To benefit the child, foster care needs to be brief. The best time and place to begin to follow the deadlines is right away. A plan to achieve permanency should begin immediately upon removal from the problem home. A case plan can and should be developed within a day or two. The reunification plan should state specific tasks and standards which the legal parents must meet in order to be reunited with their child. Adoption can be planned from the start as an alternative should the family reunification plan fail.
Here are eleven obvious actions that can shorten the time in foster care without in any way jeopardizing the child’s need for a safe and secure home.
Listen to the birth parents and foster parents. The parents, not the caseworker, are the important players. “Hear” not only their words but their behavior. Are they doing what they promised?
Learn about the critical importance of bonding and permanence. Know what bonding means and what happens when it is interrupted. Acknowledge the fact that every child has the right to a permanent home.
Maintain the birth home without removing the child when possible. If necessary to guarantee safety, provide regular in-home services.
Start immediately. Within 24 hours of removal, the caseworker should be able to provide the birth parent(s) with a case plan showing them how to remedy the abuse or neglect. This is not brain surgery. What the caseworker needs to do is directly address the problems that led to the removal. If the housing is substandard, the birth parents must find new housing. If the parents have little parenting skill or the child was left alone, require parent training classes. If a boyfriend abused the child, get rid of the boyfriend. If one or both parents were on drugs, they may need to pass a few random drug screens. And so on. See Appendix E for a sample format of an early case plan. The caseworker should take the initial working plan to the judge and get it “baptized” by court order.
Revise the case plan. As new information becomes available, make the appropriate changes or additions. The caseworker and the judge will then have the additional information about early compliance. The clock will already have been ticking, either on the way to reunification or toward termination.
Monitor the case plan weekly. No better way exists to obtain compliance than to check personally each week. Are the birth parents doing what is necessary for the return of their child? Regular monitoring builds a strong case for or against reunification.
Locate any relatives within two weeks. One major cause of delay is the eleventh-hour relative, sometimes referred to as kin-come-lately. Just when a termination of parental rights is about to happen, an unattached relative from far away emerges; an uncle, a grandmother, or a half-sibling. This throws a monkey wrench into the mix. The proceedings come to a halt while this new matter is being considered. An immediate and thorough search for potential relative placements will avoid this delay.
Follow the federal deadlines. The court generally reviews the status of children in care every three months. If the birth parents do not appear to be making a reasonable effort for reunification by six months, the permanency plan can be changed to adoption. Federal law (ASFA) requires that a termination of parental rights be filed after 12-15 months of out-of-home care. These deadlines are vitally important and need to be honored. Include specific “markers” indicating progress or the lack of it. Stick to facts. This is important to replace vague caseworker notes indicating the opinion that mother has a better attitude.
Avoid unnecessary moves. Every placement of a foster child should be made as if it were the last. Patterns of connecting are formed and solidified in the child’s personality, only to be disrupted if and when a move is made.
Implement concurrent planning.
Concurrent planning is nothing more than contingency arrangements for a “rainy day.” If we were to plan a picnic, we would usually have an alternative in case it rained. We do this for all important matters. To avoid delay, the caseworker must make a fallback plan, a second choice, something else to implement if and when the primary effort at reunification fails. Our vulnerable children deserve at least that much.
Eliminate emancipation to independent living as a permanency plan. Six percent of foster children have their permanency plan listed as independent living. Independent living is not a permanency plan. Rather, it is an outrageous formula for failure.