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Plotting Permanency: Using the public FSFN database to explore exit patterns in Florida foster care

This post introduces a new public FSFN dashboard on permanency timing in Florida’s child welfare system. If you want to just play with the dashboard, you can find it here. All but one of the graphics in this post come from the dashboard.

Every year, in legislatures across the country, well-meaning people propose bills to speed up permanency for foster kids. Permanency is a psychological concept focused on attachment, belonging, and community. Those are hard to legislate, so people focus instead on procedural definitions. The legal meaning of permanency is to close the court case and get the state out of a family’s life for as long as possible. In the process, hopefully leaving the child better than the system found them.

That closure could happen by returning a child home to a parent, placing the child in a guardianship, or having the child adopted. It could also mean a child aging out. The end result is largely the same to the state: one less case on its docket, and varying ongoing financial obligations depending on the way the child exited care. The path a case takes can change a child’s life.

Current law prefers the two most labor-intensive forms of permanency (reunification and adoption) over the procedurally easier ones (guardianship and aging out). Current law also sets timeframes and conditions on when certain permanency goals can be achieved: reunification should be accomplished in 12 months, guardianships cannot be entered until a child has lived in a placement for 6 months, APPLA (the “plan to age out” goal) should be accepted after age 16, and adoptions require the termination of a parent’s rights and appeal periods, which — on paper at least — would require about 18 months.

The question for this post is not what the right policies should be. I want to know how things are operating under the current policies. How are we doing? Using the public Florida Safe Families Network placement database, we can trace the permanency path of individual kids down to the day.

Part #1: How kids exit the system

The chart below shows the approximately 184,000 children who exited foster care in Florida from January 2008 to April 2019. I’ve consolidated some of the categories for easier reading. You can see that around 49% of children were reunified, while 22% entered guardianships, 22% were adopted, and 7% aged out. The remaining <1% had their cases dismissed, administratively transfered or closed, or they passed away.

A handful of cases had no exit code marked and are omitted here.

Slightly over 21,000 kids (13%) statewide exited and reentered care, but only 2,900 kids (2%) did so more than once and only 405 (<1%) did so more than twice. Of the failed parental reunifications, approximately 35% successfully reunified later. Of the failed adoptions, the number was the same: 35% were later reunified with the adoptive family successfully.

In the next chart, you can see the final placement setting for each exit type (e.g., all children who were reunified out of a relative placement or who aged out from a group home). Reunifications and adoptions happen almost evenly between relatives and non-relative; guardianships come almost entirely from relative placements. Very few kids age out of a relative placement.

There’s another way to look at this data. You can stack the boxes by the type of custodian the child exited to and see the actual face of foster care: relatives. Non-relatives and foster parents, while important for every child who needs them, only account for a fraction of the total exits. The vast majority — nearly 80% — of kids went back home to their parents or to relatives. Slightly under 11% of kids were adopted by non-relatives. That’s only four points higher than the 7% who aged out. Foster care is temporary care. Forget all the saving children rhetoric — the real slogan of DCF should be “We’re here when you need us. But we really hope you don’t.”

Part #2: When kids exit the system

With the exception of aging out and death, a child’s exit from foster care happens via judicial action, usually at a court hearing. The timing of those hearings therefore matters. Using the placement database, we can look at the permanency question differently and calculate exactly when each child exited the system down to the exact number of days they had been in out-of-home care. For simplicity, we’ll look at months instead.

The chart below shows the number of kids exiting the system by the number of months they spent in care. I calculate the month by dividing the number of days in care by 30 and rounding down to the nearest whole number. That means Month 0 is 0 to 29 days, Month 1 is 30 to 59 days, etc.

If you know the dependency procedure timeline, this shape makes perfect sense:

  • Cases should go to trial in the first four months, but most parents take pleas at their arraignments, which is 28 days after the removal. That means a sizeable percentage of kids exit care before the time has passed for a trial in month 3. In fact, the highest single month for exits is the first month of a case, Month 0. You might wonder if those kids needed to be removed in the first place.
  • The first judicial review must happen within 3 months of the disposition or within 6 months of the shelter. The curve spikes sharply in Month 6 — presumably at that first judicial review. A quarter of kids exited by the first JR at month 6.
  • The permanency hearing must be heard within twelve months of the shelter and there’s another spike. Half of kids exited care by the end of the twelfth month.
  • The rest is an exponential decay curve as cases close out with no set timelines in the second year. Almost all, 95% of children, exited care by month 50.

