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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

The Future of Permanency Efforts and Foster Care

Congressional Budget Office projections show that sometime this decade, the number of children receiving federal adoption-assistance payments will exceed the number of children in federally reimbursed foster care.45 This important milestone has already been achieved in states like Illinois, where the number of children in subsidized adoptive and guardianship homes surpassed the total number of children in foster care in July 2000. The changing balance between children in permanent homes and children in foster care has had a profound impact on the Illinois system and prefigures possible challenges that other child welfare systems are likely to face in the future in serving a residual population of older foster children with special developmental, educational, and emotional needs.

Efforts to expedite permanence in the past three decades have succeeded in overcoming adoption stereotypes and moving more children to permanent homes. However, adaptations to existing service systems are required if these successes are to be preserved. Although agency involvement after adoption finalization has been discouraged in earlier adoption practice, 46 because of the vulnerabilities of adolescents and the limitations of existing community resources to address the unique challenges of caring for adopted children with special needs, public authorities will need to take a greater leadership role in this area.47

Surveys of adoptive families reveal the need for postpermanency services. Fortunately, most adoptive families (64%) report never experiencing an emergency or crisis concerning any of their adopted children. But many do. Like families in general, most adoptive families facing an emergency or crisis usually turn first to informal systems of support, such as relatives, friends, neighbors, and other adoptive families.48 When these informal supports are exhausted, families will next turn to physicians, religious leaders, and then former adoption workers. Common postpermanency services requested by adoptive families include respite care (weekend or short-term to alleviate parental stress), camp and other summer activities, support groups for adoptive parents and children, educational support (tutoring, testing, and advocacy), counseling, and assistance with finding and paying for residential treatment. 49 Guardians express many of the same needs.

The changing balance between foster care and legal permanence also has implications for the organization of services to children who stay in the foster care system. Just as the introduction of family preservation and support services increased the likelihood that children with complex needs would enter and stay in the foster care system, permanency planning may also result in the placement of younger children in permanent homes and the development of a residual group of older public wards with special developmental, emotional, and learning needs. This residual population will place additional demands on the system for mental health and remedial educational services that can easily outstrip the capacity of regular foster care in the absence of special wraparound and other support services. Services should also assist all older wards in making a successful transition to independent adulthood, regardless of whether they age out of the system or find permanence with legal guardians or adoptive parents as adolescents. The recent extension of federal college benefits to wards adopted after age 16 offers a model for ensuring that independence goals complement rather than substitute for permanency plans.

One-half century after child advocates and the federal government enunciated every child's right to guardianship,50 achievement of this goal is in sight for the majority of children now entering the child welfare system. In time, foster care may become only a brief interlude between living with birth parents and permanence in a new home established through adoption or legally appointed guardianship. Meanwhile, the shifting balance between temporary foster care and legal permanence presents new challenges to the current organization of the child welfare system. Meeting these challenges will require creative and flexible responses to the changing dynamics of foster care and continued vigilance toward achieving permanence for all children in care.