APPLA: The Foster Care Exception That Ate the Rule

Earlier this week, Youth Services Insider shared a few of the ideas contained in “Our Voice, Their Future,” a set of recommendations for child welfare reform authored by adoptees and former foster youths.

One of those recommendations, from Chris Hehn, was to eliminate “Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement,” a plan for youths in care that, on paper, is allowable only in the rare exceptions where states can make a compelling case as to why a child could never return home or be adopted.

Hehn argues that this is not the case, and that APPLA has become an obstacle to finding adoptive homes for older teens. Others agree, including some of the Congressional leaders who helped develop the APPLA option in 1997.

Following are notes from a meeting in Washington, D.C., held a year ago this month, in which Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) slams the APPLA designation he had reservations about from its inception.

At a roundtable discussion, hosted by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), former foster youths and child welfare policy leaders agreed that serious limitations should be placed on Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA), a case-planning designation meant to serve as a rare exception to family reunification and adoption.

Congressional leadership managed to keep the federal-state partnership on foster care protected from the mid-90s trend with social services funds, which was to shift it to block grants. Then, in 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) focused most of the expectations for the IV-E foster care entitlement money on reunification with parents, placement with kin, or adoption.

ASFA required states to initiate termination of parental rights proceedings after the child has been in foster care 15 of the previous 22 months, except if not in the best interest of the child or if the child is in the care of a relative.

But an exception was made to accommodate the reality that state and local agencies would, on occasion, terminate the rights of parent for a child who had little chance of getting adopted or placed with other family.

That exception has come to be known as Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA). It is an acceptable designation only if there is sufficient reason to exclude all possible legal, permanent family goals.

But as became evident from the experiences of foster youth and lawmakers at this meeting on June 12, this exception has become a routine option.

“I was worried it would become a default option,” said Grassley (R-Iowa) who spoke briefly at the outset of the discussion along with Landrieu (D-La.).

“We wanted it to be a last resort,” Grassley said. “Over time,” it has become “an obstacle to reunification or adoption.”

To what extent is APPLA leaned on? Like everything else it probably varies widely by state, but here are the national figures:

  • Of the 408,425 children in foster care in 2010, 6 percent had a goal of emancipation and 6 percent of long-term foster care. So right off the bat, APPLA is out of the “rarity” category since it’s the status of more than one in every ten foster youths.
  • The overwhelming majority of the 2010 foster youths, 76 percent, had a goal of either reunification or adoption. But National Institute for Permanent Family Connectedness Founder Kevin Campbell pointed out at the roundtable that the Children’s Bureau has become increasingly concerned with “proxy goals,” outcomes put on official court papers even though nobody intends to really reunify the child or recruit him and adoptive parent.

“The bureau sees it as one of the biggest barriers to permanency,” Campbell said.

So figure you take a conservative estimate that 10 percent of the adoption/reunification crowd are really APPLA-in-disguise, and you are close to a quarter of the total foster care population in 2010 that were on track for an exception to the permanency goals. Among youths that had reached age 17 in foster care, one attendee said, close to half had APPLA as an expected outcome.

So even with fairly conservative estimates, you’d have to say that Grassley’s fear was realized, and that states are generally relying too much on APPLA.

Why is it happening?

Kathleen Strottman, executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) explained that in her conversations with child welfare leaders and youth, there were two predominant reasons cited in cases where a child was designated for APPLA: A foster youth telling caseworkers he did not wish to be adopted, and a decision by caseworkers and court officials that a child is not likely to be adopted because of their age.

By the end of the session it was more than clear that nobody was happy with the size of APPLA’s role in the system. Staffers who helped draft ASFA in the mid-1990s expressed genuine surprise that it had happened.

“We certainly didn’t want it to become a program, or an acronym that people became,” said Laurie Rubiner, currently chief of staff for Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who helped shape ASFA as a legislative assistant for the late Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.).

An intern in Blumenthal’s office this summer mentioned to Rubiner that he was an “APPLA kid,” she mentioned, and she didn’t even know what it meant.

“It’s a failure on the part of our well-intentioned legislation,” Rubiner said.

Grassley and Landrieu seem to have it in mind to amend the rules when it comes to aiming a foster youth at anything other than a biological, relative or adoptive home. They’ll have to figure out a way to do it though, because the roundtable group was light on concrete suggestions on that count.

Financial penalties for states that designate APPLA too often might end up hurting other kids. “The sticks we have could end up harming the child,” said Rubiner. “It’s hard to put in a penalty that doesn’t hurt the child.”

To which one former foster youth replied: “The kids are being penalized anyway.”

A few themes did emerge as attendees pondered how to statutorily stunt APPLA:

Concurrent planning: This refers to the practice of identifying a child’s primary permanency goal while simultaneously identifying and working on a secondary goal, thus doubling the odds of some permanent option. Incentivizing the use of this strategy could cut down on the number of children with reunification plans that fall apart when a parent doesn’t meet conditions set by the family court.

A more fluid concept of permanency: Some of the youths and other attendees suggested that the system was actually too focused on the idea of a permanent situation; that stability is a more reasonable target for youths in foster care. Continuity of education and opportunities for mentoring relationships with adults outside of the traditional child welfare players were mentioned as ways that an agency could stabilize the life of a youth who had low prospects for leaving foster care.

“We need to look at the fact that some agencies don’t work well with community organizations,” said Shalita O’Neale, founder of Maryland Foster Youth Resource Center, in an interview after the roundtable.

O’Neale’s organization attempts, among other things, to introduce youths aging out in Maryland to adults that can help them.

“We want to be mentors, to be an added layer,” she said, but some agencies will shield youths from such programs because they do not want to make known the identity of foster children to non-system adults.

Empower Youth: Particularly for older teens, making sure that they know their rights as a youth in state custody, and know how to advocate for what they want.

“That’s the elephant in the room, because it’s not how systems work,” O’Neale said. “As a youth you are here to be seen, not heard. We have to equip them with a way to advocate for themselves. A lot of them are angry, and it doesn’t come out right.”

This part of the conversation immediately brought to mind New York’s Youth Advocacy Center, which was co-founded in 1992 by Besty Krebs and Paul Pitcoff. If legislators are looking to help replicate a program that gives youths a voice in their own permanency planning, they need look no further than the center’s Getting Beyond the System self-advocacy program. In April of 2012, the organization ceased its direct service operations to focus on broader implementation of the program.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly

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New York wants to use a fund for #FamilyFirst Act prep to prevent youth from aging out of #fostercare, but some counties say the money is already spent or earmarked #childwelfare