Foster Care: State Efforts to Expedite Permanency Hearings and Placement Decisions

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-02-27.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                              United States General Accounting Office

GAO                           Testimony
                              Before the Subcommittee on Human Resources,
                              Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives

For Release on Delivery
Expected at 10 a.m.
Thursday, February 27, 1997
                              FOSTER CARE

                              State Efforts to Expedite
                              Permanency Hearings and
                              Placement Decisions
                              Statement of Mark V. Nadel, Associate Director
                              Income Security Issues
                              Health, Education, and Human Services Division

Foster Care: State Efforts to Expedite
Permanency Hearings and Placement
               Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

               I am pleased to be here today to discuss states’ efforts to reduce the time
               children spend in foster care and, where appropriate, to facilitate
               adoption. The federal cost for foster care was almost $3.1 billion in fiscal
               year 1995 and is estimated to increase to almost $4.8 billion in 2001.
               Available data suggest that more than 40 percent of foster children stay in
               care for 2 years or more. In addition, almost 30 percent of children were
               placed in at least three different settings while in foster care. This situation
               is not in the best interest of children who, without benefit of permanent
               homes and stable caregivers, may be more likely to develop emotional,
               intellectual, or physical problems.

               At your request, we are completing a report on progress states are making
               to expedite the permanent placement of children. My testimony today will
               discuss (1) state efforts to reduce the time frames within which hearings
               must be held to determine permanent placements for foster children,
               (2) state initiatives designed to expedite permanent placements for foster
               children and the effectiveness of these initiatives, and (3) key factors that
               facilitate changes in this part of the child welfare system. My comments
               are based on an analysis of statutory and policy changes in all states and
               the District of Columbia regarding the time frames for the first hearing at
               which a permanent placement for a foster child is to be determined and
               discussions or visits with child welfare officials in seven states about the
               programs they have implemented to address the length of time children
               spend in foster care.1

               In summary, signaling the importance of permanent placement to the
               well-being of children, 26 states have established more stringent
               requirements on the timing of the first permanency hearing than has
               federal law, which requires a hearing within 18 months. In addition, the
               states we reviewed undertook operational and procedural initiatives to
               expedite the permanent placement process as well as make well-informed
               permanent placement decisions. Although most of these states did not
               systematically evaluate their initiatives, they reported that many of the
               initiatives have contributed to reducing the time spent in foster care or
               decreasing the total number of foster placements made for a child. State
               officials reported that the key factors in successfully implementing these
               initiatives were the long-term involvement of key officials, an extended
               commitment of resources, and the need for a change in perspective of

                These states are Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee.

               Page 1                                                                         GAO/T-HEHS-97-76
             Foster Care: State Efforts to Expedite
             Permanency Hearings and Placement

             caseworkers and judges in order to recognize that, in some cases,
             termination of parental rights is the best solution for the child’s future.

             State child welfare systems consist of a complicated network of policies
Background   and programs designed to protect children. With growing caseloads over
             the past decade, the systems’ ability to keep pace with the needs of
             troubled children and their families has been greatly taxed. From fiscal
             year 1984 through 1995, the foster care population grew from an estimated
             276,000 children to 494,000.2 In 1995, about 261,000 of these children were
             supported by federal funds through title IV-E of the Social Security Act.3

             The federal government plays an important role in financing foster care
             and establishes minimum procedural requirements for the placement
             process. As required by the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of
             1980 (P.L. 96-272), states must make reasonable efforts to prevent or
             eliminate the need for removing children from their homes. Once a child is
             removed from the home, the state must also provide services to the family
             and the child with the goal of reuniting them. If reunification is not
             possible, the state is to find permanent placement for the child outside the
             family home.

