Many Paths to Permanency
The primary goal for all children and families involved in the child welfare system should be reunification. In cases where this isn’t possible—or cannot happen in a reasonable timeframe—options include permanent guardianship with another relative or close family friend and/or adoption.
Many factors can contribute to the inability to reach permanency in a child welfare case: parents who are unable to progress, uninvolved, incarcerated, or deceased; and failure to locate additional family or foster care options for long-term care.
NCCD’s Structured Decision Making® (SDM) reunification and risk reassessment tools assist workers in determining when a case is appropriate for reunification and closure. The SDM® family strengths and needs assessment helps workers identify goals and services to include in the case plan to progress families.
In my previous role as a child welfare case manager (and later, supervisor), I most often consulted on cases of youth who experienced complex trauma, which led to extreme behavior concerns. This behavior made it difficult to locate long-term placement outside of a group home, especially since finding placement for teenagers can be difficult—even in the best of circumstances—which is a growing concern, according to research.1
While frustration, stress, and chaos accompany many of these complex cases, processing permanency options is still possible—even when reunification is deemed no longer an option. And for the record, I believe that reunification should never not be considered regardless of the current legal status unless it would harm the child and/or the child does not desire it.
Outside of formal family-finding programs, past placement interests can be beneficial. Was anyone in that child’s life interested in providing a home in the past but changed their mind or didn’t meet placement standards at the time? I recall several instances where, as a case manager, I maintained contact and a level of engagement with a family member whose circumstances substantially changed over time. Placement occurred eventually and led to legal permanency. The success of these complex cases gave me hope.
In addition, professionals need to apply a cultural lens to the concept of permanency to determine what exactly that means for each family. Permanency for some families may not align with their caseworker’s understanding of it, which can create competing agendas and unintended conflict. For some children who are very close to aging out of care, “permanency” may not be a specific place. Rather, it could mean repairing the relationship with a grandmother, parent, or another significant family member or friend so that the youth can join holiday dinners and other family functions. We must continuously engage and build trust to ensure that the professional’s goal and understanding of permanency is aligned with the family’s—and equally valued.
It is critical to carefully consider several permanency options simultaneously. In many cases, creating a visual tool in a team meeting that includes a list of individuals or resources in that child’s personal, familial, and community spheres of influence is helpful in identifying other options. In addition, the Collaborative Assessment and Planning framework within the safety-organized practice model can be a useful internal tool for improving permanency outcomes in child welfare jurisdictions.
Achieving permanency in complex cases with children and families—especially teens and young adults—is an art that requires a great amount of skill and deserves our attention. For cases with minimal progress, workers and other crucial team members often experience feelings of hopelessness that could leave the team feeling “stuck.” Most tragic is the child left feeling alone, without a permanent place to call home.
Jovan Goodman is a program associate with NCCD.
1 Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2018). Fostering youth transitions: using data to drive policy and practice decisions. Baltimore, MD: Author. Retrieved from https://www.aecf.org/resources/fostering-youth-transitions/; Northern California Training Academy. (2008). Placement stability in child welfare services: issues, concerns, outcomes and future directions literature review. Davis, CA: Author. Retrieved from http://www.childsworld.ca.gov/res/pdf/PlacementStability.pdf