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Page 1

The Future
of Children

Children, Families, and Foster Care
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Volume 14 – Number 1

Winter 2004

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

Page 2

Editor-in-Chief

Richard E. Behrman, M.D.

Executive Editor

Margie K. Shields, M.P.A.

Issue Editor

Sandra Bass, Ph.D.

Issue Editorial Advisor

Carol Wilson-Spigner, D.S.W.

Production Manager

Robert L. Wynne

Associate Copy Manager

Roselyn Lowe-Webb

Production Assistant

Teresa Lanz

Copy Editors

Lee Engfer

Margaret Goldstein

Design

CMP Media LLC

Research Librarians

Michele J. Butler

Sarah Keehan

We also appreciate the contributions

to this journal issue by

Lucy Salcido Carter, Melissa

Martin-Mollard, Forrest Bryant, and

Kathleen Reich.

Peter P. Budetti, M.D., J.D.

Edward E. and Helen T. Bartlett

Foundation Professor of Public Health

and Chair

Department of Health Administration

and Policy

University of Oklahoma Health Sciences

Center

Felton J. Earls, M.D.

Professor of Child Psychiatry in the

Department of Psychiatry

Consolidated Psychiatry Department

Harvard University Medical School

Leon Eisenberg, M.D.

Presley Professor of Social Medicine

in the Department of Social Medicine

Harvard University Medical School

Deanna S. Gomby, Ph.D.

Principal, Deanna Gomby Consulting

David E. Hayes-Bautista, Ph.D.

Professor of Medicine and Director

Center for the Study of Latino

Health and Culture

University of California, Los Angeles

Philip R. Lee, M.D.

Professor (Emeritus) of Social

Medicine, School of Medicine

Senior Scholar,

Institute for Health Policy Studies

University of California, San Francisco

Eleanor E. Maccoby, Ph.D.

Professor (Emerita) of

Developmental Psychology

Stanford University

Rebecca A. Maynard, Ph.D.

University Trustee Chair Professor

Graduate School of Education

University of Pennsylvania

Kristin A. Moore, Ph.D.

President and Senior Scholar

Child Trends

Paul W. Newacheck, Dr.P.H.

Professor of Health Policy

Institute for Health Policy Studies

University of California, San Francisco

Judith S. Palfrey, M.D.

Chief, Division of General Pediatrics

The Children’s Hospital

Harvard University

Nigel S. Paneth, M.D., M.P.H.

Chair, Department of Epidemiology

Professor of Pediatrics and Epidemiology

College of Human Medicine

Michigan State University

Lisa Simpson, M.B., B.Ch., M.P.H.

Professor, ACH Guild Endowed Chair

Institute for Child Health Policy

University of South Florida

Barbara Starfield, M.D., M.P.H.

University Distinguished Professor

Professor of Health Policy and Pediatrics

The Johns Hopkins University

Heather B. Weiss, Ed.D.

Director, Harvard Family

Research Project

Harvard University

Daniel Wikler, Ph.D.

Professor of Ethics and

Population Health

School of Public Health

Harvard University

The Future of Children is published by The David and Lucile
Packard Foundation, 300 Second Street, Los Altos,

California 94022. Fourth-class postage paid at Los Altos,

California, and at additional mailing offices. The Future of
Children is a controlled-circulation publication distributed
free of charge. Opinions expressed in The Future of Children
by the editors or the writers are their own and are not to be

considered those of The Packard Foundation. Authorization

to photocopy articles for personal use is granted by The Future
of Children. Reprinting is encouraged, with the following
attribution: From The Future of Children, a publication of The
David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Photographs that appear

in The Future of Children were acquired independently of
articles and have no relationship to material discussed there-

in. To sign up for our e-newsletter, visit our Web site at

The Future of Children

(ISSN 1054-8289) © 2004

by The David and Lucile

Packard Foundation, all

rights reserved. Printed

in the United States of

America. Cover photo

© Bob Wynne.

Printed on acid-free,

recycled paper with soy ink.

(The electronic edition of this

issue can be found at

http://www.futureofchildren.org

on the World Wide Web.)

Board of Trustees
Susan Packard Orr,

Chairman

Nancy Packard Burnett,

Vice Chairman

Jane Lubchenco

Franklin M. Orr, Jr.

Julie E. Packard,

Vice Chairman

Lewis E. Platt

William K. Reilly

Allan Rosenfield

Richard T. Schlosberg, III,

President and CEO

Robert Stephens

Colburn S. Wilbur

Honorary Emeriti
Trustees
Robin Chandler Duke

Robert J. Glaser, M.D.

Dean O. Morton

Frank H. Roberts, Esq.

