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Journal Issue: Children, Families, and Foster Care Volume 14 Number 1 Winter 2004

When Children Cannot Return Home: Adoption and Guardianship
Mark F. Testa


Achieving permanence for foster children has been a primary focus of child welfare professionals since the problem of children languishing in foster care ("foster care drift") was first documented in 1959.1 Most children in foster care will be reunified with their birth families, but for those children who cannot return home, finding an alternative permanent family can provide them with the stability they need to flourish. A home with either birth- or adoptive parents ("natural guardianship") has historically been viewed as the preferred permanency option for children in foster care.2 However, when such permanency options are not feasible or desirable, legal guardianship by either kin or foster parents willing to raise the child to adulthood is emerging as a promising alternative.

This article examines the evolution of U.S. child welfare policy and practice with respect to permanence when family reunification is not possible. The article begins by briefly discussing factors that have contributed to the current policy framework, and it discusses current strategies and trends for the primary alternative permanency options of adoption and legal guardianship, including a summary detailing the demographic characteristics of children most likely to experience each of these options. Next, the article discusses the stability of these permanency arrangements. The article concludes with a discussion of possible changes that may be in store for public child welfare systems as the numerical balance shifts between children in foster care and children placed in permanent homes.