The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a new report on how tribal governments are addressing the eventual restrictions on the foster care placement category of “another planned permanent living arrangement” or APPLA for youth in foster care.

The report, Most Tribes Do Not Anticipate Challenges with Case Goal Changes, but HHS Could Further Promote Guardianship Assistance, was conducted to determine how tribal placements will be effected by the requirements to restrict the use of the APPLA category for tribal youth. The GAO concluded that, based on interviews and surveys of representatives from approximately thirty-six tribes, officials did not believe they would have difficulty with the new requirements and restrictions on APPLA for youth 16 and older.  They did however indicate that placing youth 16 and older was a challenge due to a lack of foster homes and permanency options such as kinship-guardianship homes.

The category of APPLA found its roots in the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), when Congress prohibited what was then described as “long-term foster care” for children that were expected to remain in foster care until adulthood due to special circumstances.  It was believed that too many children were remaining without a permanency plan and that creating new requirements through ASFA and designating another planned permanency living arrangement would change that.  The changes included greater court oversight combined with compelling reasons to remain in care.

Over time many advocates felt that long term foster care category had morphed into APPLA.  At times some had advocated for a full elimination of the category of APPLA, instead the 2014 amendments to the law prohibited APPLA for children under 16 along with additional court oversight and oversight requirements for young people 16 and older.  At the time of the 2014 law concerns were expressed how tribes might be effected by these changes due to differing and cultural practices.  The delay for tribes will expire by 2017 (FY 2018). That prompted this GAO report.

What GAO found was that tribal officials did not anticipate challenges associated with the limitations on the use of APPLA. A majority of tribal officials indicated a limited use of APPLA or not using it at all. Those that did use APPLA for older children told the GAO that it was more difficult to find permanency for children due to a number of challenges including: a lack of services for older youth, greater difficulty in finding adoptive homes for older children, children not wanting to be either adopted or placed into a guardianship; and children with severe health issues.

Overall 16.1 percent of Indian children are in the category of APPLA while 16.8 percent of non-Indian children were in this category.  Nearly 60 percent of the Indian children in APPLA were 16 or older while over 75 percent of non-Indian children were 16 or older among the APPLA category.  In terms of placement settings for Indian and non-Indian children, Indian children had less institutional care than non-Indian children:

  • Supervised Independent living: 10% non-Indian children, 5.5% Indian children
  • Institutions: 16% non-Indian children, 13.1 % Indian children
  • Group Homes: 13.9 % non-Indian children, 13.1% Indian children
  • Non-relative Foster Family Home: 44.8 % non-Indian children, 50.1% Indian children
  • Relative Foster Family Home: 6.7% non-Indian children, 11.1 % Indian children

In terms of other challenges outlined in finding a permanent family for children and youth in foster care, out of the 36 tribes providing information, seven listed cultural opposition to federal requirements regarding the termination of parental rights, 9 listed differences in state and tribal relative definitions, 15 cited state or federal licensing requirements and 21 cited the constraints resulting from a lack of or insufficient services and supports.

The GAO report goes into greater detail regarding some of these barriers listed by tribal leaders.  Under resource constraints tribes included a lack of foster homes particularly when it came to caring for children with special needs and a lack of therapeutic and inpatient care related to the tribe’s rural location.

The GAO recommended greater assistance by HHS to tribes particularly in regard to kinship care/subsidized guardianships.  They note that just 33 states and 6 tribes were using the IV-E option under the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success Act and that such guardianship programs could assist in the placement of these Indian children.