Child Welfare Ideas From the Experts, #6: Placement Stability for Infants and Toddlers

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 11 former foster youths who completed Congressional internships. The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, with support from the Sara Start Fund.

Each of the FYI participants crafted a carefully researched policy recommendation during their time in Washington. Today, we highlight the recommendation of Tony Parsons, 22, a pre-law undergraduate student at Michigan State University.

The Proposal

Reduce the instances in which children below the age of three receive multiple placements in foster care by making three changes to federal policy:

  • The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) currently mandates (with some caveats) a termination of parental rights (TPR) if a child is in care for 15 out of the most recent 22 months. Parsons would replace that timeline for children under three with a mandate to TPR after an infant or toddler has been in care for nine consecutive months.
  • Require states to report how many times each child moves placements cumulatively while in care, and how many placements each child had within 365 days.
  • Amend ASFA to guarantee any foster parent that has been a “primary caregiver” for an infant or toddler to have a voice in dependency court proceedings.

The Argument

Just under 30 percent of all children in foster care are below the age of three, a period of life that modern research suggests is critical to brain development and function. Parsons cites in particular work done by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, which said that toxic stress can set in on a young child who is exposed to “long durations of adversity.”

Parsons also states that “researchers have detailed how children being raised in foster care are considered at risk of developing Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).”

There is little national data on the placement stability of children below three. In California, where the Child Welfare Indicators Project does track placement by age, 20.6 percent of children in that age group were moved three or more times.

In His Own Words

“Three years ago, my family fostered twins that came to us at 10 days old. After they were with us for two years, a woman claiming to be their aunt (who we ultimately found out was not a relative) came forward and adopted them. Their removal from our home and placement with her occurred very quickly, and since then, we have lost direct contact with them.”

The Chronicle’s Take

Parsons sort of indirectly makes a fantastic suggestion, in our opinion. His specific recommendations call for requiring states to do intensive reporting on placements for the three-under group. In his analysis, he called the California Child Welfare Indicators Project “an amazing foster care data system” done “in collaboration with the California Department of Social Services.”

This seems like fertile ground for a federal role: funding teams of state universities and state child welfare agencies to replicate what the Indicators Project has accomplished. If there were 49 more of those, we would know a whole lot more about foster care practice and about at-risk youth in general.

His proposal to guarantee foster parents a place at the table comes at an interesting time. A group of foster parents and advocates is currently preparing to sue the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, the largest single child welfare system in the country, over its alleged failure to notify foster parents of court hearings, or include them in those hearings.

The procedural shift Parsons suggests would certainly be controversial for two reasons. First, it would be impossible to know until the change was made what impact it had. Would the number of parental rights terminations shoot up? Would the children involved be connected to adoptive families and other permanent settings, or would the foster care ranks swell?

Second, the proposal might put the blame for placement stability on the wrong party. It is usually the maltreatment of a birth parent or parents that begins a child’s experience in foster care. It is then on the parents to address problems in an agreed-upon timeline in order to get children back.

But birth parents have no control over the placement stability afforded by the child welfare system. Shortening the timeline for them to accomplish required reunification services might lower placement frequency, but it also might set a lot of children on a journey into foster care with no guarantee of stability and now, no chance of a return home.

Click here to read Parsons’ entire proposal and those of his fellow FYI participants.