Although there is never a guarantee of permanence, it is the intention that all work with the child, the family, the community, and the agencies involved targets a plan that supports permanence. At a very basic level, permanence is most probable when the legal parent is also the emotional parent, as well as the parenting figure in the child’s life. The following permanent resolutions are most possible when relevant questions can be answered and the underlying issues they suggest have been addressed. There are only five possible permanent plan goals: reunification, adoption, guardianship with relatives or other kin, assignment of legal custody and another planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA). These options should all be considered and addressed from the beginning of placement and continuously evaluated. Although one option (reunification) may appear to be the primary plan, the other options should also be explored and planned concurrently.
Some children in foster care will exit the system through other avenues. Emancipation occurs in a few cases, whether through marriage, joining the armed forces, or emancipation by the Court. Some youth will leave foster care without ever achieving a permanent family. It is the responsibility of the agency to prepare these children for self-sufficiency. It is also the responsibility of the agency to assist the child in forming a positive attachment to adults who can be a resource to that youth through the rest of their childhood and into adulthood. Efforts to achieve a permanent plan for the youth should always remain active.
If the Director of the department of social services is asked to consent to marriage of a child in the agency’s custody, or to give permission for that child to join the armed services, careful consideration should be made to ensure that the child’s safety and needs will be provided.
Children ages 16-18 may petition the Court for a judicial decree of emancipation.2 In determining the best interests of the petitioner, the Court will make the following considerations:
After the final decree of emancipation, the petitioner has the same right to make contracts and conveyances, to sue and be sued, and to transact business as if he/she were an adult. The parent is relieved of legal duties and obligations owed to the petitioner and are divested of all rights with respect to the petitioner. The decree of emancipation is irrevocable.
Reunification means that the biological/adoptive parent(s) or caretaker from whom the child was taken regains custody of the child. In most cases reunification is the primary permanent resolution sought, and reasonable efforts to reunify the child with the parent must be demonstrated and documented to the court. Reunification is appropriate when the parent is capable of providing minimum sufficient level of care, even when there are areas of concern. A return to even marginally adequate parents is a better alternative than years in foster care, as long as the safety of the child can be ensured.
Reunification should be considered when:
Reunification should not be considered when the court has found that such efforts would be futile or would be inconsistent with the juvenile’s need for a safe, permanent home within a reasonable period of time.
Agency responsibility when the primary or concurrent permanency plan is reunification:
The agency is responsible for working with the parents to help them gain capacity to provide care for their children. This includes:
The agency’s efforts and the results of involvement must be documented in the case record and court review documents in order to demonstrate that the agency has made reasonable efforts toward reunification.
A child who has been removed from the custody of a parent (or person acting in loco parentis) by a court order because of abuse or neglect may not be returned for any period of time without judicial review and findings of fact to show that child will receive proper care and supervision. A supervised visit does not fall within the meaning of the term “return” as long as a social worker is present at all times. The agency should work with its juvenile court to determine how the local judges interpret the law on trial visits.
In addition to the required time frames for court reviews, parents, the guardian ad litem and the respective agency have a right to ask for a motion for review so that the court may re-evaluate the plans for the child. Whenever there is a significant change in circumstances, a motion for review shall be filed by the agency. It is strongly recommended that a motion for review be filed with the court in all cases in which it is proposed that a child be returned, even on a trial basis, to a parent residing in another state. Parents have a legal right to ask the court for the return of their child even if the agency does not consider the situation appropriate. The agency may, of course, recommend against the return of the child at the time of the court hearing. The Court maintains the right to return the child against agency recommendations if it so determines. If a child was accepted for placement as a result of a court order, the Court must be kept informed of the child’s progress.
Adoption is the permanent plan offering the most stability to the child who cannot return to his/her parents. Factors to consider include whether or not the child is likely to return home and whether the child can be freed for adoption. In order for the child to be adopted, both parents must voluntarily relinquish their parental rights or their parental rights must be terminated by the court.
The agency shall file a petition for termination of parental rights within 60 calendar days of the agency’s decision that the permanent plan is adoption or within 60 calendar days of the hearing that determines that the plan is adoption unless the court makes other findings.3 There must be legal grounds to terminate each parent’s rights.
