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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 1, No. 2
Winter 1996

Permanency Planning and Termination

Your agency has been working with the Stone family for one year. Five-year old Sam was initially removed from the home after suspicious burns were noted by his teachers. He was placed with an aunt, but this placement did not work out because the aunt would not adequately supervise his visits with his mother.

Prior to Sam's removal, this family had been reported to CPS multiple times because of neglect. Substance abuse and domestic violence have been ongoing struggles. Sam blossomed in his foster placement and his social worker became busy with other crises.

While reunification was technically the goal of Sam's treatment plan, no one was motivated to change the situation: he was doing well in his foster placement and his parents had not made the necessary changes. Then Sam's Guardian ad Litem (GAL) became involved. Voicing concern over the child's long foster care stay, she began discussing terminating parental rights (TPR). On the part of everyone involved, ambivalence set in.

Ambivalence and Inaction

Were "reasonable efforts" made to keep this family together? What would reasonable efforts mean for a family who has been involved with many agencies, seemingly to no avail? Would the parents agree to relinquish Sam voluntarily?

Cooke and Caye write that ambivalence permeates the difficult decisions child welfare workers must make when balancing the goal of family reunification with the need for stable placements for children.

This ambivalence expresse itself in several ways. Workers may feel immobilized by the amount of change needed for a family to be reunified. Judges and lawyers, reluctant to permanently sever the bonds between parents and children, may prefer to leave a child in foster care another year, hoping the situation will change.

Parents, aware of their difficulties parenting but too guilty to publicly end their relationship with the child, can also be paralyzed by ambivalence. In their article, Ambivalences: A Challenge to Permanency for Children, Hess and Folaron examined 40 cases of unsuccessful family reunifications. In 29 of these cases (73 percent) ambivalent feelings on the part of the parents were present. Workers who wish to avoid delays should be aware of ambivalence on the part of parents, which might be expressed by inconsistent behavior or statements, such as "I love my children but I don't wish to see them" (Hess, et al., p.408).

Preventing Foster Care Drift

One way of meeting reasonable efforts criteria and avoiding ambivalence paralysis is to identify early on those cases in which reunification is unlikely.

The Foster Care Drift Risk Assessment Matrix developed by Linda Katz and Chris Robinson is designed to help workers recognize such situations early and intervene in a way that will maximize possibilities of reunification but also quickly point out when TPR is a more appropriate goal. The authors are quick to point out that the minority of child welfare cases fall into the categories detailed in the matrix.

The matrix contains two categories. Category 1 describes situations so severe that the presence of any one of them would make reunification an extremely low possibility. Category 2 covers conditions that in combination indicate a low probability of return home. In addition, the matrix offers suggestions of activities that should be included in the treatment plan for these cases.

To see how the matrix works, let us return to our Stone family case example. The matrix would classify this as a category 2 situation, meaning that the combination of circumstances--substance abuse, repeated reports of neglect and now abuse, and domestic violence--make reunification unlikely.

However, rather than being overwhelmed by the number of problems, the authors recommend creating a detailed and stringent treatment plan as soon as the child comes into care. This plan must specify the desired result of each intervention (i.e., what the parent is to learn, what behaviors are to change). It is crucial, too, that the plan makes the agency's responsibility for facilitating this plan very clear.

In this situation psychiatric evaluation for the offending parent, group treatment through the local domestic violence shelter, and substance abuse evaluation and treatment would all be indicated. Specific time lines and responsibilities should be included in the plan. If these are not adhered to, TPR becomes the next step in order to quickly find a permanent placement for Sam. With a comprehensive treatment plan in place, the "reasonable efforts" standard can be easily met because everything possible will have been done prior to termination. Indeed, in some situations, this immediate attention and upfront statement of consequences may give parents the motivation they need to make reunification possible.

Again, the authors caution that very few child welfare cases fit into the matrix. However, in Washington State the matrix has predicted situations where reunification eventually proved impossible with 95 percent accuracy. The authors also report that using the matrix helps child welfare workers with the guilt that naturally accompanies the recognition that treatment efforts have not and will not be successful.

You may want to discuss this matrix with your supervisors and colleagues to determine how its use fits in with your local policies and practice standards.

References

Cooke, L. G. & Caye, J. S. (1993). Termination of parentalrights: A painful first step of the adoption process. Unpublished manuscript, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work.

Hess, P. M. & Folaron, G. (1991, July-Aug.). Ambivalences: A challenge to permanency for children. Child Welfare, LXX (4), 403-424.

Katz, L. & Robinson, C. (1991). Foster care drift: A risk assessment matrix.Child Welfare, LXX (4), 347-358.

1996 Jordan Institute for Families