Monday, June 1, 2009

Child Welfare 301:Court Goals

Foster Care is meant to be temporary - a foster parent has no legal rights to the child, and the child has no rights in regard to the foster family (such as rights to inheritance, medical decision making, etc). Foster Care is meant to ensure the safety and well being of a child until the parent can rectify the issues that brought the child into care. Unfortunately, we all know this doesn't always happen.

Which then leaves everyone with a lot of options to consider -  Let me explain the "Goals" (or plans) that my state allows for children in foster care. To clarify - the "goal" always describes what the plan is for the child - the parent doesn't have a "goal" - they have a "service plan'', which outlines what they are responsible for until the child's goal is no longer to return home. And, because I feel the need to defend/explain the role of a social worker, I've included the main responsibilities for a CW/social worker for each goal.

Return Home - Every child that comes into the system gets this goal first - because legally every parent has the right to work towards getting their child back. There are exceptions in very extreme cases - such as the parent having murdered a sibling - but they are few and far between. But in general, this goal is given first - the parents get at least 9 months to make progress towards their services. If they have made progress, they can be given this goal again and have more time to resolve the issues that brought the child into care. When a child has this goal, the Social Worker's job is to set up Parent Child visits and refer parents for various services depending on the reasons the child came into the system. The Social Worker's job is also to be involved in "concurrent planning" - aka, simultaniously thinking of Plan B for a child, in case the parent does not follow through on services. This can mean anything from discussing relative placement options with the birthparent to having the child placed in a "willing to adopt" foster home. There are sub-categories of this goal which designate how much longer it is expected to take the child to return home.

  • Return home within 12 Months - this is the goal most often chosen. Biological parents start out with 12 months to make progress on their service plan, so the child's goal is to be returned within that 12 month time frame. They could go home sooner and they may decide to give the parents more than 12 months if they have been making enough progress.

  • Return home within 5 months - given if it is believed that a child will be able to return home before the next permanency hearing (which occur every 6 months) . This goal is usually given at the very beginning of a case that is expected to be resolved quickly, or when the parent has almost completed all of their services and the transition to return home is eminent.

  • Return home pending status - Return home will happen pending a "status hearing" which usually involves the judge needing a particular piece of information to make his ruling. This goal is usually used only as a "last resort" - generally when the case is at a 'make it or break it' point.
Guardianship - this goal is assigned if it is decided that the child should not return home to their parents, but that the parent's rights should NOT be terminated. The general rule is that this goal is only appropriate for children who are a) 12 or older, b) in the home of a relative, or c) the younger sibling placed with an older sibling who meets those requirements. The courts do not like to use Guardianship because it is not as 'permanent' as adoption - but it is used more frequently when a grandparent or other relative has agreed to care for a child. The Social Worker's job at this point is to complete all necessary paperwork to allow Guardianship to be completed. At this point the Social Worker is not responsible for providing services to the parent - this goal is changeable.

Substitute Care pending Termination of Parental Rights - "Sub care pending TPR" is the goal that gets assigned once it has been determined that a parent has not shown 'reasonable efforts' towards completing the services required to have their child returned home. At this point the social worker is no longer responsible for providing referrals for services although the parents may continue to pursue them on their own. The Social Worker is now focused on completing the necessary paperwork to move forward with the "TPR" trial. In my state a child must have ALREADY BE in a home that is willing to adopt that child. The foster parents must sign a "Letter of Intent" - this is not legally binding, but is the court's attempt to reduce the chances of creating a "Legal Orphan" once the parent's rights are terminated.

Independance - This goal is only allowed for children over age 12. It is the closest thing to a "long term" foster care goal. It basically states that the child will remain in care until they age-out. But this goal is rarely given before the child is 15/16 years old and eligible for a Transitional Living/Independant Living Program. The biological parents' rights may or may not be terminated at this point - but more than likely, they have been and an adoption plan has falled through.

Adoption - This goal may be given ONLY after the biological parents' rights are terminated. At this point the Social Worker's responsibility is putting any necessary services into place to further stablize the adoptive placement and completing/compiling all the paperwork to submit to get the adoption approved. Adoption is the most permanent of all the goals and is legally binding. This is not to say that adoptions don't sometimes fail or disrupt, but once adoption has been achieved the CW and Juvenile Court system is no longer involved.

