Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Child Welfare 101: Initial Placement Decisions

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...

Questions? Comments?

(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!)


  1. Just from my limited experience and from that of the few foster parents I know- another reason children are bounced around so much is that foster parents are not given correct information about the children or are flat out lied to in order to get them to take in a child.

  2. Thanks for your comment. You are right, children are bounced around a lot because of the lack of correct information given to foster parents. Sometimes the social worker doesn't know the correct info, and sometimes they are trying to present the child in the best light in hopes that things will be better in a new home. But I agree that it would be better for all involved if everyone was given the full story - especially for the child, who would then hopefully be in a placement that was willing and able to meet all of their needs. I know you guys have had a rough experience with foster care so far. Thanks again for your comment

  3. Rachel,
    I find it so interesting how these processes vary from state to state and agency to agency. I know in our state all kids that are brought into care or are needing to be placed in another home are on a computer database that is accessible by all the private agencies at the same time. This way if one agency has a home that takes in teens, or someone specifically hoping for a newborn girl they can "match" a child with a family. We also have homes that are celled "recieving" homes, where a child is placed when he or she is first removed. These are kind of like the emergency homes you were talking about, but it is only a 30 day placement, until they can find a more permanant home.

  4. I've been considering adding emergency placements to our license, but my concern is the limited info they have when a child is first taken into custody. Especially medical issues if they haven't been following the family over a period of time.

    We have two emergency shelters in our town, one is the crisis nursery where I volunteer. I personally hope that some day we have 5 in different areas of town. There is a great need out there and we turn children away everyday because of funding.

  5. We have the same forms that we fill out for foster adopt placements here. I have the results of a study completed by the University of MN that showed that the Child Matching Tool was not very effective. I can email you a copy if you are interested. Ironically, the largest county in our state WILL not even look at a homestudy unless the CMT is filled out. It would be cool to compare notes.

    I would like to see how TPR's are handled in your state. When I went back for my Master's degree, it was primarily to answer one simple question: Why, when all kids have been removed from a parent and rights have been terminated, are they allowed to take a whack at more kids? I answered it, of course, in that if they do a voluntary TPR, even if the removal is because of abuse, neglect, whatever, they still have the right to parent more kids. I've even seen it happen in extraordinary circumstances. The system is complicated and amazing, isn't it? Maybe you could talk about this more. You do a great job explaining things. Much better than I would.

  6. Always an interesting read over at your place. Thanks for taking the time to share your end of it...may it make a Kingdom impact.

    mama to 7
    one homemade and 6 adopted

  7. Hmmm, either things are very different here, or I just don't get how this all works in my state. I am working with an adoption social worker with our local DSHS office. She explained to me that all kids come into care through them first, then they have a meeting, where a representative from a few local agencies attend. If a worker from an agency feels that they have a willing foster parents with an appropriate license, they will allow that case to be taken by that agency, but only if they (the local DSHS state agency) was not able to place the child first from their list of foster parents. Does this sound right? I am pretty sure this is how it was explained to me. When we had our homestudy done, it was no cost to us, when a friend of mine has hers done through a local private agency, she was charged $2,000 and has waited close to 2 yrs. with no calls for children in their age range, B-2. Our worker thinks that is because all the children come through them first, and are placed before they get to the private agencies.

  8. You are probably right - things are done differently state to state. The process you described sounds much like how children are placed in my state when they have to move later on in the case. The process I described in my post is simply the way children initially get placed. I'm not sure where you live, but I work in a VERY big city and there are many many private agencies in the area that take over most of the actual case management duties. Our DCFS does mostly oversight. It is interesting that your friend had to pay for a homestudy - all of our foster care homestudies are completely free no matter what agency. But perhaps that is because she wanted one solely for adoption purposes? Adoption agencies charge for homestudies here too. It is interesting to find out how differently states do things!

  9. I think this is all very interesting. I am actually moving my foster placement license to DHS. I am tyring to decide what to do. I wanted to do faster care and hopfully at the end be able to adopt sometime but my husband said he is not all on board because he admited he would have walls up with the child so he wouldn't get hurt when the child went back to the parents or another family member. We were thinking to be put on there adoption list for 2 yrs old and under then I also wanted to be doing foster care for parental righte being terminated for a child older then 2. I was kind of guided in that direction from a friend of the family who use to work for DHS in a different state then us. She stated that older then 2 the child may try to please you in the first 2 months then test a lot of boundaries and she said that is a good way to meet the child and see if you can really handle it. So I am not sure yet what to do. I just don't want to be hurt at the end of all this by being attached. I love kids and it is hard to not get attached. I enjoy hearing from you so it kind of gives me more backround to figure out what to do. I was with Catholic Social Services but I was told I can do a lot more help with DHS. Just wanted to say thank you for sharing.

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