Last week the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) released, Freeing Children for Adoption within the Adoption and Safe Families Act Timeline explores how frequently states make exceptions to the federal requirement that child welfare agencies file to terminate parental rights for children who remain in foster care for at least 15 of the previous 22 months as established by the Adoption and safe families Act (ASFA). The research comes in two parts.
The data report finds that states vary tremendously in the proportion of children entering foster care who experience termination of parental rights (TPR) within five years of entry (ranging from nine percent to 44 percent) and in the proportion of TPRs that occur within 17 months (ranging from 16 percent to 89 percent).
The report points out the range of reasons for the variation between states. These include some states that may bring only the most seriously endangered children, and that could contribute to a lower rate of reunification. Other state child welfare agencies and judges may vary in the extent to which they value both reunifications and other relative placements in relation to adoptions when children remain in care for extended periods. The age distribution of states’ foster care populations may also be a factor since younger children are more likely than older children to experience termination of parental rights, so that states that serve a disproportionate number of older youth in foster care will likely have lower rates of TPR.
Similar to a recent ACF Information Memorandum, ACYF-CB-IM-21-01 termination of parental rights is more likely to occur for infants and toddlers. (under age two). Examining the percentage of children subjected to a TPR with a five-year period by race, ethnicity, and heritage found: White 27.1 percent, American Indian 22.7 percent, Black 21.5 percent, Hispanic 17.9 percent, Asian 16.2 percent, Multiracial 30.4 percent.
Part two of the ASPE report is on state perspectives with child welfare agency staff and adoption stakeholders expressing a range of views. The four key points here are:
- Timelines for terminating parental rights can be challenging. It can be challenging to address serious parental problems within the federal time frame. However, many also believed that parents were given too many chances after not demonstrating significant progress, to children’s detriment.
- Practice issues are common causes of delays. A series of practice issues that underlie variation among states in the extent to which terminations of parental rights (TPRs) occur and occur timely. These include inconsistent case practices, lack of a process to track timelines, providing repeated extensions with weak justification, and high caseloads and turnover for caseworkers and lawyers who represent child welfare agencies.
- Service shortages and court scheduling difficulties also produce delays. Respondents placed greater emphasis on service shortages as a reason for delays as well as a lack of clarity regarding what progress must be demonstrated by a parent to achieve reunification.
- Improvements to casework practice and the provision of services are needed. Both could improve timely reunification and better target TPR exceptions so they may facilitate, rather than delay, desired permanency, and well-being for children in foster care. This may include developing consistent expectations for caseworkers and judges about the interim milestones that would justify an extension and the conditions under which an extension is not warranted, as well as efforts to assess more clearly when a delay is likely to facilitate reunification rather than delay an adoption outcome.