Skip over navigation

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

Family Reunification
Fred Wulczyn

Trends and Patterns in Reunification

To determine whether recent policy initiatives have changed exit outcomes for children in care, a clear understanding of trends and patterns in family reunification is a necessary first step. The Multistate Foster Care Data Archive is a longitudinal dataset that includes data on approximately 1.3 million foster children in 12 states.25 This dataset, with its extended follow- up period, allows a glimpse into the experiences of children who exited foster care 10 years ago or more and provides a valuable source of information on reunification. Several key findings have emerged from these data, including that most children are reunified; that age and race/ethnicity matter; that length of stay is linked to exit type; that reunification—not adoption— declined during the 1990s; and that rates of reentry following reunification are high. Each of these trends is discussed in more detail below.

Most Children Are Reunified

Most children leave the foster care system through reunification with their birth parents. Determining the simple probability that a child will leave the child welfare system through reunification is an important first step in understanding the dynamics of family reunification. As illustrated in Figure 1, for every 100 children admitted to foster care in 1990, more exited through reunification than through any other exit type.26 With respect to family exits other than reunification, about 10% of children were placed with relatives.

Age and Race/Ethnicity Matter

Children's experiences with the foster care system vary significantly, depending on their age at placement and their race/ethnicity. For example, among children admitted to foster care after their first birthday, reunification was clearly the most common reason for leaving foster care. Slightly more than half of children who left foster care did so because they were reunited with their parents. Among children admitted as babies, however, adoption was the most common exit reason. Adoptions among older children, especially adolescents, were relatively rare. Instead of being adopted, adolescents who didn't go home either aged out of placement, were reported as "absent without leave" (AWOL), were discharged for some other reason (for example, transfer to another child serving-system), or were placed with other family members.

Data illustrate that a child's race and ethnicity are also related to the exit outcome. Among children admitted in 1990, Caucasian children were more likely to be reunited, whereas African American children were more likely to be adopted. This finding contradicts reports suggesting that African American children are both less likely to be adopted and less likely to be reunified.27 According to the data in Figure 2, 21% of African American children were adopted, compared with 14% of Caucasian children. Among children admitted in 1990, African American children were also more likely to still be in care 10 years after their initial placement.28

Length of Stay Linked to Exit Type

The amount of time children spend in foster care varies by type of exit. A child can and often will leave foster care after a brief placement, especially if the child is reunified. Simple measures of placement duration, such as average length of stay, convey little about the differences between adoption and reunification.

Figure 3 charts the likelihood of exiting to reunification and adoption for children admitted to foster care in 1990.29 The data displayed reflect the likelihood of reunification or adoption in the next year, given how long the child was in care. In brief, these data illustrate that reunification is much more likely to take place early in a placement rather than later. For example, the first year a child is in foster care, the likelihood (or probability) of exit is about 28%. Among children still in care after one year, the probability of reunification drops significantly over the following year, to about 16%. During each subsequent year, children who remain in foster care face a declining probability of reunification.

The adoption process follows an entirely different trajectory. During the first year following placement, the likelihood of adoption is less than 2%. From a practice perspective, the lower initial likelihood of adoption means that only a few children entering care are readily identified by social workers as children who will be adopted. Although the data do not indicate why adoption is the obvious permanency choice, it may be that the child's parents are deceased, and adoption is the only appropriate permanency plan. After the first year, the likelihood of adoption rises steadily.

The increase in the likelihood of adoption over time makes sense, as the decision to terminate parental rights follows a period during which the public agency should be working with the parents toward reunification. As clinical experience with the family builds, the cumulative evidence might shift the planning process away from reunification and toward adoption. After three years, the likelihood of adoption or reunification is about the same. After four years, a child is more likely to leave foster care through adoption.

Casual observers of the foster care system often believe that children placed in foster care stay there a long time. This perception is reinforced by the notion of "foster care drift"—when children remain in foster care without a plan for discharge, either to their natural parents or some other legally responsible adult. However, the data in Figure 3 demonstrate that the amount of time children stay in foster care is tied to whether they are reunified or adopted. In fact, only a small percentage of children remain in out-of-home care for more than 10 years.30

Although the children still in care are a relatively small proportion of the total number of children placed in 1990, their continued presence in the foster care system reinforces the need to monitor placements diligently. The experiences of these children also highlight why the underlying processes of reunification and adoption have to be monitored over an extended period before conclusions about the effectiveness of policies and practices can be reached. Meanwhile, periodic judicial and administrative reviews are important tools for evaluating children's ongoing needs and the appropriateness of reunification as a permanency planning goal.

Reunification—Not Adoption—Has Been Declining

An analysis of reunification and adoption trends since 1990 indicates that contrary to popular conception, the rate of exit to reunification—not adoption— slowed during the 1990s. This particular finding is important because lawmakers at the federal level believed that adoptions were slowing during this period, a concern that led Congress to address the sluggish adoption process as part of ASFA.

