Q: What is being done in Ohio to improve foster care for kids?
A: A major drawback of the foster care system is the lack of “permanency” for children. In order to improve the lives of children in foster care, it is important to help them establish a lifelong, supportive, permanent connection with at least one adult they can rely on as a support system for life. Not all foster children are able to enter a permanent, legal relationship through adoption or other legal custody status, but some Ohio counties are exploring other ways of helping children to develop as many permanent connections as possible.
Q: What is being done to help foster children develop permanent relationships?
A: In 2014, six Ohio counties volunteered to participate in a pilot project known as Youth-Centered Permanency Roundtables (PRTs), led by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and Public Children Services Agencies of Ohio (PCSAO).
As of September 2016, Athens, Butler, Clark, Fairfield, Guernsey, Hamilton, Montgomery, Summit and Trumbull counties had adopted the national Youth- Centered PRT model, which is focused on finding permanency for youth 12 and older who have been in foster care 17 months or longer. The model uses “permanency roundtables” to help establish permanent connections for foster children, and the children themselves are included in the process.
Q: How does a permanency roundtable work?
A: In Montgomery County, for example, the permanency roundtable team consists of the child, his or her caseworker and supervisor, a neutral facilitator, a “master practitioner” (someone with expertise in helping children establish permanency), an external consultant (a neutral community provider) and a scribe (who records the process and plan). This team is focused on finding permanency for the child, who is empowered to direct the process and to identify goals as well as individuals who are important in his or her life. The team creates a plan of action to achieve some kind of permanent support relationship for the child.
The roundtable meetings also help the child to identify hopes, dreams, goals and what needs must be met in order to achieve them. The team meets every 90 days to review goals and update or change strategies as needed until the child has established permanency with at least one reliable person. The goals and action plan can change based upon what is going on in the youth’s life at that time and what support the child may need to successfully transition to “permanency.”
During these roundtable sessions, the facilitator makes it clear that the child is in charge of dictating the plan and that the adults are present only to help guide the process.
Q: Has this roundtable program been successful?
A: When speaking of success, it is important to understand the custody statuses that youth experience while in foster care. Custody statuses have many different levels and vary across jurisdictions, but basic custody types in child welfare can be defined as follows:
1) Temporary custody - parental rights have not been terminated and the goal is reunification with the parent.
2) “Planned Permanent Living Arrangement” (long-term foster care) - the youth is not available for adoption and generally will remain in foster care until he or she “ages out” at 18.
3) Permanent custody - parental rights have been terminated and the youth is available for adoption.
In June 2014, when Montgomery County started the PRT Process, Montgomery County Children Services initially had 121 youth in the custody status of “Planned Permanent Living Arrangement” (long-term foster care). Such an arrangement basically allows youth to stay in long-term foster care until they are emancipated (when they reach age 18), but generally does not lead to permanent connections for those young people. By June 2015, the number of youth in such living arrangements had dropped to 93, while the number of youth in permanent custody (a custody status where children are available for adoption) dropped from 200 to 186. Overall custody during this period dropped from 747 in June 2014 to 673 by June 2015, a historic low for Montgomery County.
As of August 2016 in Montgomery County, there were only 61 youths living in long-term foster care arrangements, and overall custody has remained consistent at an all-time low range of 677 youths in care. Permanent custody numbers have increased slightly because those children who were in temporary custody status the beginning of 2014 are now moving into permanent custody. The increase in permanent custody numbers was expected because the PRT process has fostered a shift in practice. Currently, the focus is on attempting to provide the necessary resources to move cases to permanency more quickly.
Those involved in the Montgomery County PRT program credit its success to the fact that the roundtables are youth-driven. The process validates the youth by encouraging them to make important choices that directly affect them. Foster children frequently miss out on ordinary activities such as going to visit a friend, getting a driver’s license or taking out-of-town family trips. Participating in the roundtable program may represent the first time a foster child is empowered to make important life choices. Also, the treatment plan developed through roundtable discussions is built around the child’s need for permanency.
Q: What other types of programs in Ohio are available to help foster children develop permanent connections?
Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, a program created in 2004 and funded by The Dave Thomas Foundation, provides recruitment services to youth in permanent custody status who are more difficult to place. To learn more about the Ohio Permanency Roundtable Process as well as Wendy’s Wonderful Kids programming, visit WWW.OHIOPRT.ORG
Montgomery County is also launching a “Family Search and Engagement Pilot” that will focus on youth in the temporary custody of the Montgomery County Department of Job and Family Services, Children Services Division. The pilot unit will focus on using Internet search engines to locate extended family and family friends. The pilot program is focused on partnering with identified relatives to build wrap-around supports for youth in care and to use these resources to find permanent placements. The goal is to reduce the need for youths to file for PPLA or PC, and to provide permanency early in the youths’ involvement with child protection agencies.