Edwin E. van Bronkhorst

The Future
of Children
Volume 14 – Number 1

Winter 2004

Published by

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

Editorial Advisory Board

www.futureofchildren.org

http://www.futureofchildren.org.

Page 97

Fred Wulczyn

Reunifying children placed in foster care
with their birth parents is a primary goal of
the child welfare system. Yet, relatively little
is known about the reunification process.
This article analyzes new data on trends in
family reunification and discovers:

◗ Although most children still exit foster
care through family reunification, exit pat-
terns have changed over the last 8 years.
Currently, reunification takes longer to
happen, whereas adoptions happen earlier.

◗ A child’s age and race are associated with
the likelihood that he or she will be
reunified. Infants and adolescents are less
likely to be reunified than children in other
age groups, and African-American children
are less likely to be reunified than children
of other racial/ethnic backgrounds.

◗ Although many children who are reunified
exit the system within a relatively short

period of time, reunifications often do not
succeed. Nearly 30% of children who were
reunified in 1990 reentered foster care
within 10 years.

The principle of family reunification is deeply
rooted in American law and tradition, and
reunification is likely to continue as the most
common way children exit foster care. Thus,
greater efforts should be made to ensure that
reunifications are safe and lasting. The article
closes with a discussion of changes in policy
and practice that hold promise for improving
the safety and stability of reunified families,
such as instituting better measures of state
performance, and continuing to provide
monitoring and supports for families after a
child is returned home.

Fred Wulczyn, Ph.D., M.S.W., is a research fellow in the

Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of

Chicago.

95www.futureofchildren.org

SUMMARY

Family Reunification

Children, Families, and Foster Care

Page 98

Wulczyn

Volume 14, Number 196

F
or children in foster care, reunification with
birth parents is often the primary permanen-
cy goal and the most likely reason a child will
leave placement. About one-half of children

placed in foster care will go back home to their par-
ent(s) following what is often a relatively brief period in
foster care. Within the larger context of child welfare
policy and practice, the fact that most children go back
to their birth parents after placement reflects the cen-
tral importance of reunification as an outcome of fos-
ter care placement.

This article discusses family reunification policy and
practice. It begins with a discussion of the legal frame-
work shaping family reunification policy and practice.
It then assesses what is known about the factors that
can affect the likelihood of children successfully reuni-
fying with their birth parents. Next the article examines
reunification within the broader context of child wel-
fare outcomes and the problem of unsuccessful
reunification—when children are reunified with birth
parents only to later reenter the foster care system.
Finally, the article concludes with a discussion of impli-
cations for policy and practice, with a focus on the key
issues to be addressed if we are to improve the likeli-
hood of children successfully reunifying with their
birth parents.

Family Reunification in Law, Policy, and
Practice
Family reunification can be viewed from multiple per-
spectives, such as the body of law that delineates
parental rights and the implications of the law on pub-
lic policy, the practices and decision-making processes
child welfare agencies engage in when deciding
whether to return children to their birth parents, and
child and family factors that may affect the possibility
of successful reunification. The following sections dis-
cuss family reunification in all of these contexts.

Law
The bedrock assumption underlying child welfare pol-
icy is that children are better off if raised by their natu-
ral parents.1 This preference for the role of natural
parents is codified in law and provides the rationale for
retaining reunification as a core outcome for children
placed in foster care.2 Parents have the fundamental

right to direct the care, custody, and control of their
children, and it is presumed that, until or unless proven
otherwise, they will act in a child’s best interest.3

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has long recog-
nized the autonomy of the natural family and grants
wide latitude to parents, the court does acknowledge
the interest of the state to protect and promote chil-
dren’s welfare and to assure that children have perma-
nent homes.4 The exercising of this authority
emphasizes that a child is not the absolute property of
a parent, although state action is limited to situations
in which parents are proven unfit or unwilling to per-
form parental duties and obligations.5 Because the pre-
sumption favoring parents has to be set aside before
any other caregiving arrangements are pursued (assum-
ing the parents do not consent), reunification has to
remain the primary goal of child welfare services until
a permanent decision regarding parents’ abilities to
carry out their responsibilities can be made.

Parental rights regarding children are frequently con-
strued as a bundle of rights and responsibilities per-
taining to custody, medical treatment, educational and
religious decision making, physical and emotional care,
and financial support. Generally, the parent’s rights are
comprehensive and predominate over those of the
child and third parties, including the state and relatives
of the child. However, the bundle is divisible, and
some rights can be conveyed to others for a limited
duration, even as natural parents retain other rights.
For example, parents can convey guardianship of a
child to a third party during a planned absence. The
guardian assumes day-to-day responsibility for the
child (food, clothing, and shelter), but parents retain
the right to make certain decisions on behalf of the
child. Only in the extreme circumstance of termination
of parental rights do the natural parents totally relin-
quish the bundle.