The passage of ASFA, arguably the most important piece of federal child welfare legislation passed since 1980, was largely driven by the substantial growth of the foster care population during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the perception that adoption backlogs were increasing. In 1990, the estimated number of waiting children nationwide was just below 20,000, or about 5% of the total foster care population at that time. Five years later, 38,000 children were waiting to be adopted, representing about 8% of the total foster care population, even though the number of adoptions increased by 31% between 1990 and 1994. It appeared states were losing ground in the effort to expedite permanency, particularly in adoptions from foster care.

However, the data in Figure 4 illustrate that any slowdown in exit patterns most likely involved a reduction in the number of children who were reunified with their parents. These data compare children admitted in 1990 with children admitted in later years (1991 through 1997) to determine whether rates of exit in later years were faster (or slower) than the rates recorded for children who entered in 1990. For instance, if the conventional wisdom of the mid-1990s was accurate, the rate of adoption for children admitted in 1995 would be slower than the rate of adoption for children who started in 1990. In the data displayed in Figure 4, a slower rate of adoption would correspond to a relative likelihood of exit below 1. Faster exits (relative to children admitted in 1990) would correspond to a relative likelihood of exit exceeding 1.31

Three different views of the exit data are presented in Figure 4. To the left, the data reflect relative rates of exit for all children admitted between 1990 and 1997, regardless of exit type. These data indicate little overall change in the rate of exit. That is, children admitted in 1995 were about as likely to leave foster care as children admitted in 1990. From this perspective, worries that children were leaving foster care at slower rates appear somewhat unfounded. The second panel examines the same data, except the analysis is restricted to children who were adopted. These data portray a different story: Each successive cohort of children that followed the 1990 admission group moved to adoption at a faster rate than the children admitted in 1990. A more thorough analysis of these trends indicates that during the early portion of the decade (1990 to 1994), adoption rates were unchanged.32 That is, adoptions were neither slowing down nor speeding up. Near the midpoint of the decade, but before ASFA was passed, adoptions began to accelerate, probably because state initiatives were having an impact. Once ASFA was enacted, the tendency for adoptions to happen faster continued, contributing to the notably faster rate of adoption for children admitted in 1997 compared to children admitted in 1990.

The third panel of data shows reunification trends over the same time period. These data indicate that as adoptions were speeding up, reunification was slowing down. For example, the relative rate of discharge to reunification among children who entered care in 1997 was 0.87, or about 13% slower than similar children admitted in 1990. The decline in rates of exit for children was persistent over the eight-year period. Because more children have reunification than adoption as a primary permanency plan and outcome, the net effect of slower reunification canceled the effect of faster adoptions, so that for the caseload as a whole, exit rates were stable.

Rates of Reentry Following Reunification Are High

Unfortunately, a significant number of children reenter care within 10 years of being reunified. Figure 5 provides reentry rates for 11 successive groups of children admitted to foster care and reunified with their parents. 33

The data indicate that approximately 28% of the children admitted in 1990 reentered foster care over the next 10 years. The reentry rates for the 1991 and 1992 groups are about the same, an indication that reentry following reunification is relatively rare after about eight years. Reentry rates for children admitted between 1993 and 1997 were between 20% and 26%. After 1997, reentry rates fall off, but only because of the shorter observation period.

Because policy and practice are geared to reunifying children quickly, the relationship between placement duration and subsequent reentry offers some insight into the difficult decisions facing social workers. For example, as shown in Figure 6, children reunified after short placements are those most likely to return to placement. Children reunified following relatively longer placements appear to have lower reentry rates (25%), but that is not an indication that children should stay in foster care longer in order to lower reentry rates. Rather, the statistic seems to suggest that the ability to sustain a parent-child relationship during a long separation is probably linked to lower reentry rates.

Finally, a majority of children who reenter care after reunification do so within a year. The data in Figure 7 indicate that slightly less than 70% of children who returned to foster care following reunification did so within a year. A more detailed look at the data shows that of the children who returned within a year of reunification, 57% returned within three months. Thus, almost 40% of children who return to care after being sent home to their parents come back to placement within 90 days. One study found that parental problems such as substance abuse, noncompliance with service plans, problematic parenting skills, hostility toward their children, and other concerns were major factors leading to reentry into foster care.34 Another study found that structural factors such as single parenthood and financial or housing difficulties contributed to reentry.35

To summarize, the data from the Multistate Foster Care Data Archive can be used to extend our understanding of reunification. Children who enter foster care tend to leave quickly if they are reunified. However, the likelihood of reunification falls off sharply after the first year. Among children who have been in foster care for more than three years, the likelihood of adoption actually exceeds that of reunification.36 Moreover, the backlog of children awaiting adoption in the 1990s was due largely to the increase in admissions early in the decade. The pace of adoptions actually increased, whereas reunification rates slowed during this period, a trend that has received little to no attention. Finally, although there are important state and local differences in rates of reentry, these data suggest that one out of every four children who goes home returns to foster care. Perhaps more than any other single piece of data, the likelihood of reentry serves as a reminder that the preference for reunification, absent an investment in families, is no guarantee that children will remain with their parents.