To make more sense of the exit chart, we can break it down by exit type. The chart below shows when exits occurred for Reunifications, Guardianships, Adoptions, and Age Outs, Other, and Deaths. The patterns are very distinctive. This is the chart that made me do this whole post.

Let’s start with Reunifications (the blue-green-ish line). Reunifications were at their highest monthly rate at the beginning of cases. There could be lots of reasons for this. It could be that case management and parents were able to help remedy the circumstances that necessitated the removal where the CPIs did not (or could not in the time required for an investigation). It could be that lawyers or judges looked at the facts and decided that a removal was not legally justified. Whatever the cause, 25% of reunifications occurred in those 3 months.

The Reunification line flattens out around Month 3 and hovers through the case plan phase until Month 12. It then enters a period of exponential decay. About 25% of reunifications took longer than 12 months. There were over 26,000 children reunified after 12 months in care from 2008 to 2019.

The red Guardianship curve is similar but different in important ways. By statute, a case cannot close in guardianship until a child has been placed with that custodian for 6 months (meaning some of those placements may not be strictly legal). Not surprisingly, the chart above shows that guardianships spike to their highest point in Month 6. They bump up again slightly in Month 12, and then enter a period of exponential decay similar to Reunifications. Over 20,000 kids entered guardianships after being in care for a year.

Next, the blue Adoption line is different from either of the previous two. It is one of the few bell curves in child welfare: adoptions peaked in month 24 and were spread out evenly around that point. Adoptions overtook reunifications and guardianships as the primary exit type around Month 17.

Why so late? Because, unlike guardianships, adoptions require termination of parental rights. Unless a parent surrenders or defaults at trial, that means an entire failed dependency proceeding (approximately one year), an entire successful TPR proceeding (approximately six months), and then an entire adoption proceeding (which can also take months, especially if there are competing adoptions or complex subsidy issues). Insert appeals between all of those, and the curve makes perfect sense. Adoptions have a lot of moving parts.

I’m saving the Administrative Closures and Deaths for another day. That leaves the orange Age-out curve that is always present beneath the others. Kids whose parents cannot get them back, whose relatives will not take them, and who do not fit the profile that strangers want to adopt sit in care until they exit naturally. These kids experience the most placement instability of all of the groups. Some of them were orphaned by TPRs that never led to permanency. Others spent significant time in institutions, medical programs, or jail.

There is one more group worth talking about that is not separated on the graph by line-color but by time. That long tail of kids that reached permanency after four years is notable. There are reunifications, adoptions, and guardianships all through that period. They are proof that we should never give up completely on any of the goals.

Part #3: The system is changing over time

Most permanency tweaking is aimed at speeding up adoptions, the most procedurally complex of the exits. That’s a hard curve to move. One, adoptions have a lot of variability, so it’s hard to even know how to speed them up across the board. Two, they also have a lot of interdependence with the other goals: it’s difficult to know how putting more resources and emphasis toward adoption would affect the other, larger exit types. And lastly, even if we somehow halved the time to adoption for all kids from a median of 24 to 12 months, that would only reduce the system-wide time to permanency by about 3 months. There’s more variation than that between years, placement types, and agencies.

In fact, inside the decade average hides a different trend: permanency time has been going up across the board. The chart below shows the median number of months to each type of exit by the discharge year. The out-of-home care population size is in the background for context. Adoptions were at their fastest in 2012 at 22 months — just when the system was regearing for an expansion. All three exit types have been slowing since 2014 as the system grew larger. Overall, the median time to exit is 2 months slower than 2015.

Part #4: It matters who adopts

There is another way to speed up adoptions: find a relative. The charts below show the curves for adoptions by relatives and non-relatives. Adoptions by relatives are, on average, a staggering 6.7 months faster. That is, however, largely because relatives tend to adopt in the first 4 years or never. New non-relatives come into a child’s life all the time, and eventually one clicks, pushing the blue line out farther to the right.