If an Indian parent or custodian voluntarily consents to termination of parental rights, the consent is not valid unless procedures of the Indian Child Welfare Act are followed. 4 This includes certification that the Indian parent or custodian fully understood the nature of their relinquishment of rights and that interpreter services were provided if necessary. (A copy of the Indian Child Welfare Act is appended to the Adoption Services chapter of the Family Services Manual.)
When the child is legally freed for adoption, the agency shall make every effort to locate and place the child in an appropriate adoptive home. When adoption becomes the plan for a child, the agency shall develop a child-specific written strategy for recruitment of an adoptive home within 30 days. At a minimum, the plan should document the child-specific recruitment efforts such as the use of State, regional, and national adoption exchanges including electronic exchange systems to facilitate orderly and timely in-state and interstate placements.
Adoption by relatives or kin may be an option to consider if the relative or kin are willing to adopt and can provide a safe home. Care should be taken in assessing this option to consider whether there may be conflict or divided loyalties between the parent of the child and the adopting relatives and how these issues would be handled. If an adoption by relative or kin can be achieved, the child’s sense of identity and family history can be preserved.
Adoption by foster parents is often an appropriate plan, especially if the child has developed a close relationship with the foster family. Such a plan has the benefit of providing continuity for the child with a family that they already know without requiring an additional move. Increasingly, foster families are being recruited and trained to provide foster care, to work with the team toward reunification efforts, and to be willing to consider committing to the child permanently through adoption if reunification is not possible. These parents are sometimes referred to as “permanency planning families.” Recruiting and training these families are key components of concurrent planning.
Sometimes the child’s parent(s) recognize that they cannot be the permanent family for the child. When they know and respect the care that their child is receiving from the foster family, they may voluntarily relinquish their parental rights so that the child can be adopted by that family.
The advantage in this situation is that it allows for the possibility that the child and birth parent continue some relationship while the child is raised by a committed and caring adoptive family.
When adoption by a relative, kin, or foster parent is not an option, the agency should place the child in an approved adoptive home. There may be approved families waiting that may be appropriate for the child, or potential adoptive families may need to be recruited specifically for the child. Recruitment activities should include the use of media resources. The faith community is another valuable resource when recruiting potential adoptive families. The County Departments of Social Services shall have current information available for prospective adoptive families that describes the kind of children needing placement, the availability of Adoption Assistance, and procedures for referring families they are unable to serve to other child placing agencies.
In any case, all children who are free for adoption and who are not in their identified adoptive home shall be referred for listing on the North Carolina Adoption Exchange and in the N.C. Photo Adoption Listing Service (PALS) book.
When adoption is being considered as a permanent plan, satisfactory answers to the following questions are needed:
Agency responsibility when the primary or concurrent permanency plan is adoption:
Occasionally, a child may be placed in a “legal risk” placement. A legal risk placement is the placement of a child who is not legally cleared for adoption at the time placement occurs. The family selected for placement of a child in such situations should have completed the adoptive study process and be deemed suitable to meet the child’s needs. Prior to placement, the family should be fully informed of the child’s legal status and of the potential that the child will be removed from their home should legal clearance not be accomplished for some reason. The family should be given time to consider carefully and thoroughly all aspects of undertaking a legal risk placement.
The purpose of legal risk placement is to move the child into a permanent home as soon as possible without jeopardizing the legal or social well-being of the child. Since, in making a legal risk placement, the agency does not yet have authority to consent to the child’s adoption, the home in which the child is to be placed must be licensed as a foster home or approved by a court order. Legal risk placements are appropriate when the child is not yet legally free for adoption but there is a high probability that parental rights will be terminated. Legal risk placements have the advantage of providing an early transition for the child into the family where they are expected to live.
The child and family can begin to form attachments with one another. Legal risk placements should only be used after careful consideration and preparation of the adopting family. It is strongly recommended that the agency consult with their attorney before pursuing this option
When reunification efforts are determined to be contrary to the health, safety or best interest of a child who is in the legal custody or placement authority of the county DSS, the county shall assess relative or kinship placements as a permanency option, including the child’s birth father and paternal relatives. If the family is willing to provide a permanent home for the child but is not willing to adopt, then guardianship and custody should be offered to the family as alternatives.
