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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 19, No. 1
December 2013

Assessing Families for Permanency: Guidance from Research

Assessing whether a family is the right "forever family" for a child is a critical task for the child welfare system. The stakes are high: if we get it wrong, children who have already experienced trauma will suffer further abandonment and rejection by this "permanent placement." This piles trauma on trauma, which we know can increase the chance children will have long-term impacts on their physical and mental health and well-being (Felitti et al. 1998).

Disruption and Dissolution
Sadly, it is relatively common for permanent placements not to work out. For example, adoptions typically fail in one of two ways:

  • Disruptions occur when children are placed with families who intend to adopt them, but the placement falls apart before the adoption can be legally finalized. It is estimated that 10-25% of adoptive placements for children from foster care disrupt (CWIG, 2012). Those numbers don't include children who disrupt from custody or guardianship placements.
  • Dissolutions occur when adoptions are legally "dissolved" by a court after they have been finalized. Numbers of dissolutions are much harder to track, since children often return to foster care with a new name and social security number. However, studies estimate up to 10% of adoptions of children from foster care end in dissolution (CWIG, 2012).

So what can we do during the assessment process to prevent disruptions, dissolutions, and other dead-ends on the road to permanency? Although there are no short-cuts--good assessment is not a "check the box" or an assembly-line process--research about why adoptions fail can help us focus on specific areas when we assess prospective permanent families for children in foster care.

Key Assessment Areas

1. Willingness to Maintain Connections. Honoring and maintaining connections with birth families preserves children's personal histories and maintains their existing attachments in the face of overwhelming change and uncertainty. For this reason, when children are in foster care, North Carolina strongly encourages foster parents and other temporary caregivers to engage in the practice of shared parenting.

Ongoing connections with families of origin can also be desirable in the context of adoption. For example, some studies have shown that children, adoptive parents, and birth parents tend to have better adjustment with open adoptions (CWIG, 2010).

However, the relationship with the birth family becomes more complicated when considering a permanent family. Because our state has closed adoptions, in North Carolina it is entirely up to the adoptive family to decide what contact--if any--the child will have with relatives after the adoption. Similarly, in legal guardianship or custody arrangements DSS has no influence on visitation or contact once the case is closed.

This makes it important to assess the potential permanent family regarding feelings and behaviors related to the birth family. What might shared parenting look like once DSS is no longer involved? For child welfare professionals, facilitating communication between families and mediating those decisions is an important task in the assessment process (CWIG, 2006).

2. Success Coping with Challenges. Adoptive parents face short- and long-term risks related to adoption, so a family's vulnerabilities and resilience need to be included in the mutual assessment process. Some professionals who work in adoptions refer to "post-adoption depression syndrome" (PADS) to describe the feeling of let-down that sometimes follows an adoption after months and years of anticipation (CWIG, 2010). In addition, the realities of parenting--lack of sleep, behavior problems, tedious daily routines--can feel overwhelming and lead people to question their parenting ability and attachment to their child.

Heather Englehart, who until recently was a Program Consultant with NC Kids at the Division of Social Services, agrees it's important to explore a family's history with adversity. "I always want to know how they have dealt with grief, loss, and trauma in their own lives," Englehart says. "What was their method of dealing with it? Did they seek therapy, or reach out for help in some way? Or are they so independent they'll let things go too far before asking for help?"

In fact, a lack of social support, especially from relatives, is linked with high rates of adoption disruption (CWIG, 2012). Using a genogram, ecomap, or other tool to explore a family's support system can help the worker and family visualize how much of a buffer the family will have in dealing with the inevitable stresses and losses associated with adoption.

3. Expectations. Unrealistic expectations on the part of adoptive parents is another factor associated with higher rates of disruption (CWIG, 2012).

Children who have experienced trauma often exhibit extremely challenging behaviors and reactions that can be overwhelming for adoptive parents. These behaviors may include aggression, outbursts of anger, and trouble sleeping. These struggles can threaten adoptive placements. It is difficult for parents to not take it personally when a child is dishonest or behaving poorly. But understanding that trauma is most often the underlying cause of these troubling behaviors can help parents develop realistic expectations and seek appropriate help.

When assessing potential adoptive families, it is important to help them understand we are seeking permanent families for children, not children for families. Once we help the family become focused on meeting the child's needs, we can help ensure their expectations are realistic and provide them with the support they need.

4. Familiarity with the Child. Research shows that adoptions are less likely to fail if the family already knows the child well--for example, if they are known relatives or have been the child's foster parents (CWIG, 2012; Smith et al., 2006). This suggests the need for careful transition planning and extra post-adoption support for families who don't already have a relationship with the child. This will help them weather the difficulties of adjustment.

It's particularly important to assess families' ability to make and keep commitments. Especially with a family that does not already have an attachment to the child, it's helpful to explore their job history, their marriage, and family relationships to see if they have a history of maintaining relationships and working through problems.

As Englehart suggests, you want to know, "When they've made a commitment, how did they handle it when it became really difficult to keep?"

Consider the Child's Perspective
Of course the child's perspective needs to be an integral part of the assessment. Children and youth should be actively involved in the permanency planning process to the greatest extent possible given their age and developmental level. To reduce the likelihood of disruption and further trauma, children should also be actively engaged in developing an individualized plan to ensure they get the support they need before, during, and after the transition to a potential permanent placement. Questions to consider in developing the plan might include (CWIG, 2006):

  • How does the child want to preserve their existing attachments and connections?
  • What kind of support does the child want when it comes to developing new attachments?
  • When the child experiences grief and loss, what kind of support do they want to receive? How will grief and loss be addressed for the family?
  • What will help the child stay culturally connected?
  • How will we recognize and respond to early signs of problems to prevent disruption?

Every day child welfare professionals have to weigh the potential risks and benefits of a prospective permanent placements. Knowing how to overcome common challenges can help us select and prepare families to be the right fit for a child in need of a forever family.

References for this and other articles in this issue