             To guide the permanency planning process by which a state is to find
             permanent placements for foster children, the act also requires that the
             state develop a case plan for each child. Each case plan must be reviewed
             at least every 6 months and, within 18 months, a permanency hearing must
             be held to determine the future status of the child. If a final decision is not
             made at this hearing, federal law provides that additional hearings must be
             held at least every 12 months. Options for the child’s future status can
             include, but are not limited to, reuniting the child with his or her family,
             placing the child for adoption, continuing temporary foster care, or
             continuing foster care permanently or long term because of the child’s
             special needs or circumstances. Increasingly, children are being placed
             with their own relatives, who then may sometimes receive foster care

              The American Public Welfare Association estimated these numbers on the basis of data voluntarily
             reported by the states; it designated the 1995 number as preliminary.
              Under title IV-E of the Social Security Act, federal funds are provided to states to cover a portion of
             the food, housing, and incidental expenses of children in foster care. To be eligible for federal support,
             children must be from families who met the 1995 eligibility criteria of the now terminated Aid to
             Families With Dependent Children program. The states incur all foster care costs for children not
             eligible for federal support.

             Page 2                                                                              GAO/T-HEHS-97-76
                        Foster Care: State Efforts to Expedite
                        Permanency Hearings and Placement

                        The prolonged stays of children in foster care have prompted 26 states to
Several State           enact laws or policies to shorten to less than the federally allowed 18
Statutory and Policy    months the time between entering foster care and the first permanency
Changes Require         hearing. Twenty-three of these states have enacted such laws, while three
                        others have done so by administrative policy. A majority of these states
Permanency Hearings     require the hearing within 12 months. In two states, the shorter time frame
Sooner                  applies only to younger children. Colorado requires that the permanency
                        hearing be held within 6 months for children under age 6, and Washington
                        requires the hearing to be held within 12 months for children aged 10 or
                        younger. The remaining 24 states and the District of Columbia have
                        statutes consistent with the federal requirement of 18 months. (For a
                        description of the 26 state statutes, policies, and time requirements, see
                        app. I.)

                        The state laws, like federal law, do not require that a final decision be
                        made at the first hearing. Ohio and Minnesota, however, do require that a
                        permanency decision be determined after a limited extension period. Ohio,
                        for example, requires a permanency hearing to be held within 12 months,
                        with a maximum of two 6-month extensions. At the end of that time, a
                        permanent placement decision must be made. According to officials in
                        Ohio’s Office of Child Care and Family Services, the requirement for
                        earlier permanency hearings was made to expedite the permanent
                        placement process and reduce the time children spend in foster care. State
                        officials also believed, however, that this requirement may have
                        unintentionally resulted in increasing the number of children placed in
                        long-term foster care because other placement options could not be
                        developed. State data, in part, confirmed this observation. While long-term
                        foster care placements for children supported with state funds dropped
                        from 1,301 in 1990 to 779 in 1995, long-term placements for children from
                        low-income families who are supported in part with federal funds rose
                        from 1,657 to 2,057 in the same period.

                        Although the states we reviewed did not systematically evaluate the
States Make Changes     impacts of their initiatives, they have implemented a variety of operational
in Permanency           and procedural changes to expedite and improve the permanency process.
Process With Some       The states reported that these actions have improved the lives of some
                        children by (1) reuniting them with their families more quickly;
Promising Results for   (2) expediting the termination of parental rights when reunification is not
Foster Children         feasible, making it possible for child welfare agencies to begin looking for
                        an adoptive home sooner; or (3) reducing the number of different foster
                        care placements in which children live.

                        Page 3                                                      GAO/T-HEHS-97-76
                             Foster Care: State Efforts to Expedite
                             Permanency Hearings and Placement

New Service Strategies       Some states implemented low-cost, creative methods for financing and
Help Reunification Process   providing services that address specific barriers to reuniting families.
                             Arizona’s Housing Assistance Program focused on families in which the
                             major barrier to reunification was inadequate housing for the family.
                             According to reports and data from the Arizona Department of Economic
                             Security, between 1991 and 1995, as the result of the program, 939 children
                             were reunited with their families, representing almost 12 percent of the
                             children reunified during this period. State officials estimated that this
                             program saved the state over $1 million in foster care-related costs
                             between 1991 and 1995.

