to no progress and is unlikely to ever be a responsible parent, although she cares about the girls and they still love her.
As you know, this situation can’t go on much longer. They can’t remain in care indefinitely. They need and must have a permanent home.
Planning for permanence started the first day the girls came into care. The primary plan was for the children to reunify with their mother. Since there were no other relatives who could take the girls, “adoption” was the backup (concurrent) plan.