Examining the Effects of California's Tightened Reunification Timeframe for Children under Three
Amy D'Andrade, San Jose State University.
Purpose The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 reduced the length of time parents can receive reunification services from 18 months to 12 months. In the same year, California passed AB 1544, reducing the length of time parents of children aged 3 and younger can receive reunification services from 12 months to 6 months. The effects of this shift in child welfare policy are unknown. While some heralded restrictions on reunification timelines as better meeting the developmental needs of children for timely permanence, others expressed concerns that shortened time frames would not accommodate realistic recovery processes (O'Flynn, 1999; Stein, 2000). It is possible AB1544 reduces the time children spend in foster care before placement in a permanent home; however, the reunification rate may be negatively affected, particularly for substance-abusing parents. Effects of the policy may differ for certain ethnic groups such as African Americans, who historically have experienced poorer permanency outcomes. This study examines the effects of AB 1544 on the likelihood of permanency for children under 3, with particular attention to African American children and children of substance-abusing parents. Method This study is a secondary data analysis of an existing dataset from a prior study on other child welfare reforms. The dataset consists of a total of 503 children under 3; one cohort entered care before AB1544 was implemented, and a second cohort entered care after AB1544 was implemented. Data were collected from child welfare case files in six California counties, and each cohort of children was followed for up to 3 years. Using multivariate survival analysis and controlling for parent and child characteristics that may influence outcomes, hazard rates from before and after passage of the legislation were compared. In addition, the study examined whether substance-abusing parents were less likely to reunify than other parents under the new policy, and whether children of various ethnicities were affected differently by the policy. Findings Overall, children were more likely to attain a permanent home after passage of 1544; in particular, the hazard of adoption was over two times greater for children in the second cohort than for those in the first. However, the amount by which the hazard increased was less for African American than for Caucasian children. The cohort effect did not vary for children of substance abusing parents compared to other children, suggesting there was no negative affect of the policy on these families. Hazard curves of the various permanency events were similar through the first year for both cohorts, suggesting that differences that were found were unlikely to be due to implementation of AB1544, which requires substantive action early in the life of the case. Implications While AB1544 has the potential to affect thousands of children in California, its implementation appears to have been limited. Inquiry into factors impeding implementation is warranted. Strategies for monitoring both implementation and effects of child welfare legislative reform appear necessary.