General wisdom and established best practices are helpful, but none can substitute for careful discernment in each specific case. For example, "Family First" and "reunification as the primary goal" can become cliches that lose their intended meaning and result in blind application to the wrong circumstances. These were meant as guiding principles, not blanket approaches. In fact, research suggests the longer children are in foster care, the more unlikely reunification is to produce positive outcomes, which of course has important implications for handling cases expediently but also carefully considering whether reunification is the best path for children who have been in foster care for longer periods of time.
Avoid generalizations; each case is unique
When decision makers ask good questions of all stakeholders, blind spots are revealed and improvement is inevitable. In addition to seeking formative feedback throughout, departments should seek specific feedback from foster parents, biological parents, attorneys, caseworkers, and other relevant parties at the conclusion of each case. In addition to exposing blind spots and leading to improvements, this will improve community rapport with the department and help foster parent retention because they see their voices being valued and mistakes being fixed. In the absence of relational communication, misinformation and resentment often prevails.
Maintain feedback loops
The very same caseworkers are often expected to protect children and help birth parents pursue reunification. At the very least, this makes birth parents suspicious, but far too often, it also means overworked caseworkers must choose between adequately serving the child and giving birth parents the help they need. A better model would give the birth parents dedicated support, not to fulfill a legal mandate but as part of a genuine and committed endeavor to see families reunified as soon and as sustainably as possible. It has been successfully done before.
Eliminate Structural Conflicts of Interest
Research shows that intensive, in-home interventions are far more effective than other approaches. They also may use fewer resources, achieve timelier outcomes, and result in less difficulty for children, sometimes even making it unnecessary for children to even be removed from the home. In Colorado, support organizations like Maple Star can help provide these services.
Use intensive in-home interventions when possible
This resource from the Annie E. Casey Foundation provides a framework for improving these relationships. Healthy relationships between foster and bio families can be an important supportive factor long after DHS's involvement.