Limiting the curve to the first 48 months (below), the Relatives still adopt about 3 months faster than the Non-Relatives.

Adoptions by Exit Setting, limited to exits that occured in first 48 months

It’s notable that the relative curve (above) is heavier at the front end. You can see it more clearly in the next graph, which shows the Relative to Non-Relative ratio over the months of a case. Relatives outpace Non-Relatives by up to 5x in the first months of a case. Why? Probably surrenders.

After 24 months, however, Non-Relatives begin to outpace Relatives. These are mostly failed case plan and contested TPR cases. Remember that only 11% of cases ended in a Non-Relative adoption and half of those happen in under 24 months. That means we’re looking at 5% of all cases. We could do a lot more to prepare parents, children, and custodians to work together in these situations.

There are slight differences even among the Relative adoptions. I’m not showing the graphs here, but grandparents adopt, on average, 1.5 to 2 months faster than aunts, uncles, or cousins. (The other family relations don’t show any significant differences.) Grandparents adopt a whopping 8.6 months faster than non-relatives — again in part because they adopt in the first few years or not at all.

Part #5: It also matters who takes custody for reunifications

Placement setting made a difference in reunifications as well. The median time to exit was slightly faster for non-relatives over relatives — 7 months, instead of 8 for relative placements. Institutions exited kids much faster, likely because institutions are time-limited placements, kids in them tend to be older, and there may be behavioral or other issues that make non-relatives less willing to accept the child. What was different was the shape of the curves indicating when those exits happened.

The chart below shows reunifications from each of the placement settings. (This only considers the child’s last placement setting — the child could have been in multiple other placements before exiting care.) You can see the so-called “Short Stays” in the blue line: over 6,000 kids were reunified from foster care in under 30 days. A smaller, but notable, effect is seen in group homes and institutions. Relatives, on the other hand, do not show the same sharp short-stay pattern.

What the relatives and non-relative curves share is the drop-off at Month 12. This is likely a result of the permanency hearing where judges are asked to make a major decision on the case: attempt reunification or go to TPR. The same drop isn’t seen in group homes and institutions, suggesting those (usually older) kids aren’t presenting the same choices. They may already be in APPLA.

Part #6: There are also differences in the CBCs (and circuits)

The database tells us which lead agency made each placement, so we can also tell differences in how CBCs exit kids from care. It’s important to note that courts are the ultimate deciders of when kids exit care. The database doesn’t tell us which judge is assigned to a case, so we are left with comparisons by CBC.

The first difference was surprising to me: different CBCs have drastically different rates of reunification and adoption. The chart below plots each CBC’s rate of reunification against its rate of adoption. The linear relationship is expected: a higher percentage of one means a lower percentage of the other. (Guardianships and aging out aren’t included here, so they account for some of the other differences).

What struck me was the significant difference in how kids exit each agency. Agencies in the top-left quadrant use adoptions at higher rates: over 28% of their exits were to adoption, and under 42% of their exits were to reunification. The lowest reunification rate was nearly 30%, and the highest adoption rate was over one third. These agencies tend to be a little smaller and in the northern regions of the state (though not exclusively). In contrast, agencies in the bottom-right quadrant use reunifications at higher rates.

The only (active) agency squarely in the top-right is Families First Network. It appears to be using adoption and reunification at higher than average rates (at the expense of guardianships and aging out). Essentially no agency is found in the bottom left quadrant.

We might expect CBCs that focus more on adoptions to have slower median times to permanency. We’ll see they don’t.

The next chart breaks down the CBCs by size (throughput, actually — the number of children who exited care during the time period) and median months to permanency. There’s no direct correlation. CBCs can be any combination of big, small, fast, or slow. Eckerd runs two big agencies in neighboring counties and one is much faster than the other. ChildNet in Broward is two months slower than its sibling ChildNet Palm Beach.

It is also notable that smaller does not always mean faster, but bigger almost always means slower.

The next chart looks at how adoption rates relate to the median time to exit. There is no significant linear correlation. Instead, it’s a parabola. Big agencies tend to be in the middle, and smaller agencies tend to take the extremes. Those extremes are Family Support Services, which handles a high percentage of adoptions very quickly, and CBC of Brevard, which handles fewer adoptions but still moves cases quickly.