For a court to challenge a parent’s fundamental right
to the custody of his or her child, there must be a
showing of parental unfitness. Even when parental
unfitness is demonstrated, with few exceptions there is
a residual presumption that it is in the child’s best
interests to be in the custody of the parent. Thus, sub-
sequent to the determination of parental unfitness, the
court conducts a separate best interests analysis, deter-

Page 194

NSCFFP National Survey of Current and Former Foster Parents. The NSCFFP was conducted in 1991,
and is the only study of current and former foster families based on a national probability sample. The
purpose of the NSCFFP was to collect extensive information potentially useful in agency and public
policy planning regarding recruitment and retention of foster parents.

PAL Preparation for Adult Living program. PAL is a program implemented in 1986 by the Texas Depart-
ment of Protective and Regulatory Services to ensure that older youth in substitute care are prepared
for their inevitable departure from state care and support.

PIP Program Improvement Plan. States are required to develop and implement PIPs that address any of
the outcomes or systemic factors determined not to be in substantial conformity as a result of a Child
and Family Service Reviews (CFSRs).

PRWORA Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996

SACWIS Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System. The goal of SACWIS is to become a com-
prehensive automated case management tool that supports social workers' foster care and adoptions
assistance case management practice. States are encouraged to add functionality that supports child
protective and family preservation services, and other programs such as TANF emergency assistance,
juvenile justice and child care, as well. Currently, most states are at some stage of SACWIS planning,
development, implementation, or operations.

SCHIP State Children’s Health Insurance Program. SCHIP was created under the Balanced Budget Act of
1997 and allows states to offer health insurance for children, up to age 19, who are not already insured.
Each state sets its own guidelines regarding eligibility and services.

SFFC Shared Family Foster Care. SFFC refers to the planned provision of out-of-home care to parents and
their children when the parent and host caregivers jointly share the care of the children. The host fam-
ily is specially trained to provide mentoring and support for the biological parents to help develop the
skills needed to care for the children and live independently.

SSI Supplemental Security Income. SSI is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax rev-
enues (not Social Security taxes) designed to help aged, blind, and disabled people who have little or
no income by providing cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter.

TANF Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF was created by the Personal Responsibility and Work
Opportunities Act of 1996, replacing the federal public assistance (or welfare) program, Aid to Fami-
lies with Dependent Children (AFDC). Although the overall effect of TANF on child maltreatment is
not yet clear, TANF has become the major source of funding for child welfare services.

VCIS Voluntary Cooperative Information System. VCIS is an initiative of the American Public Human Ser-
vices Association (APHSA, formerly the American Public Welfare Association) to fill the continuing
need for national information on child welfare programs. With support for VCIS from the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services, APHSA periodically surveys the primary state agencies
administering public child welfare programs to gather data on children in substitute care and on adop-
tion, and then publishes summaries of the results.

Volume 14, Number 1192

The Future of Children

Page 195

Children, Families, and Foster Care

Volume 14, Number 1The Future of Children

Altshuler, S.J., and Gleeson, J.P. Completing the evaluation

triangle for the next century: Measuring child well-being in

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Bess, R. The cost of protecting vulnerable children.
Washington, DC: Urban Institute, November 2002.

Bess, R., Andrews, C., Jantz, A., et al. The cost of protecting
vulnerable children III: What factors affect states’ fiscal deci-
sions? Occasional paper no. 61. Washington, DC: Urban
Institute, 2002.

Billings, P., Moore, T., and McDonald, T. What do we

know about the relationship between public welfare and

child welfare? Children and Youth Services Review(2003)
25(8):633Ð50.

Courtney, M.E., Barth, R.P., Berrick, J.D., et al. Race and

child welfare services: Past research and future directions.

Child Welfare (1996) 75(2):99Ð137

Dicker, S., Gordon, E., and Knitzer, J. Improving the odds
for the healthy development of young children in foster care.
Promoting the Emotional Well-Being of Children and

Families Policy Paper No. 2. New York: National Center for

Children in Poverty, January 2002.

Freundlich, M., and Wright, L. Post-permanency services.
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Gomby, D.S., Larner, M.B., Stevenson, C.S., et al. Long-

term outcomes of early childhood programs: Analysis and

recommendations. The Future of Children (1995)
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Kortenkamp, K., and Ehrle, J. Well-being of children
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Malm, K., Bess, R., Leos-Urbel, J., et al. Running to keep
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Perry, B.D. Childhood experience and the expressions of

genetic potential: What childhood neglect tells us about nature

and nurture. Brain and Mind (2002) 3:79Ð100.

Publication Development Committee, Victims of Child Abuse

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Reynolds, A.J., and Robertson, D.L. School-based early inter-

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Selected Bibliography

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