10 Practical Steps to Support Sustained Permanency

by Kirk O’Brien, Yvonne Humenay Roberts, Kristen Rudlang-Perman, Crystal Ward Allen, and Peter J. Pecora

Nearly one in five children in foster care has been in care before. Reentry into care can lead to fractured families. Stable, nurturing families can bolster youth resilience and lessen negative long-term effects—but these protective factors can’t be sustained if children keep reentering care. While the number of children in foster care has decreased by nearly 25 percent since 2002, the percentage of children who have reentered care has remained stable. In 2015, nearly 20 percent of children in out-of-home care—nearly 80,000 children—had been in care before, some more than once.

The high percentage of children who have been in care before suggested that youth and families aren’t receiving the support they need to remain together safely. Services and programs that better support families as they transition out of care could help. We know that most children in foster care develop physical, emotional, and/or behavioral challenges that can create significant, ongoing concerns. These challenges often result from the parent’s or child’s unmet needs, and families require services and supports while the child is in care and after he or she leaves the system.

Before highlighting what agencies can do to support sustained permanency, it is instructive to outline what we know. First, keeping families together benefits children. The presence of consistency in family relationships has a positive influence on physical and mental health, education, and social development. Meanwhile, placement instability has the opposite effect. Second, the evidence base for “post-permanency” services is lacking. The California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare (CEBC) provides scientific ratings for child welfare programs. Of the five programs listed for post-permanency services, only one, Homebuilders,® has enough evidence to be rated (http://www.cebc4cw.org/topic/post-permanencyservices/). While locally developed and implemented programs exist, most have not been evaluated extensively. Third, although the evidence base is lacking, there are core elements to existing services, including providing basic family resources, safety-focused and trauma-informed practices, caregiver supports and services, and navigation services. Fourth, federal funding streams are fragmented, hard to braid together with local funds, and compete with other priorities. Lastly, making sense of reentry data is a challenge as there is no consensus about the best indicator of reentry, or about what type of data should be examined (e.g., point-in-time versus an entry/exit cohort). (For more information on the above, see https://www.casey.org/supporting-lifelong-families/.)

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Kirk O’Brien is a Research Director at Casey Family Programs, where he conducts, manages and supports evaluation efforts to improve outcomes for youth and families.

Yvonne Humenay Roberts is a Senior Research Associate at Casey Family Programs and a licensed clinical psychologist, where she conducts research in partnership with stakeholders to improve the health and well-being of children and families.

Kristen Rudlang-Perman is the Director of Data Analytics & Visualization at Casey Family Programs, where she works with both internal and external partners to use data strategically to inform child welfare practice and policy, with an emphasis on ensuring safe and permanent families for all children.

Crystal Ward Allen is Strategic Consultant at Casey Family Programs and has worked in child welfare and juvenile justice for over 35 years, working for safe children, strong families and supportive communities.

Peter Pecora has a joint appointment as the Managing Director of Research Services for Casey Family Programs, and Professor, School of Social Work, University of Washington where he has worked with state departments of social services in the United States and in other countries to design and evaluate risk assessment systems for child protective services, intensive home-based services, and foster care programs.