National Accreditor Updates Child Welfare Standards to Promote Family Preservation, Reunification

Child welfare providers that want to keep one of the field’s most sought-after marks of quality will soon have to meet a set of new and revised standards that emphasize the importance of family reunification.

The new standards incorporate the results of research and follow the advice of a range of subject matter experts, clinicians and administrators, who say “family reunification is preferred over relinquishment or alternative placements for the long-term well-being of the child,” according to a news release by the Illinois-based Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Programs. 

The Joint Commission provides accreditation services to more than 20,000 health care-related companies — among them nearly 200 child welfare and human services agencies. Many of these organizations also run children’s residential centers and group homes. 

The new set of requirements goes into effect on Sept. 13. 

“It is our goal that these new standards will help guide accredited agencies toward reunification when it is the best option for the child and their family,” the commission said in a June 1 news release. 

The 74 new and 12 revised requirements, which raises the total number of standards to 677, focus on several areas the commission identified as in need of improvement in the child welfare system: intake, assessment, reunification, trauma-informed care and case closing. They include new requirements that an agency must assess the “strengths and opportunities for growth” in a family in order to “promote family preservation and/or reunification.”

The standards dovetail with a trend in the field of child welfare to keep the use of foster care and group homes to a minimum. The Family First Prevention Services Act, which became law in 2018 and mostly took effect last October, expands federal funding available to keep families together after a child welfare investigation. It also limits federal support for most group home and institutional placements to two weeks. 

But legislators carved out an exception to that two-week limit for “qualified residential treatment programs,” a new designation describing programs that have nursing staff, a trauma-informed model of care, and work with parents on a six-month support plan after a child has been returned. All of these programs must receive the seal of approval from one of a select group of national accreditation firms that includes The Joint Commission.

The updated standards also come at a time when reunification from foster care has reached its lowest point since the federal government began to consistently collect data in the 1990s. 2017 marked the first time the percentage of foster youth exiting care to their parents or guardians dropped below 50 percent, to 49 percent, and in 2018 that figure remained constant.

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