Juvenile Court Guardianship, as described in N.C.G.S. § 7B-600, assigns legal authority for the guardian to act on behalf of the child without further DSS involvement, but with continued supervision of the court. The legal authority of the guardian includes:
The authority of the guardian continues until the court terminates the guardianship or until the child is 18 years of age or is emancipated by the court. A guardian may resign from the position of guardian, but his/her authority cannot be removed unless he is determined by the court to be unfit. Juvenile Court guardianship does not confer authority over the disposition of a child’s estate or management of his income
Persons assuming legal guardianship of children in the custody of the DSS are not eligible for state foster care board payments. They are eligible for child support paid by the parents. The child may also be eligible for Medicaid, since the guardian’s income is not considered. Countable income includes Social Security benefits, child support payments and, if applicable Guardianship subsidy.
If a person accepts guardianship of a child who was in foster care and later adopts that child, he will be able to receive adoption assistance payments on behalf of the child until the child is 18 years of age.
Agency responsibility when the primary or concurrent permanency plan is guardianship.
In concurrent permanency planning, relatives and kin should be identified early and assessed for their potential as a possible permanent placement for the child.
North Carolina law requires the judge who orders a child’s placement or continued placement to consider whether an appropriate placement with a relative is available. If the judge finds that a relative is willing and able to provide proper care and supervision in a “safe home,” the judge must order placement of the child with the relative. When placement with a relative for the purposes of foster care is made, consideration should be made as to the potential for that placement to become permanent through adoption or guardianship if reunification with the parent is not possible.
For relevant questions to be considered before identifying legal guardianship as the permanent plan, refer to the list of questions at the end of the discussion on legal custody. Legal guardianship can be given to a relative or any other person deemed suitable by the Court. Persons other than relatives to consider include foster parents or adults who have a kinship bond with the child, even if they are not related by blood
Legal custody is an acceptable permanency option, although it does not have the same level of security or permanency as adoption or guardianship. Custody can be challenged before the court at any time there is a change in circumstances, regardless of the fitness of the custodian.
A judge can order legal custody of a child to a relative, foster parent, or other adult person deemed suitable by the court. The specific rights and responsibilities of the legal custodian are spelled out in the court order and may be as extensive as that of a guardian or limited. Legal custody is not well defined in statute, but typically implies responsibility for the oversight of a child’s care, protection, training and personal relationships. Legal custody does not confer authority over the disposition of a child’s estate or management of his income.
Agency responsibility when the primary or secondary permanency plan is custody.
Legal custody is another permanency option for children, although legal custody does not have the same level of security as adoption or guardianship. Custody may be terminated on the basis of a change in circumstances, regardless of the fitness of the guardian. The judge can order legal custody of a child to a relative, foster parent, or other adult person deemed suitable by the court. Legal custody has most of the same advantages and disadvantages as legal guardianship. The specific rights and responsibilities of a legal custodian, however, are defined by the court order rather than being fully defined in law. The custodian must show the court order to prove their right to act in a parental role.
Questions to consider when determining the recommendation for legal guardianship or legal custody are as follows:
Legal custody is not well defined in statute, but implies responsibility for the oversight of the child’s care, protection, training, and personal relationships. Neither guardianship of the person nor custody carries authority over the disposition of the child’s estate. If the child either has an estate or receives income such as through SSA, separate court action should be initiated to establish guardianship of the estate.5
5. Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA)
APPLA means Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement. It is only an appropriate primary permanency goal for youth who are between the ages of 16 to 18, or as a concurrent permanency goal for youth ages 14 to 18.
APPLA may be appropriate for relative or non-relative placements in licensed or court-approved non-licensed homes when the above criteria are met. The agency retains legal custody of the youth for the period of the APPLA. If the family is a licensed caregiver or becomes licensed, they shall receive standard board payments to help support the placement. If they are not a licensed foster care facility, they shall be informed of and given the opportunity to become licensed.
The agency shall be required to provide and document services as follows:
2 N.C.G.S. § 7B-3500.
3 N.C.G.S § 7B-907(e)
4 Indian refers to a person who is a member or is eligible to be a member of a federally recognized tribe.
5 For information on the appointment and responsibilities of the guardian of the estate, see N.C.G.S. § 35A-1250, N.C.G.S. § 35A-1252 and N.C.G.S. § 35A-1253.
For questions or clarification on any of the policy contained in these manuals, please contact your local county office.