I was never really good at track. As a soccer player, I was used to running, and running, and running some more, but on the track, I could never translate all that running after a small ball, into crossing the finish line. Even though I gave up on track quite early, I can still hear my junior high coach yelling, “Ear – pocket! Ear – Pocket! Keep those knees up! Run through the finish line!”
I especially hear her whenever I see those sport blooper reels of athletes who start celebrating too early and relax right while approaching the finish line, only to have a harder working competitor pass them for the win. It’s a lesson many athletes have learned the hard way, hopefully not forever captured on YouTube, but it’s a lesson that goes far beyond track and field and many of us need to be reminded of…
June is National Reunification Month, a time to commemorate those families that, being involved with a child welfare agency have crossed a finish line of sorts by putting in the hard work to assure a safe and nurturing home for their kid(s). It is a time to celebrate all of the case workers and service providers who tirelessly put in the hours and effort to help children & families reunite. And, it is reminder to all of us, that the system can work, and that there is hope for real change in the lives of families in the midst of life’s messiness.
The North American Council on Adoptive Children data tells us verifies what we see with our clients, that reunification occurs for about half of the children that are removed from their home due to abuse or neglect. The other half will likely need a new forever home through adoptions, or age out of the system. Permanency, in whatever form, and getting a child from an unsafe environment to a safe one and free of child welfare intervention represents the finish line. By no means is the work a race. You cannot just work really fast, close your file, and throw your hands up in victory. Permanency for kids, is one of the most risky and critical decisions made in all of government and getting to the finish line is a laborious process with thousands of factors that will influence the time it takes to get there. But when we are there, our research shows we don’t run through the finish line, in fact, our system has a propensity to start walking or even crawling at this phase when in fact, we should be sprinting once a permanency decision has been made.
Today, when that permanency decision has been made, our system (attorney’s, judges, agency permanency staff, guardian at items, etc.) has a propensity to slow-down to a near crawling pace. Whether it is due to our hesitation to make a final decision knowing that, once we close, the family will have limited access to the services that helped them provide a safe home, it seems we are content to leave them in this holding pattern just steps from the finish line.
With the vast majority of reunifications starting with extended home visits, a time when the child is returned home so the family can work toward being together again, barring any issues, this is the approach to the finish line. If extended home visits go well, reunification is eminent. If they do not go well, then the family has not been able mitigate the issues and provide a safe environment at this time. We would never suggest rushing through this process, but we are certainly suggesting that this is close to finish line when we have enough evidence to make the decision, we make it.
To be clear, it is not the decision that needs the sprint, it’s the activities after the decision has been made that need an equal drive as we had when we originally set up the case plan. While this sounds intuitive, the truth is we rarely see an emphasis on running through the finish line. Many times, a worker’s capacity is to blame. If you have a child that just came into care that needs setup done prior to court in a couple days, plus 10 other kids to visit this week, plus a placement disruption, plus the next fire… a safe child in a safe home is forced to be a lower priority. In areas with mandated caseloads, I have seen keeping children in extended home visits used as an unspoken strategy to controlling workload. With no nefarious intent, many case workers know this is the one area they can control the throttle, and they do it to make sure they have time for all the kids in their caseloads.
For whatever reason we are keeping them open after the decision to reunify, it’s not ideal. We need an expert coach to remind them to run through the finish line. In the field, this is a seasoned supervisor who can help confirm the decision, and then push us to cross the finish line. We need systemic changes that recognize the need to provide support after reunification and case closure so no one feels like this moment in time is the only time to work on providing a nurturing home. And case workers need capacity to do the work they are asked to do.
Capacity is a tricky thing to create in permanency functions. The work is the work. Each child demands about 14 hours of case worker time per month. It’s hard to find a process that is federally compliant, good for the child, and evidence based that is significantly less than that. So one of the keys to building capacity is getting kids out of care. Since we cannot, and should not rush the decision-making process, one real strategy is to run through the finish line. Ironically, what many workers see as their less demanding (it’s all demanding) cases, are actually robbing them of capacity. Even 5 kids in extended home visits, at a very generous “less demanding” time requirement of seven hours a month to visit, evaluate, and write up, is 40 hours. That’s a quarter of their month spent on kids that could, should, be past the finish line. These are the kids who have usually been on extended home visits for over 90 days, we know are going to reunify, but have not crossed the finish line.
Between extended home visits over 90 days, and kids in their permanent placement post TPR (another group we slow down with), we see clients with 15% of their caseload, or more, at the finish line. These are ready to finish. But just when we should be breaking through the tape and celebrating, we find ourselves slowing down. June is National Reunification Month, I encourage you to use it to review your caseload for those kids ready to be on the other side of the run, help them get home, and celebrate all the hard work it took by everyone to get there!