Long Term Foster Care - This post didn't exist in my state for a while, but its come back into existance recently and I'm not up on all the details. Basically though, this goal is reserved for special circumstances where Return Home has been ruled out but Guardianship/Adoption are not possible. If the bio-parents' rights have been terminated and the child is not yet adopted- this creates a 'legal orphan', meaning the state is their guardian until they turn 18 (or 21 in certain cases). There are a number of foster parents that are COMMITTED to the children in their care just as if they were their own but are not willing to parent the child without the assistance of the system.
As a social worker, I have mixed feelings about "permanent foster care". Even though the foster parent feels committed, they still have an "out" if the going gets really tough. More importantly, the child may never feel a sense of "permanency" even though the foster parent says they are committed.

Home Environment Not Appropriate - This goal is given only when it has been determined that a child can not be maintained in a home environment - aka Group Care. However, it must be determined that this is likely to be for a significant length of time. Some children are placed in Group Homes with the expectation that they will be able to be stabilized and 'stepped-down' within a year or so. This goal would not be appropriate for them - they would keep whatever goal they had when they went into group care. But for a child (often teenagers) who has had multiple disruptions and failed step-down attempts, this goal may be used. Parents' rights may or may not be terminated. If they have not - the Social Worker's duties remain the same as they are with any other goal. If not, their job is then to simply monitor the child in the group home by visiting once a month and keeping in touch with the GH Social Worker. Every child in a group home ALSO has a Group Home Social Worker that is responsible for working closely with them and recommending when they are ready to be stepped down.

______End Lecture/Begin Discussion__________

WHEW! Confusing huh?? There are a lot more details, exceptions, and loopholes - but those are the basics.

The goal of "permanent foster care" was removed from the list of goals a few years before I became a social worker - but because the pendulumn keeps swinging - they are talking seriously about bringing it back. I have mixed feelings about this for some obvious reasons - such as the 'legal orphans' issue. But I can also think of some cases where I really would have liked it to be an option! Not because I would have liked to "give up" on finding an adoptive home for a child. I'll try not to be defensive - but I do take offense to anyone who thinks that social workers are looking for the easy way out.

First of all - please understand, a Child Welfare social worker is pretty much 'low man on the totem pole' in the world of Child Welfare. Its an entry level postition - most don't even have to even have more than a bachelor's degree. In my state you go to 2 weeks of training to get your "license" in Child Welfare. Once a social worker has enough experience or a Master's Degree - they move up or out. Its a completely overwhelming, overburdening, underappreciated, underpaid position. This isn't to make excuses - only to explain things from our perspective.

And we only have about one ounce more sway than a foster parent in court. We don't make any decisions!! We give recommendations! And usually we are having to just reiterate what someone "more qualified" than us - such as a doctor or a therapist - has recommended. A judge makes decisions - and that is only after a bunch of lawyers get to argue, object, and pick out what THEY think is the most important information. (Keep in mind, most of these people have little to no training in unimportant things such as child development, mental illness, substance abuse, behavioral disorders, or the services available to help those things!) I'll get to an entire post on the challenges of being a CW social worker, both in and out of court, but for now I'll just leave you with the knowledge that NOTHING about being a SW social worker is easy - period.

Besides the "legal orphan" issue - there are other reasons I worry about having a Permanent Foster Care goal. One in particular goes back to the aspect of lawyers in court. See, lawyers have their own set of ethics - ones that look nothing like social worker ethics. A lawyer must do everything in the 'best interests' of their client. Most biological parents are assigned a "Public Defender" whose job it is to work in their best intersts. So, when it comes down to making decisions in the 'best interests of the child' guess how many lawyers in Juvenile Court are behind you? One - the Guardian Ad Litem - who likely has never met the child they represent. And I've had Public Defenders do everything in their power to prove that a parent's rights should not be terminated. They argue for a Guardianship goal when the child is only 4, an Independance goal the day a child turns 12, and spend the rest of the time trying to prove that the Social Worker didn't do their job to get the parent the right services.

Having one more goal that would prevent a child from having a legally permanent family? And being completely free of the broken system? It could give me nightmares.

I would however, have liked the courts to have gotten off my back about finding an adoptive home for some children. Because, once a home is labeled 'pre-adoptive' in my state - I'd better be working on that adoptive paperwork! And if the foster parent drags their heels, I'd better start looking for a new 'pre-adoptive' home. Because if that foster parent wasn't "committed" to adoption - the kid wasn't staying there.

