Foster Care:

State Efforts to Improve the Permanency Planning Process Show Some Promise

HEHS-97-73: Published: May 7, 1997. Publicly Released: May 7, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed states efforts to improve the permanency planning process and reduce the time a child spends in foster care, focusing on what: (1) statutory and policy changes states have made to limit the time allowed to determine permanent placements for foster children; (2) changes states or localities have made in their operations in an attempt to achieve more timely permanent placements and what the impact of those changes has been; and (3) factors officials believe helped them meet the challenges of achieving more timely permanent placements.

GAO noted that: (1) signaling the importance of a permanent placement to the well-being of children, 23 states have enacted laws establishing requirements regarding the timing of the permanency hearing that are more stringent than those under federal law; (2) federal law requires a hearing within 18 months after the child's entry into foster care; (3) an additional three states, while not enacting such statutes, have imposed similar requirements as a matter of policy; (4) statutory or policy changes alone, however, are not sufficient to resolve the final placement of foster children more quickly; (5) the states GAO reviewed have made changes in their operations to facilitate reunifying children with their families, expedite terminating parental rights when reunification efforts have failed, or modify the role and operations of the court both to streamline the process and to make well-informed permanent placement decisions; (6) while these initiatives focus on certain stages of the permanency planning process, such as when a child first enters foster care, two states are implementing major changes to their overall foster care systems; (7) although initiatives are in place, most of these states have not systematically evaluated the impact of them, and data concerning these efforts were limited; (8) however, most states did report that many of these initiatives contributed to reducing the time spent in foster care or decreasing the total number of placement changes while a child is in foster care; (9) state officials identified a number of factors that helped them meet the challenges involved in making changes; (10) in some cases, child welfare officials and staff had to undergo significant culture change, modifying long-held views about the merits of pursuing termination of parental rights versus family reunification; (11) they found that changing the way they approached making decisions about the well-being of children and their families was a lengthy process; (12) to implement these initiatives successfully, program officials believed that it was necessary to have the long-term and active involvement of key officials at all levels, including the governor, legislators, and agency officials as well as caseworkers, service providers, attorneys, and judges; (13) this participation was essential to define the problem and reach consensus; and (14) doing so required considerable coordination efforts and an extended commitment of resources.

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