States Streamline            Arizona and Kentucky placed special emphasis on expediting the process
Termination Procedures       by which parental rights could be terminated. Arizona’s Severance Project
                             focused on cases in which termination of parental rights was likely or
                             reunification services were not warranted and for which a backlog of
                             cases had developed. In April 1986, the state enacted a law providing funds
                             for hiring severance specialists and legal staff to work on termination
                             cases. The following year, in 1987, the state implemented the Arizona State
                             Adoption Project, which focused on identifying additional adoptive homes,
                             including recruiting adoptive parents for specific children and contracting
                             for adoptive home recruitment services. State officials reported that the
                             Adoption Project resulted in a 54-percent increase in the number of new
                             homes added to the state registry in late 1987 and 1988. In addition, they
                             noted that the Severance Project contributed to a more than 32-percent
                             reduction in the average length of stay between entering care and the filing
                             of the termination petition for fiscal years 1991 through 1995.

                             To reduce a backlog of pending cases, Kentucky’s Termination of Parental
                             Rights Project focused on reducing the time required to terminate parental
                             rights once a decision has been made to do so. This effort included
                             retraining caseworkers, lawyers, and judges on the consequences of long
                             stays in foster care and streamlining and improving the steps caseworkers
                             must follow when collecting and documenting the information required for
                             termination procedures. A report on this effort indicated that between
                             1989 and 1991, the state decreased the average time to terminate parental
                             rights by slightly more than 1 year. In addition, between 1988 and 1990, the
                             average length of stay for children in foster care decreased from 2.8 years
                             to 2.0 years and the average number of different foster care placements for
                             each child decreased from four to three.4 However, as the number of

                              Report on Improving Practice: Termination of Parental Rights (Frankfort, Ky.: Kentucky Department
                             for Social Services, Sept. 1991).

                             Page 4                                                                        GAO/T-HEHS-97-76
                             Foster Care: State Efforts to Expedite
                             Permanency Hearings and Placement

                             children available for adoption rose, the state was forced to focus its
                             efforts on identifying potential adoptive homes and shifted its emphasis to
                             strategies to better inform the public about the availability of adoptive

Concurrent Planning Can      Some states are experimenting with concurrent planning. Under this
Lead to Greater Efficiency   approach, child welfare officials work toward reuniting a family while
                             developing an alternate plan for permanently removing the child if
                             reunification efforts fail. By working on the two plans simultaneously,
                             caseworkers reduce the time needed to prepare the paperwork for
                             terminating parental rights if reunification efforts fail. Under a concurrent
                             planning approach, caseworkers emphasize to the parents that if they do
                             not adhere to the requirements set forth in their case plan, parental rights
                             can be terminated. Some state officials attributed obtaining quicker
                             permanent placements in part to parents making more concerted efforts to
                             make the changes needed to have their children returned home.

                             Colorado began using concurrent planning formally in 1994 for children
                             under age 6 in conjunction with the implementation of the law requiring
                             that for children under age 6, the permanency hearing must be held within
                             6 months of the child’s entering care. The program has been implemented
                             in five counties. Preliminary data from an ongoing evaluation in Jefferson
                             County shows that 65 out of 78 children, or 87 percent, achieved
                             permanent placement within 1 year of initial placement as compared with
                             50 of 71 children, or 70 percent, in a control group. State Department of
                             Human Services officials told us that concurrent planning was a key factor
                             that contributed to the success of children’s being placed more quickly in
                             permanent homes.

Streamlined Procedures       All decisions regarding both the temporary and final placement of foster
Improve Court Functioning    children come through states’ court systems. Therefore, Hamilton County,
                             Ohio, juvenile court officials focused attention on the court’s involvement
                             in achieving permanency more quickly by developing new procedures to
                             expedite case processing. To do so, in 1985, they revised court procedures
                             by (1) designating lawyers specially trained in foster care issues as
                             magistrates to hear cases; (2) assigning one magistrate to each case for the
                             life of that case to achieve continuity; and (3) agreeing at the end of every
                             hearing—with all participants present—to the date for the next hearing.

