Once the decision is made that a child must come into foster care, the first thing that must be done is find that child a placement. It would be great if this only happened once - but that is very rare. So, I'm going to try to lay out the process of obtaining initial placement for a child. We all know that children, unfortunately, have many placements - but for purposes of this not being the LONGEST POST IN HISTORY, I'm just going to outline the initial placement here.
***********Initial Placement Decisions****************
Initial placements are generally a pretty cut and dry process. Basically, there is a list of agencies that are on a rotating call list. The first agency on the list is called and they have two hours to find a placement for the child. If they have no appropriate home available, the next agency on the list is called, and so on until a placement is located. There isn't much "matching" that is done, and foster parents only have moments to decide if they will take a child.
There are some foster parents that are considered "emergency" homes and they take short term emergency placements. Now, in the instance that no available homes can be found, or in cases of large sibling groups, they may need a little more time to find an appropriate agency/home. In this case the child(ren) may go to an Emergency Shelter.
Emergency Shelters are something like group homes with many children and child care staff. I never had any positive thoughts about ES until one of the Intact Family Cases at my agency had a sibling group of 6 children come into care VERY unexpectedly. There was a lot of trauma involved in them being removed from their home, so the last thing we wanted to do was split them up. We didn't have any homes that could take 6 children all at once - but they were able to go to an ES, where they could all stay in one large "family" room. Also, there were therapists on site to help children cope with this initial period of separation. This was such a blessing and gave us time to find homes that would not have to be temporary.
If the child is initially placed in an emergency placement, the agency must begin looking for a longer term home. Most children start out in a home that is willing to support the family returning home. (Because, as you'll remember, almost all children start out with that goal in court.)
A couple of years ago, my state also developed a protocol that they hoped would reduce the amount of time that children spend in care. From the very beginning a case can be labelled an "expedited reunification" case. These cases are identified as having a high potential for the children returning home within one year. Because these cases involve an intense amount of services and family contact, there are certain foster families that have been identified as "reunification foster homes". These families are willing to open their homes and the foster parents work directly with the birth parents to share parenting responsibility.
If a case does not meet the requirements for an expedited reunification, then a more traditional home is located. There are a number of 'matching' elements that go into this process - and literally thousands of variables that go into finding a good fit. There is a "Caregiver Matching Tool" that must be filled out for every placement. It is designed to help social workers note the strengths of each family and how they may or may not be a good fit for a child. There are numerous categories regarding details of the child's case and then a column where the foster parent is rated as one of the following categories: "Successfully Parented in the Past, Willing but needs Help, Not Willing to Parent". The foster parent should be consulted about this form, but sometimes this is not done directly but rather through reviewing the home study and in the course of conversations with the foster parents. If you are interested in the actual questions asked on the questionnaire, just let me know - I can either email it, or copy the entire thing into another post.
Once a foster home has been determined to be a potentially good match, the foster parents are called and given some information. Generally, they have time to decide if they are interested and then move forward with learning more information. I will end here for now - because the actual "transition" process certainly warrants its own post! :)
There are a few other special circumstances that could affect the matching process:
Also in our state, biological family is given first preference to be on-going placement for a child. So, parents are usually asked in the first days and weeks of a case to identify any family members that may be willing to take the children. Relatives must undergo the full training requirements as non-relatives to become foster parents. However, if the initial assessment and background checks come back clear, the children may be placed with the relative prior to the full license being received. This preferential treatment is only mandatory during the initial placement and during subsequent placement changes. What this means is a relative can not "pop up" and demand a child be placed with them when the child is in a stable placement. If it is determined that the relative would actually be a better placement (such as for permanency if the current placement is not committed to long term care) the child could move - but they are stable in a long term placement, the child would not move. If a placement disrupts, any relatives that have expressed interest must be contacted first. One interesting note - God-parents are considered "family" and are given the same preferential treatment.
There are special rules that are applied to children who have Native American heritage. The "Indian Child Welfare Act" mandates that if a child who has Native American ancestry comes into care, it must be reported to their tribe immediately. The tribe then has the right to determine if the child will be placed with a member of the family, another member of the tribe, or another placement option. Obviously, we don't hunt down the lineage of every child taken into custody. It is the right and responsibility of the parents to inform DCFS that the child is Native American.
Children of "Hispanic" (Latino) origins also have their own protocol. The "Burgos Consent Decree" requires that "DCFS provide services in Spanish to Hispanic clients whose primary language is Spanish". Hispanic is defined as any persons of Puerto Rican, Mexican, Central, South American or other Hispanic origin. In these cases, children MUST be placed in a home where Spanish is spoken and have any and all services provided in Spanish. Parents can waive their rights to the "Burgos" and have there child placed in a non-Spanish speaking home or services at any time.
Protocol is also very strict when it comes to siblings. Every effort should be made to keep siblings together. If the sibling group is too large and no home can be found for all the siblings together, then thought should be put into how the children will be split up. Social workers should take care to note the ages, needs, and any special bonds between certain sibs when making placement decisions. This preference lasts for the life of the case - social workers should be attempting to find a placement option that can take both children unless there are safety or clinical reasons that the children should not live together. But even this decision should be continually re-evaluated.
********End Lecture/Begin Discussion**************
Hmmmm.... I don't have a ton of "discussion points" for you guys today. Mostly because I have rarely been involved in the initial placement of a child. The agency I worked for was not on the "rotating" list of placements, ours came through referrals from agencies that had exhausted their own foster homes as placement options for a child, or they came to us because we had a "specialized foster care" contract for children with special needs.
I will say this, having usually been at the "later in the game" stage of placement for children (aka, after NUMEROUS placement disruptions) I am leery of how much time and effort is put into finding a good initial placement for children coming into care. Granted, often not much is known about a child at this point in the game. But, I also know that many agencies will take a referral even if they know they don't have a good match (just based on age/sex of the child) because every child in a placement is money coming into an agency. So, a child may spend months in a "emergency/temporary" foster home while a longer term placement within the agency can be located. Even worse, agencies are reluctant to "give up" cases to other agencies once they have determined that they don't have a "long term" place for the child. Which results in a child being "bounced" from temporary home to temporary home.
And I fear that is how we then come to have children with 5, 7, 10+ homes their first year in care. It is also how we come to have children with behavior problems, spotty educations, and attachment disorders.
Okay, post ending before the rant gets going...
(Some upcoming posts that have been suggested will likely be along the lines of "types of foster homes/parents/placements", "Service Plans/Bio-Parents in the system", and "Placement Issues/Disruptions". Anyone else want to throw a suggestion out? I'm trying to keep things in a coherent "order" so that the posts flow. But there are so many things to talk about! So, PLEASE through the topics out there so I can put them on the list!)