In October 2013, The State Policy Advocacy and Reform Center (SPARC) released Reunification of Foster Children with their Families: The First Permanency Outcome, a brief examining the outcomes of children who exit foster care to reunification along with recommendations on improving these outcomes. According to national data from the annual Child Welfare Outcomes Report, many of the states with a high percentage of reunification of foster youth in less than 12 months of entry into the system also had a corresponding high percentage of children re-entering foster care within 12 months of reunifying. These findings imply a failure on the part of the child welfare agency to either resolve the issues that resulted in the child’s initial entry into foster care or address new issues that arose at the point of reunification.
The brief identifies a shortfall in federal support for post-reunification services as one of the primary factors in the high re-entry rate. Of the three permanency goals that are pursued for foster youth (reunification, adoption, and guardianship), reunification is the only one where the child is not eligible for ongoing federal support and assistance. Although some limited block grant funds are available to states to provide for reunification services, the amount of financial support offered is small and has very narrow time limits. Such limited support rests on the assumption that all of the problems leading to the initial removal of the child have been addressed and no new problems are likely to arise; however, this is frequently not the case.
The National Resource Center for Foster Care and Permanency Planning has examined some programs and practices that help to improve outcomes for youth who reunify. According to the Center, post-reunification services should be specifically targeted towards the needs of the child and family, and involve clinical services such as individual or family therapy, substance abuse treatment, and domestic violence and crisis intervention. In addition, these families need increased income supports, health coverage, job training, and housing assistance. Since the Child Welfare Outcomes Report also found that many states with a high percentage of foster care reentries had a high percentage of children entering foster care who were age 12 or older, services targeted specifically towards older youth might also be beneficial.
Currently, states can cobble together funding to support post-reunification services with a mix of funding sources such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Social Security Block Grant, or expanded Medicaid Coverage under the Affordable Care Act. However, these sources of funding are limited and using them for reunification services mean that other needs go unaddressed. To make a real impact on the number of children re-entering foster care from reunification, the federal government must increase the funding allotted to post-reunification services and invest in this permanency outcome as it has done for all the others.