                             Page 5                                                      GAO/T-HEHS-97-76
                            Foster Care: State Efforts to Expedite
                            Permanency Hearings and Placement

                            According to court officials, the county saved thousands of dollars
                            because it could operate three magistrates’ courtrooms for about the cost
                            of one judge’s courtroom. Also, a report on court activities indicated that
                            because of these changes, between 1986 and 1990, the number of children
                            (1) placed in four or more different foster care placements decreased by
                            11 percent and (2) the percentage of children leaving temporary and
                            long-term foster care in 2 years or less increased from 37 to 75 percent.

States Have Not Assessed    Our efforts to assess the overall impact of these initiatives were hampered
the Impact of Initiatives   by the absence of evaluation data. We found that the states generally did
                            not conduct systematic evaluations of their programs, and outcome
                            information was often limited to state reports and the observations of
                            state officials. Although many of these efforts reported improvements, for
                            example, in speeding the termination of parental rights once this goal was
                            established, the lack of comparison groups or quality data from the period
                            before the initiative made it difficult to reach definitive conclusions about
                            the initiatives’ effectiveness.

                            States increased their chances of successfully developing and
Key Factors Essential       implementing initiatives when certain key factors were a part of the
for Meeting Goals of        process. When contemplating changes, state officials had to take into
Initiatives                 consideration the intricacies of the foster care process, the inherent
                            difficulty that caseworkers and court officials face when deciding whether
                            a child should be returned home, and the need, in some cases, for
                            caseworkers and judges to recognize that termination of parental rights
                            should be pursued.

                            When Kentucky officials, for example, initiated a project to shorten the
                            process for terminating parental rights, they faced the challenge of
                            changing the way caseworkers and members of the legal system had
                            viewed termination of parental rights. Many caseworkers saw the
                            termination of parental rights as a failure on their part because they were
                            not able to reunify the family. As a result, they seldom pursued termination
                            and instead kept the children in foster care. In addition, judges and
                            lawyers were often not sufficiently informed of the negative effects on
                            children who do not have permanent homes. Thus, as part of this project,
                            newsletters and training were provided about the effects on children of
                            delaying termination of parental rights.

                            Page 6                                                       GAO/T-HEHS-97-76
               Foster Care: State Efforts to Expedite
               Permanency Hearings and Placement

               Officials in the states we reviewed recognized that improving the
               permanency planning process requires concerted time and effort,
               coordination, and resources. These officials identified several critical,
               often interrelated factors required to meet these challenges. These
               included (1) long-term involvement of officials in leadership positions;
               (2) involvement of key stakeholders in developing consensus and
               obtaining buy-in about the problem and its solution; and (3) the availability
               of resources to plan, implement, and sustain the project.

               With the expected rise in foster care caseloads through the start of the
Observations   next century further straining state and federal child welfare budgets,
               increasing pressure will be placed on states to develop initiatives to move
               children into permanent homes more quickly. Many of these initiatives will
               need to address the difficult issues of deciding under what circumstances
               to pursue reunification and what time period is appropriate before seeking
               the termination of parental rights.

               We found promising initiatives for changing parts of the permanency
               process so that children can be moved from foster care into permanent
               placements more quickly. Developing and successfully implementing these
               innovative approaches takes time and often challenges long-standing
               beliefs. To succeed, these initiatives must look to local leadership
               involvement, consensus building, and sustained resources.

               As these initiatives become a part of the complex child welfare system,
               however, they can also create unintended consequences. Identifying
               appropriate cases for the expeditious termination of parental rights and
               processing them faster—thereby making more children available for
               possible adoption—can create difficulties if efforts to develop more
               adoptive homes have not received equal emphasis.

               We also observed that a critical feature of these initiatives was often
               absent: Many of them lacked evaluations designed to assess the impact of
               the effort. The availability of evaluation information from these initiatives
               would not only point to the relative success or failure of an effort but also
               help identify unintended outcomes. The lack of program and evaluation
               data will continue to hinder the ability of program officials and
               policymakers to fully understand the overall impact of these initiatives.

