Photo of a child sitting on a sidewalk. Photo by Chris Beckerman, Flickr CC

In 2016 there were more than 400,000 children in foster care in the United States. Kids are placed in foster care because of parental neglect, abuse, incarceration, and other reasons that make it unsafe for them to live at home. The majority of these kids are successfully reunited with their parents after their parents complete a case plan. However, a sizable minority of these reunited children will re-enter foster care. New research by Sarah Font, Kierra Sattler, and Elizabeth Gershoff identifies the policy and family conditions that make foster care re-entry more likely.

Foster care is meant to be a temporary status, and the federal government pushes states to achieve “permanency” for kids in care as quickly as possible. Federal funds can even be withheld from states if too many children remain in foster care for longer than a year. A “permanent” home has two main forms: reunification with parents, or terminating parents’ rights and matching kids with an adoptive home. Terminating parents’ rights is considered an extreme step. Doing so requires detailed evidence that parents are not making timely progress toward their goals. By contrast, the standards for reunification are less clear. This means that if parents’ progress is not good, but also not bad enough to terminate their rights, the state has an incentive to reunite them with their kids as they approach federal deadlines. Returning children to parents who have made sub-par progress makes it more likely that they will be taken from their home again in the future.

The researchers analyzed data of children from Texas to find out what family conditions predict foster care re-entry. The children most at risk of re-entry were those who initially entered foster care because of parental substance abuse and neglect (substance abuse is rarely the only reason children are removed from a home). Of these cases, parental substance abuse and neglect were also typically the reasons for reentry, showing that these issues within the home persist over time.

These findings are especially important at a time when opioid use (combined with neglect) is increasing the number of children being removed from their homes. The researchers do not suggest that states should lower their standards to terminate parents’ rights. Rather, they advocate that timelines toward permanency should be relaxed and more post-reunification services should be offered to formerly substance-abusing parents to reduce the risk of returning a child to a home that is still unsafe.