Two agencies stand out as extremes on the chart above in terms of size to adoption ratio: Family Support Services in the bottom right and ChildNet (Broward) in the top left. How can FSS be so fast and do so many adoptions, while ChildNet (Broward) is so slow and does so few? We can look at their curves for a clue.

The chart below shows FSS’s adoption curves. The orange line specifically shows adoptions from relative placements. The far left of it looks more like the guardianship line at other agencies. FSS (or its courts system) is somehow getting relatives to adopt in the first six months of cases. That means parents are surrendering without even doing a full case plan. The first judicial review is at 6 months and full adoptions are happening at significant rates before that. The median number of months for a relative adoption by FSS is 14 months compared to 24 months statewide. That’s insanely fast. I’m not convinced it’s a good thing. (Note: the trend seems to have ended after 2015, which suggests a policy or personnel change.)

On the other hand, ChildNet (Broward), has a fairly normal time for relative adoptions at 24 months. It’s the non-relative adoptions that take longer: 29 months. ChildNet’s non-relative reunifications also take longer, so there appears to be something going on with foster placements — either at ChildNet or in the judiciary. The institution and group home numbers are also high, so it might be worth exploring whether the use of congregate placementis is contributing to delayed permanency.

The median adoption times across the state are very, very different. Below is a map of adoptions by county of last placement. You can see the streak of green counties starting in Duval and working down to Levy. Maybe someone who works in those areas can explain it, but those are the fastest adoption counties over the last decade.

Meanwhile, reunifications also show significant differences. The median time to reunify can take up to 50% longer in adjacent counties. For example the median time in Lake County is 5 months, while in Polk it’s 8 months. Two different CBCs and court circuits, very different experiences.

Part #7: What does it all mean?

I started by saying that this post isn’t about what we should do, and it isn’t. There are still some policy nuggets worth mining in the numbers. Here are the top five.

  1. It’s not good that we don’t have a statewide advocacy group for parents and relatives. They make up 81% of the exits in foster care, and their concerns for the kids and the system are valid. Parents get attorneys in their cases, but that’s not the same as an advocacy group to shape policy. Why aren’t they being organized and heard?
  2. A year is a long time in the life of a child? Not if the alternative is needlessly losing their parents and family forever. There are very few child welfare slogans that rile me up like that one, because it is almost always uttered before offering some policy change that would risk cutting off the 30,000 kids who got reunified or placed in a guardianship after 12 months. It’s also misleading: it lumps all kids together — some want to go home and are willing to wait, others aren’t; and it doesn’t recognize that different cases have different barriers and different communities have different resources. We should spend more time examining the differences around Florida that lead to vastly different permanency times before we set increasingly restrictive statewide mandates on parents who are not given even playing fields.
  3. There are lots of kids we could probably avoid removing if we tried. The idea of short-stayers is nothing new. We see above that over 6,000 kids were removed to foster care and returned in under 30 days in Florida. That seems like needless trauma. This is worth talking more about.
  4. Adoptions are actually pretty okay. I’m comfortable with the fact that adoptions are a bell curve and that they take about 2 years. Those kids are generally really young and in super-stable, loving homes. We can continue to speed up the paperwork and administrative delays on the post-TPR backend without robbing parents of the chance to reunify at the front. We could also speed up some cases by closing them in Permanent Guardianships with visitation rights instead.
  5. We need a real plan in the second year. On the other hand, I’m not comfortable with the fact that reunifications and guardianships just fizzle out in the second year. This year a bill was proposed that had language requiring permanency hearings every 60 days after the first year. (The language got dropped later.) It didn’t require any programmatic changes, resource investments or even evaluations to determine what steps were needed to help a parent be successful. It would have just forced everyone into court every two months until the judge got tired and set the case for TPR. I get the motivation, but we need a meaningful Year Two Plan.

This post is already too long. There are a lot of conversations we can have around this type of information, especially about the differences that families experience by geography. All of the diagrams and charts in it are from the Plotting Permanency Tableau. You can filter down to the CBC and county level of many of the graphs. As always, if you find any errors or something that doesn’t look right, please let me know.

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