               Page 7                                                       GAO/T-HEHS-97-76
               Foster Care: State Efforts to Expedite
               Permanency Hearings and Placement

               Mr. Chairman, this concludes my formal remarks. I will be happy to
               answer any questions you or other members of the Subcommittee may

               For more information on this testimony, please call Gale C. Harris,
Contributors   Assistant Director, at (202) 512-7235. Other major contributors are David
               D. Bellis, Social Science Analyst; Shellee S. Soliday and Octavia V. Parks,
               Senior Evaluators; Julian Klazkin, Senior Attorney; and Rathi Bose,

               Page 8                                                       GAO/T-HEHS-97-76
Page 9   GAO/T-HEHS-97-76
Appendix I

States That Require a Permanency Hearing
Earlier Than the Federal Requirement of 18
Months (as of December 31, 1996)

                Requirement for                 Year law
                holding the                     or policy   State law                        State policy/
State           permanency hearinga          was enacted    citation                         regulation citation
Arizona         12 months                                   Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann., Section
                                                    1995    8-515.C.(West Supp. 1996)
Colorado        6 and 18 monthsb                            Colo. Rev. Stat., Section
                                                    1994    19-3-702(1)(Supp. 1996)
Connecticut     12 months                                   Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann., Section
                                                    1995    46b-129(d),(e) (West 1995)
Delaware        17 months                                                                    Child Protective Service
                                                    1987                                     Directive Policy #3026
Georgia         12 months                                   Ga. Code Ann., Section
                                                    1996    15-11-419 (j),(k)(1996)
Illinois        16 months                                   705 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann.,
                                                    1993    405/2-22(5)(West Supp. 1996)
Indiana         12 months                                   Ind. Code Ann., Section
                                                            31-6-4-19(c)(Michie Supp.
                                                    1996    1996)
Iowa            12 months                                   Iowa Code Ann., Section
                                                    1987    232.104 (West 1994)
Kansas          12 months                                   Kan. Stat. Ann., Section
                                                    1994    38-1565(b),(c)(1995)
Louisiana       12 months                                   La. Ch. Code Ann., Arts.
                                                    1991    702,710(West 1995)
Michigan        15 1/2 monthsc                              Mich. Stat. Ann., Section
                                                            27.3178(598.19a) (Law Co-op
                                                    1988    Supp. 1996)
Minnesota       12 months                                   Minn. Stat. Ann., Section
                                                            260.191 Subd. 3b(West Supp.
                                                    1993    1997)
Mississippi     12 months                                   Miss. Code Ann., Section
                                                    1985    43-21-613 (3)(1993)
New Hampshire   12 months                                                                    New Hampshire Court
                                                                                             Rules Annotated, Abuse
                                                                                             and Neglect, Guideline
                                                                                             39 (Permanency
                                                    1987                                     Planning Review)d
New Mexico      6 months                            1993                                     State official’s statemente
New York        12 months                                   N.Y. Jud. Law, Section
                                                    1989    1055(b)(McKinney Supp. 1997)
Ohio            12 months                                   Ohio Rev. Code Ann., Sections
                                                            2151.353(F) 2151.415 9 (A)
                                                    1989    (Anderson 1994)
Pennsylvania    6 months                                    42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann.,
                                                            Section 6351(e-g)(West Supp.
                                                    1986    1996)

                                   Page 10                                                          GAO/T-HEHS-97-76
                                     Appendix I
                                     States That Require a Permanency Hearing
                                     Earlier Than the Federal Requirement of 18
                                     Months (as of December 31, 1996)