But, because I worked primarily with "specialized" foster kids, the foster parents weren't usually dragging their heels because they weren't committed. They were dragging their heels because they knew what they'd lose once they adopted the child, and they weren't sure they could keep the child stable without those things!

For example - 2x monthly visits from a social worker (me) whose job it was to find and obtain services for the child and family, in-home family therapy, 4-8 hrs respite per week, Foster Parent Support Specialist who acted as a mentor and support for the foster parents, Educational Advocate who worked closely with the school to obtain educational services, and a Child Advocate who provided home-based/community support couseling for the child. And these were just the benefits from my agency that they'd lose!

Now, foster parents do get to retain some benefits after adoption - a subsidy that is the same as their current board payment and a medicaid card for the child until they turn 18. (Have you ever tried to find a good doctor/dentist/therapist who takes the medical card?) And sure, some of those services could be replaced by services through the state's "Post-adoption" unit... if you could were told about the post adopt unit, and given the number, and someone actually answered the phone, or you left a message and then waited to be transferred around to six different people, and then were told you may not qualify, and then only qualified for 6 months... you get the idea right?

Now, some may (and have) argued that my agency enabled foster parents to be helpless and incapable of solving problems on their own. They may be right. But I have also read and heard countless stories of the frustrations of foster parents who are expected to be able to do these things with the average of 10 hours training required by their licensing workers! And then I understand why so many placements disrupt and children bounce from home to home to home. The first year I was with my agency, we only had 1 placement disruption the entire year (out of about 150 kids). The stats weren't always that great - but they were better than most! So, is it more important to find "permanency" the way the courts want us to? Or the way that was actually working?

In a comment on Claudia's blog, Yondella also outlined some other reasons why Permanent/Long Term Foster Care may be appropriate:
1. there is a good reason why the parents rights will not be terminated, but
they still cannot parent. (some cases of incarceration and illness come to
.2. teens feel a strong loyalty to their parents and don't want to be
adopted. (as in my first boy whose mother died when he was 14).
3. Kids who have experienced dissolution or even disruption and have asked
not to be put in that situation again.
I'd agree with all of these reasons as well. Especially # 3 - I've known many a child that simply beginning to talk about adoption is the trigger that causes them to disrupt from a pre-adoptive home. They've simply had it fail too often. They may have been stable in a home for over a year - only to melt down at the slightest mention of the "Big A". Number 2 runs a close second on appropriate reasons - but in our state we would try to pursue Guardianship for situations where a child did not want to be adopted or in cases where an attachment to birth parents is still strong despite their inability to parent full-time.
So, I don't really have the answer - in a perfect world "permanent foster care" would only be used in the above situations. But, as we well know, the world isn't perfect - especially the Child Welfare world.
So, now is the part where you comment, write your own blog post, or even just email me and tell me what you think and how things work in your country/state/situation.

Come on - PLEASE?


  1. Technically, Gary's stated goal is "independent living" or "emancipation" (I forget which term they are using now). He is however in a private permanent foster care program. He also has a state worker, but we only see him at hearings, which often no one remembers to tell us or him about.

    Anyway, I was going to say that the biggest problem with guardianship, from my perspective, is that you typically lose ALL services and support. At least here you do. When they wrote the rules for that one no one was thinking about it as a way to exit from foster care.

    Gary, for what it's worth, has asked that parental rights not be terminated because he doesn't want the sleeping dog that is his father kicked. If he is notified that his rights may be terminated he would make a stink. I of course wasn't part of that decision, but from what I can tell, everyone agreed to it.

    Gary was fifteen when he expressed that preference. His state social worker told him that if he changed his mind to let him know. We've told the social workers that if Gary needs adoptive parents we would adopt him, but we will not ask that his father's rights be terminated so that we can.

  2. In MN, our "Sub care pending TPR" is called either concurrent planning or a dual case plan. Reunification and adoption are sought at the same time. The foster parents work toward reunifying but are committed to adoption if that doesn't work out.

    Also, in MN if you adopt, your rate is basically cut in half and they just cut all post-adoptive services except for daycare assistance (which you do not get if you are a foster parent). Oh, they do pay for special needs camps and like $2 per hour for respite. I'm not complaining because we had no idea you even got services when we first got into this, (or a monthly rate for that matter). It just makes it difficult when there are foster parents who are living on the rate to afford adopting the kids in their care. Which results in another disrupted placement, which costs more in the long-run because of finding a new home, emotional turmoil, and therapy.

    Oh here I go. I better stop now...

