Concept and History of Permanency in U.S. Child Welfare
The concept of permanency is based on certain values, including the primacy of family, significance of biological families, and the importance of parent-child attachment. Research has shown us that children grow up best in nurturing, stable families. These families:
- Offer commitment and continuity—they survive life's challenges intact.
- Have legal status—parents have the legal right and responsibility to protect their children's interests and welfare.
- Have members that share a common future—their fates are intertwined.
However, permanency is not guaranteed—in biological families or otherwise. Permanency conveys an intent, and families that express their intent to remain together, legally and in other ways, are crucial to children's well-being and their ability to grow up healthy and happy.
The History of Permanency
Recognition of the importance of permanency in U.S. child welfare services began in the 1950s. Research began to show the detrimental effects of long-term foster care and separation of children and families. However, through the 1970s, child welfare services continued to be conceptualized and delivered with more of a caretaking focus than a focus on permanency. Most children who were removed from their families for their protection never returned home, nor did they become part of new permanent families. Rather, they spent their childhoods in the custody of the State.
Research and demonstration programs in the 1960s and 1970s brought necessary attention to the need for permanency in children's lives. The landmark Oregon Project, begun in 1973 with a Federal grant, demonstrated that intensive services and aggressive planning could result in the reunification or adoption of children who had been adrift in long-term foster care. The ground-breaking Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, also known as P.L. 96-272, reconceptualized foster care as a temporary service. Family involvement, prevention of foster care placement, assessment, planning, and permanency became core elements of child welfare practice.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 furthered the aims of P.L. 96-272 by emphasizing the child's safety as the paramount concern, strengthening time limits within which children in foster care should be placed with permanent families, and enacting a system of accountability for child welfare services.
Today, foster care is recognized as a temporary service. Children are only removed and placed out of home if reasonable efforts to keep them safe at home are unsuccessful. From the first day in foster care, efforts begin to return children home or help them find another permanent family. While there is still much work to be done, the achievement of permanency for children in foster care remains a driving goal for child welfare professionals.
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