By now, anyone working in or with child welfare knows about ‘Safety, Permanency, and Well-Being’. Since the kick-off of the federal Child and Family Service Reviews (CFSR) in 2001, these three constructs have been the focus of major child welfare reform efforts across the United States. They are actually, to some degree, artificially created measurements of outcomes in child welfare. That’s not to say they are not important, in fact, critical for vulnerable children. They are though, (wo)man-made, if you will. The overall mandate of child welfare could best be described as child protection–ensuring children are safe in their living environments. The measurement of outcomes in safety, permanency, and well-being came along ‘after the fact’, or after the establishment of a network of services aimed at protecting children.
It is no coincidence that this trio is listed with safety first. In fact, throughout the CFSR process, federal staff repeatedly have identified safety as the most important outcome area in child welfare. It makes sense; if a child/youth is not safe, child welfare has failed in its primary mandate of protecting children. [I would note, however, that the primary goal in child welfare of ensuring safety has become murky. The ever-expanding nature of child welfare responsibilities into areas beyond the scope of child protection have resulting in service to families for reasons other than safety. For instance, child welfare systems often work with families to provide an avenue to access mental health or behavioral services, respond to issues related to poverty and homelessness, and investigate issues such as educational neglect. In some cases, these may also involve safety issues but not always. But I digress.]
A couple of months ago, Bryan Samuels, announced a ‘new course in child welfare‘, emphasizing the importance of well-being. In his statement he said, “now it is time to focus our efforts on well-being….. safety and permanency are necessary, yet insufficient”. Move over, safety, there’s a new sheriff in town. And as for permanency, well, once again it appears to be the security guard in the child welfare community, not even making it to the post of deputy.
And what of the children and youth in the child welfare system? What would they say is most important? If I could speak on behalf of the children/youth that I have known, the one thing that matters most is permanency. This is based on my role as a caseworker, supervisor, manager, CASA volunteer, mentor, and foster parent. Virtually every child I have known in the child welfare system has, in one way or another, expressed their desire to have a permanent home. (I’m taking some liberties here and speaking for the little ones who could not verbalize their feelings. Based on the research regarding critical bonding that occurs in the first years of life, I feel confident in speaking for them on this issue.) I used to think that some youth did not want this when they said they didn’t want to be adopted. However, research on youth aging out of care suggests that these young people really wanted permanency but were either afraid to trust or were anxious that permanency would mean another change, in schools, neighborhoods, and/or friends. What they really wanted was permanency in every aspect of their lives.
Contrast this with the fact that the CFSRs have found that permanency presents the greatest challenge for states, and there is a big disconnect between what children want and what child welfare professionals think they need. [Despite the comment in which “Samuels said since ASFA (the Adoption and Safe Families Act) was passed 15 years ago we have a done a good job on safety and permanency…”, achievement in the area of permanency has lagged. Take it from someone who has meticulously tracked CFSR results…permanency is dead last in the race to achieve positive outcomes.]
This is not to say that safety and well-being are not important. However, if you asked a child if they were more concerned about having a permanent home and family or good dental hygiene, well, you know what the choice would be. Of course, kids are not always interested in what is best for them. However, if they are in a constant state of insecurity regarding their living arrangements, they are likely to suffer in other areas as well. I believe one could make a case for the long-term benefits being greater for kids who do have permanency in their lives. Although it was not addressing permanency per se, a researcher named Doyle conducted a study that suggests that foster care and its temporary nature may be damaging in and of itself. Doyle compared kids who had abusive backgrounds but remained at home with kids with similar backgrounds in the foster care system and found that the former had fared better in the long-run. (See also a 2011 study.) Score another one for permanency. It may not be the final answer, but it certainly is worth consideration.
So there you have it…..permanency, where it’s at baby!