19, No. 2
Overcoming Barriers to Timely Permanence
Most everyone agrees children benefit from having a safe, permanent family, and that the child welfare system should achieve this goal as quickly as possible for every child. Yet for anyone working in the field, it is apparent that despite our best intentions this end is not easily attained.
In reviewing research on permanency and talking with experts in North Carolina, the following common barriers emerged, along with perspectives on how to target our limited resources to overcome them.
BARRIER 1: Conversations about "Permanency"
Birth parents. Birth parents reported that when they heard agencies talking about "permanency," they thought their children weren't ever coming home. As one put it:
Another parent said her first caseworker did not talk at all with her about permanency. The parent stated that the caseworker "just wanted to make sure I was going to services that they provided" (p. 751).
Youth. Some youth Freundlich and colleagues spoke to expressed the same negative feelings. As one phrased it: "Permanent, like I was never going home. That's how I thought of it" (p. 752).
Social workers. A number of social workers in the study agreed the word "permanency" itself can be a barrier. One stated: "The language of foster care is really disempowering to parents. It just adds another layer of confusion. It's jargon and the more we use jargon the more people are alienated by it" (p. 755).
Jeff Olson, Local Child Welfare Support Team Leader for the NC Division of Social Services, agreed it's not enough to talk to families about the legal concept of a permanency plan. Olson believes one key to understanding each other's ideas about a "forever family" is to talk about relationships.
"It's really about making those family connections," Olson says. "Who can visit the young person, wash their clothes, do things--even little things--that demonstrate that they care about them as a person? That's what people can relate to: connection."
Olson also notes that we are learning more and more about how trauma affects children's ability to connect meaningfully with others, or to face the spectre of rejection that arises for them when the talk turns to permanence.
Some older youth are legally free for adoption but, Olson says, some professionals "have written them off as 'unadoptable.'" He suggests that instead, we need to help youth build trust in the connections they already have. With gradual encouragement, they may allow themselves to believe there's a permanent family out there for them.
BARRIER 2: Difficulties with Concurrent Planning
While many social workers agree concurrent planning makes sense in theory, pursuing two different plans simultaneously can create challenges, including the following.
DIFFICULTY: Undermining our relationships with birth parents. Full disclosure to all parties is a critical element of concurrent planning. This includes respectful, candid discussion about the birth parent's rights and responsibilities, the issues that necessitated placement, the changes needed to achieve reunification, and possible consequences and alternative outcomes if the parent does not make the necessary changes (CWIG, 2012).
In some instances, discussing these matters early on empowers families to make fully-informed decisions that result in a speedier resolution for children. For example, some parents are more likely to voluntarily relinquish rights when this option is presented and explored in a non-judgmental way (CWIG, 2012).
In other cases, though, workers describe tension in their relationships with birth parents that arises in part from the fact that they are pursuing opposing plans (D'Andrade, et al., 2006). While it is easy to say that workers just need to be open and honest with parents, in practice this is not always enough to reassure parents. Parents may be understandably skeptical that a worker truly wants to partner with them, if that worker is also actively recruiting an adoptive family for their child.
DIFFICULTY: Emotional toll on foster-to-adopt parents. Another key element of concurrent planning is licensing resource parents for both foster care and adoption, so they can transition from one role to the other, avoiding moves and delays for children (CWIG, 2012). While this seems like a reasonable approach, in practice it is asking a lot of resource families.
Foster-to-adopt care requires substitute caregivers to commit to two contradictory goals. We ask them to form a permanent relationship with a child before it is known whether the child will be available for adoption, while at the same time supporting reunification efforts. Most writers on concurrent planning acknowledge this task can be profoundly challenging (D'Andrade, et al., 2006).
BARRIER 3: Systemic Issues
The traditionally poor collaboration between legal and child welfare systems is well-known to professionals from both backgrounds (Outley, 2006). In a review of five qualitative studies from 1984 to 2007, Murphy and colleagues (2012) found that legal delays and the complexity of the court process were cited repeatedly as central factors in failing to achieve timely permanence.
Today's child welfare and legal practitioners know these issues continue to affect North Carolina's performance. In particular, the intricacies of the process of terminating parental rights can cause delays in finalizing adoptions, especially in smaller counties that may have court or DSS staff that infrequently handle such cases.
Emphasizing reasonable efforts provides a common language and a common goal, allowing both systems to devote energy to tasks that will move the case forward. Focusing on the link between our efforts and the permanency plan for the child, Olson notes, "helps us hold ourselves accountable and ensures we are all doing everything we can."
In addition, Jamie Bazemore, Adoption Program Manager for the NC Division of Social Services, suggests agencies develop an in-house adoption expert, someone who has mastered the complexities of legal clearance, TPR, and adoption. "You need someone who really knows the paperwork and the process, so they can move things along."
Bazemore admits that given the emotions surrounding TPR, conversations with youth and birth parents need time to evolve: an initial "no" from a youth on the subject of adoption should never be the end of the story. However, having an in-house adoption expert can help you ensure that the bureaucracy is not holding things up when people are ready to move forward.