Achieving Permanency

The goal of any child protective services (CPS) agency intervention is achieving a safe, permanent home for a child who has experienced maltreatment. Permanency means a legally permanent, nurturing family for every child involved in the system. Caseworkers focus first on preserving and strengthening families and on preventing the need to place children outside of their homes. When children must be removed from the home to ensure their safety, permanency planning efforts focus on returning them as soon as is safely possible, if appropriate.

Caseworkers must attend regular court or administrative review hearings intended to monitor compliance with the case plan, adjust the plan as necessary, and ensure that the case is progressing toward resolution and case closure. In addition, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires that a permanency hearing occur no later than 12 months from the date the child entered foster care. The permanency hearing is the point at which a decision is made about a child's permanency goals, which are the ultimate goals to keep the child safe, strengthen the family, and reunify the child with the family, if possible and appropriate.

ASFA includes five possible permanency goals for children in foster care (note that among these are two distinct guardianship goals).

  • Reunification with the parent
  • Termination of parental rights (TPR) and Adoption
  • Guardianship with a permanent guardian
  • Guardianship with a "fit and willing relative" while remaining in the State’s legal custody
  • Another planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA) while remaining in the State’s legal custody

Reunification with the parents is the preferred initial permanency goal except in cases where aggravated circumstances exist. Examples of aggravated circumstances include cases where a parent has caused great bodily injury to a child or caused the death of a sibling to the child. The agency may pursue the last goal, APPLA, only if the court finds that there is a compelling reason why it is not in the best interests of the child to proceed with one of the other options. An example would be when a youth continues living with a relative or foster family without legalizing the relationship, possibly because the youth does not want to have the parent’s rights terminated and fully understands the options and benefits for a more permanent option.

Several scenarios may play out as the agency works to achieve the child's permanency goals.

  • Even when the agency is working with the family on reunification, it may also implement concurrent planning to ensure that permanency is achieved for the child in as timely a manner as possible and within ASFA guidelines. Concurrent planning involves identifying and working toward a child's primary permanency goal, such as reunification, while simultaneously identifying and working on a secondary goal, such as adoption or guardianship. This practice, when implemented correctly, can shorten the time to achieve permanency because progress has already been made toward the concurrent goal if efforts toward the other goal prove unsuccessful. This provides caseworkers with a structured approach to move children quickly from foster care to the stability of a safe and continuous family home.
  • If reunification is not likely, but a relative is willing and able to do so, custody may be transferred to him or her, although the agency may initially remain involved to provide support.
  • If the child’s maltreatment has been so severe and/or the parents are unable or unwilling to provide safe and adequate care, then the agency will petition the court for TPR. If adoption or reunification are not options, then every effort is still made to help youth reach permanency before the age of 18, including the use of guardianship or another planned permanent living arrangement.

The caseworker will partner with the older child to facilitate another planned permanent living arrangement when reunification, adoption, and guardianship are not appropriate options. In this scenario, the caseworker attempts to build upon and foster permanent supports and connections and to provide independent living services that help prepare the youth for self-sufficiency in adulthood.

Regardless of the older youth’s permanency plan, any child 16 years of age or older should receive an independent living assessment and services while they are living in any type of foster care. They may be working toward achieving any of the permanency goals (reunification, adoption, guardianship, or APPLA). Independent living services generally include assistance with money management skills, educational assistance, household management skills, employment preparation, and other life-skill services.

Reunification

When children must be removed from their family for their protection, the initial and preferred permanency option is to achieve reunification with their family as quickly and as safely as possible. Reunification is the most common initial permanency goal for children in foster care.

The physical return of the child or youth to parents or caretakers may occur before the return of legal custody. In these circumstances, often referred to as trial home visits, the child protective services (CPS) agency retains custody of the child while the child lives with his or her parent, and continues to supervise the family for some period of time. Reunification is considered achieved when both care and custody are returned to parents or guardians, and the child is discharged from foster care. CPS agencies work to achieve reunifications that are timely but do not result in the child re-entering the foster care system at a later date. 

Termination of Parental Rights (TPR)

There are times when family reunification is not possible, and the child protective services (CPS) agency must pursue other options for achieving permanency. Sometimes, when a parent recognizes that family reunification is not possible, the parent may elect to voluntarily relinquish their parental rights to a child. In other circumstances, the CPS agency seeks an involuntary termination of parental rights (TPR). The grounds, which vary by State, for involuntary TPR are specific circumstances under which the child cannot safely be returned home because of risk of harm by the parent or the inability of the parent to provide for the child's basic needs.

Examples of grounds for TPR include:

  • Severe or chronic abuse or neglect (of the child or of other children in the household)
  • Abandonment of the child
  • Long-term mental illness or deficiency of the parent
  • Long-term alcohol- or drug-induced incapacity of the parent
  • Failure to support or maintain contact with the child
  • TPR for another of the parent’s children
  • Felony conviction of the parent for a violent crime against the child or another family member

When efforts by the State to achieve reunification have failed to correct the conditions or behaviors that led to the CPS intervention, then Federal law requires the State agency to initiate a petition for TPR if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months (with certain exceptions). Some States have adopted shorter timeframes for very young children or in circumstances of particularly egregious child maltreatment.

Adoption

When reunification is deemed not possible, adoption is the preferred way to achieve a permanent home for a child or youth. Adoption refers to the legal transfer of parental rights and responsibilities from the original parents or caretakers to new ones.

Note that in most cases (Tribes are an exception), termination of parental rights (TPR) is required before adoption can occur. When the adoptive family adopts a child, adoption assistance may be available. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (as amended) provides Federal subsidies to encourage the adoption of children from foster care. These subsidies, known as adoption assistance, help to minimize the financial obstacles to adoption and serve to remove barriers. Adoption assistance also contributes to an increase in adoption of children with special needs. Besides the financial assistance provided, adoption assistance may provide other types of assistance to help with medical care or other services.

Guardianship

Children in foster care can achieve permanency through guardianship, which is also known as legal guardianship or permanent guardianship. In a guardianship, a caregiver can assume legal custody of a child in out-of-home placement without termination of parental rights (TPR) as is required for an adoption. Guardianship is often sought by family relative care givers who want to provide a permanent home for the child and maintain relationships with extended family members. Guardianships may also be appropriate for older youth in foster care who object to being adopted and having their parents’ rights terminated, yet want to remain with their current caregiver.

The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 created a new plan option for States and Tribes to provide kinship guardianship assistance payments under title IV-E on behalf of children who have been in a foster care placement in which a relative has assumed legal guardianship. These subsidized guardianships, similar to adoption subsidies, provide financial assistance to caregivers who assume legal guardianship of a child in out-of-home care. A number of States are exploring subsidized guardianship as a means to achieving permanency for children and youth who are not being adopted or reunified with family.

Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement

Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA), also known as Other Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (OPPLA), was established as a permanency option for children by the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). However, ASFA is clear that APPLA is the least preferred permanency option for children. Prior to establishing APPLA as a permanency plan for a child, the CPS agency must consider the other permanency options and document to the court the compelling reason(s) why a more preferred permanency plan, such as reunification, adoption or guardianship, is not being selected.

The permanency option of APPLA must include a plan for the permanent placement of the child that meets the child’s developmental, educational, and other needs. The plan must be designed to ensure that the living arrangement addresses not only the physical placement of the child but also addresses the quality of care, supervision, and nurturing that the child will receive in the immediate future and beyond the time of case closure.  APPLA thereby ensures that adult caregivers or adult parent figures and/or mentors play permanent and important roles in the child’s life.