October 27, 2006
QUESTIONS ABOUT FOSTER CARE AND ADOPTION
By: Susan Price, Principal Legislative Analyst
You asked a series of questions about foster care and adoption. We answer each question separately.
Generally, how does the Department of Children and Family (DCF) handle foster care cases?
When courts grant DCF's request to remove children from their homes, in most circumstances it must take reasonable steps to reunify the family until a court rules otherwise. Reunification services include things like counseling and substance abuse treatment, as well as efforts to find suitable housing or employment. In most cases, the child returns home and the department's involvement with the family ends.
As soon as possible after the child is taken into custody, DCF assesses the child and identifies strengths and service needs. This typically involves a short time (up too 45 days) stay in a group residence, known as a “safe home.” In most cases, children are then placed in licensed foster homes. But those whose therapeutic or complex medical needs cannot be met in a home setting may be placed in residential facilities where their needs can be met. Children for whom no relative or foster family can be found are also placed in residential facilities or in group shelters until a space opens up. Regardless of the type of placement, DCF caseworkers monitor the children assigned to them at least monthly.
The law requires DCF to draw up a treatment plan within 60 days after the child enters its custody. When appropriate, the plan must specify what the parent must do to make reunification in the child's best interest and the services the department must make available to achieve this goal.
DCF often identifies another permanent living goal should reunification not be appropriate, such as adoption, guardianship with a licensed relative or family friend, or keeping the child under DCF's custody and providing services to prepare them to live on their own.
The agency must submit its plan to court and attend a court hearing. The court must give all parties or their attorneys the opportunity to show that the plan is or is not in the child's best interest. Once approved, the court reviews it periodically to determine if the permanency outcome is still appropriate and to monitor DCF's progress in implementing it.
The department is required by law to initiate proceedings to free children for adoption after (1) they have been placed out of their homes for 15 of the last 18 months or (2) a court rules that reunification is not appropriate, whichever occurs sooner. When a parent will not agree to free her child for adoption, a court trial ensues. If the judge finds that DCF has proven that the abuse or neglect occurred, and that it was sufficiently severe, it may order that the parental rights be terminated. In this case, the parents are notified of their rights to appeal the judge's decision, and the termination is delayed pending the resolution of those proceedings. Children are free for adoption as soon as parental rights are legally terminated.
Sometimes foster parents identify a child who they wish to adopt as soon as they can legally do so. If approved by the department, they are designated at-risk adoptive parents, with the understanding that the adoption can only go forward after a court terminates the rights of the child's birth parents.
What have been identified as the greatest shortcomings of our system?
The department indicates that the greatest challenges it faces include recruiting foster and adoptive families, especially for older children and those with intensive mental or physical needs. Older boys of African American or Caribbean descent with diagnosed mental illnesses are the most difficult group to place; siblings who must be adopted into a single
family are also a challenge. And the length of time it takes to conclude administrative and legal proceedings can significantly delay placing a child in a permanent home.
The restrictive rules for obtaining federal funding are also difficult for DCF to navigate, as the federal programs often cannot be used to obtain all the services that a particular child needs. The scarcity of community-based alternatives for children, which is partially driven by a lack of funds, also challenges the department's mandate to provide services in the least restrictive environment appropriate for the child.
What are the largest challenges facing the state in this area?
The state faces many of the same challenges as face DCF. In addition, some child advocates have testified at legislative hearings that increasing funding for services that keep families intact is both more cost effective and appropriate than what the state has traditionally budgeted for prevention services. Agencies and other entities working in the foster care and adoption system indicate that confidentially laws often hamper their ability to work collaboratively to coordinate services for children.