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.