    Also, long-term foster care is increasing in our state. It has gone up 26% in the last 10 years. My daughter was placed into court-ordered long-term foster care when she was (I think) NINE years old. This made things quite difficult...

  3. This is really only tangential to your point, but Tiruba's comment sent me looking at some numbers. I'm looking at to get these numbers and I haven't actually adopted yet, so I'm only going by what we've been told will happen by workers and a few parents who've done it and been happy about their experience. BUT when I compare my state (which I'm happy to identify off-blog but not publicly at this point) to Tiruba's I see glaring differences. Even if TTops is getting the highest level of reimbursement ($500 monthly on top of the regular rate) she's only receiving $50 more than the REGULAR rate for an adopted child her age in my state, which offers adoption subsidies at par with foster care rates. And if we'd adopted Ezra, our worker was going to make sure we got the extra training that would get us certified to receive double the normal amount because of his high degree of special needs, which is a really significant amount of money.

    I don't want to make it seem like this all comes down to money, but it's crazy to me that people in my fairly rural state are getting more money per child than people in New York City with its cost of living. And I think we're the ones doing it the right way! Additional services are also covered and there's a specific fund for mental health/behavioral health/addiction services that might not be covered by the child's Medicaid or by the adoptive parents' private insurance to make sure that needs still get met. Plus all these kids have guaranteed tuition and room & board at any state public 2-year or 4-year college.

    Of course we're not doing this for the money, but knowing that money is there and it's not inconsequential definitely has freed us up to think about out-of-the-box options like private school for the right child that probably wouldn't be as much of a factor if the child's assistance from the state was only something like $200/month.

  4. We adopted an 11 and 13 year old sibling pair from out of state, which complicates things. Our children were placed in foster care by biomom because they were "out of control." She voluntarily terminated parental rights. She had "aged out of the system" herself when she was placed in foster care at age 14.

    I do not think anything but adoption was ever considered for our children (once TPR was final - less than 2 months after the second child was placed in foster care), but each child's foster parent only took one gender so in order to stay together they had to be removed from the foster parent they'd been with for 1 1/2 and 2 years.

    The children remained with us in an adoptive placement for 1 1/2 to almost 2 years before their adoptions were final. We had to delay our son's adoption until we were sure he had made enough changes in residential treatment (RT) to be safe to live with our family (luckily he did). We were very lucky that the state allowed this (probably because they didn't want him back! An aggressive, fully-grown, bipolar teen with RAD, PTSD, ADD, and a disrupted placement?!)

    It was a weird limbo land. We had Nebraska Medicaid (almost impossible to find TX providers to accept it) until the adoptions were final. We were more than foster parents and therefore able to make decisions about our children's care, but we all knew it was only with the permission of NE.

    TX Medicaid did not provide most of the services that NE did (including RT- which our kids really might need). Luckily we fought for and got RT covered, thanks to a friend's suggestion.

    NE pays significantly more than TX subsidies too so that helps. We do not qualify for any post adoption services here in TX.

    I guess every child's experience is different.

    Mary in TX

    Mom to biokids Ponito(10) and his sister Bob(12)
    Sibling pair adoptive placement from NE 11/06
    Finally finalized on Kitty(14) on 3/08 - 2 weeks before her 13th birthday!
    Finalized on her brother Bear(15) on 7/08. He turned 15 the next day.

    " Life isn't about how to survive the storm, but how to dance in the rain."

  5. I don't really qualify to be commenting here, but I am a foster parent, although, I have yet to take a placement. I signed up to foster-adopt, although this obviously is not a guarantee with any child you take in. I have serious apprehensions about foster parenting now. We took one little guy for respite once, and apparently he chipped his tooth while at childcare, and we were questioned about it. It was a wake up call, and our first experience! We thought we were doing something good for a child, but felt as though we were being investigated!Still, I am drawn to this, and would love to foster someday, just don't know if it is worth the risks!
    There is a program here, that takes kids/teens and rotates them through different therapeutic foster homes. They stay in each home a few months, then go to the next, and so on. They state it is very successful, as these kids just can't make it in a one time family setting. We adopted an older child from russia years ago, who if he was a foster child, would have fit this program well, but since he wasn't, we had no access to any services.
    I need to come back soon and re-read your post when I have more time, thanks for all you do!!!

  6. I don't think I have enough experience or knowledge about my state to add anything. I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to outline the role of a social worker and the steps that are typically taken. Plus explaining some of the other options like guardianship and independence. Very helpful!!!


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