                 Requirement for                     Year law
                 holding the                         or policy          State law                             State policy/
State            permanency hearinga              was enacted           citation                              regulation citation
Rhode Island     12 months                                              R.I. Gen. Laws, Section
                                                            1985        40-11-12.1(1990)
South Carolina   12 months                                              S.C. Code Ann., Section
                                                                        20-7-766(Law. Co-op. Supp.
                                                            1983        1996)
Utah             16 months                                              Utah Code Ann., Section
                                                            1995        78-3a-312, (1996)
Virginia         12 monthsf                                             Va. Code Ann., Section
                                                            1994        16.1-282(Michie 1996)
Washington       12 and 18 monthsg                                      Wash. Rev. Code Ann.,
                                                                        Section 13.34.145(3)(4) (West
                                                            1994        Supp. 1997)
West Virginia    12 months                                              W. Va. Code Sections 49-6-5,
                                                            1984        49-6-8(1996)
Wisconsin        12 months                                              Wis. Stat. Ann., Sections
                                                                        48.355(4); 48.38;
                                                            1981        48.365(5)(West 1987)
Wyoming          12 months                                              Wyo. Stat. Ann., Section
                                                                        14-6-229 (k)(Michie Supp.
                                                            1995        1996)

                                       Generally, a permanency hearing must be held within the indicated number of months after the
                                     child enters foster care.
                                      Colorado law requires that for children under age 6, the permanency hearing be held within 6
                                     months from when the child enters care. The time frame to hold the permanency hearing was
                                     calculated by adding the days needed to conduct the adjudicatory, dispositional, and
                                     permanency planning hearings. This expedited procedures program will be implemented on a
                                     county-by-county basis and will be fully implemented in the state by June 30, 2004. For children
                                     aged 6 and older, the permanency hearing is held within 18 months of placement.
                                       Michigan’s time frame to hold the permanency hearing was calculated by adding the days
                                     needed to conduct the preliminary hearing, trial, dispositional hearing, and the permanency
                                      New Hampshire law is unclear regarding the time frame to hold the permanency hearing;
                                     therefore, we relied on the “New Hampshire Court Rules Annotated—Statutory Requirements and
                                     Guidelines for Abuse and Neglect,” Guideline 39, which requires that a permanency hearing be
                                     held within 1 year of the child’s placement in foster care.
                                       New Mexico law does not refer to permanency hearings. It does require that a dispositional
                                     hearing be conducted every 6 months to review the permanency plan of the child. During this
                                     review, a permanency decision for the child can be made, but this is not required.
                                      Virginia’s time frame to hold the permanency hearing was calculated by adding the number of
                                     months required to file the petition to hold the permanency hearing plus the number of days within
                                     which the court is required to schedule the hearing.
                                      Washington’s law requires the permanency hearing to be held no later than 12 months after a
                                     child is placed in foster care for children 10 years old and under. For children over age 10, the
                                     permanency hearing must be held no later than 18 months after a child is placed in foster care.

                                     Page 11                                                                          GAO/T-HEHS-97-76
Related GAO Products

              Child Welfare: Complex Needs Strain Capacity to Provide Services
              (GAO/HEHS-95-208, Sept. 26, 1995).

              Child Welfare: Opportunities to Further Enhance Family Preservation and
              Support (GAO/HEHS-95-112, June 15, 1995).

              Foster Care: Health Needs of Many Young Children Unknown and Unmet
              (GAO/HEHS-95-114, May 26, 1995).

              Foster Care: Parental Drug Abuse Has Alarming Impact on Young Children
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              Residential Care: Some High-Risk Youth Benefit, But More Study Needed
              (GAO/HEHS-94-56, Jan. 28, 1994).

              Foster Care: Services to Prevent Out-of-Home Placements Are Limited by
              Funding Barriers (GAO/HRD-93-76, June 29, 1993).

              Foster Care: State Agencies Other Than Child Welfare Can Access Title
              IV-E Funds (GAO/HRD-93-6, Feb. 9, 1993).

              Foster Care: Children’s Experiences Linked to Various Factors; Better
              Data Need (GAO/HRD-91-64, Sept. 11, 1991).

              Child Welfare: Monitoring Out-of-State Placements (GAO/HRD-91-107BR, Sept.
              3, 1991).

(106715)      Page 12                                                    GAO/T-HEHS-97-76
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