Foster care is meant to be “a temporary service for short-term care and supportive services to children who are unable to live at home because of child abuse or neglect.”
The longer a child remains in foster care, the more likely she is to be moved multiple times, which is associated with problems of detachment, poor school performance, and behavioral challenges.
M. is a 4-year-old girl with multiple disabilities, who has been in foster care since she was 8 months old and whose permanency plan, until last year, remained reunification.
The juvenile court then changed M.’s permanency plan to adoption or custody and guardianship by a nonrelative.
Unfortunately, the foster care placement where M. has lived for the past 3 years is not a permanent resource and a new placement — a new family — will have to be found for M. now.
The removal of a child from her family by a child welfare agency should be time-limited from the outset.
Immediate efforts to return the child home or, if that is not possible, to achieve permanency through adoption or guardianship with a relative or nonrelative caregiver, should be made.
In Maryland, when a youth enters foster care through a Child In Need of Assistance (CINA) case, the presumptive permanency plan is reunification with a parent or legal guardian.
Maryland’s Juvenile Causes Act provides a hierarchy for permanency plans for children in foster care: (1) reunification with a parent or guardian; (2) placement with a relative for adoption or custody and guardianship; (3) adoption by a nonrelative; (4) custody and guardianship by a nonrelative; and (5) for a child at least 16 years old, another planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA).
Under a written policy of the Social Service’s administration, local departments of social services in Maryland are required to engage in concurrent permanency planning or “the simultaneous pursuit of two permanency goals in order to achieve permanence for a child as safely and expeditiously as possible.”
Concurrent planning requires the identification of an alternative or secondary permanency plan for a child, and active efforts toward both the primary and secondary plans, simultaneously.
It can provide earlier permanency for a child compared to sequential planning, where one permanency plan is ruled out before an alternative plan is pursued.
There is an expectation that a plan of reunification will be accomplished within 15 months of a child’s removal from his parent or legal guardian.
When a child has been in out of home placement for 15 out of the most recent 22 months, the local department is mandated to file a Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) Petition and pursue adoption.
If the department chooses not to file a TPR Petition, it must document a “compelling reason” why it is not filing a Petition.
The department may request that the court order a new permanency plan. If counsel for the child or a parent(s) disagrees with the proposed permanency plan, the juvenile court will hold a hearing on the matter.
As a practical matter, due to various delays a child may be in foster care for more than the 15-month-time parameter before a child’s permanency plan is changed or TPR proceedings are initiated, as in M.’s case.
While she receives excellent care, M. has spent the past several years bonding with people who will not be her forever family.
A concurrent permanency plan — a plan for reunification concurrent with a plan for guardianship or adoption by a nonrelative — would have allowed for M. to be placed with the people who would be her forever family instead of being moved to a new placement, further delaying permanency for her.
Concurrent permanency planning can allow for a child’s permanency plan to be changed more quickly once reunification is found not to be possible, resulting in more timely permanency and alleviating foster care drift.
The alternative plan to reunification has already been agreed upon, and reasonable efforts toward realizing that plan have been made.
A concurrent permanency plan allows a child, like M., to achieve more timely permanency with a family with whom she has already bonded and provides her the potential for future stability and well-being, which is not provided by temporary foster care.
Counsel for a child in foster care should consider whether a concurrent permanency plan is in that child’s best interest and, if so, advocate for it as soon as possible.
Shannon M. Weaver is a supervising attorney at Maryland Legal Aid.