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How permanent is permanency?

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been digging into the data to take a look at the decline in the number of Nebraska’s state wards. We found that in 2012, just over 24% of the children and youth receiving services through DHHS were in out-of-home care (while over 94% of children and youth in “non-court” cases were able to safely remain with their families because of supportive services).

This week, we are going to look at permanency for the children and youth who were unable to safely remain in their homes and had to enter an out-of-home placement.

Child welfare experts agree that permanence is the right goal for children and youth, regardless of age, mental health or behavioral challenges, as it provides children and youth with healthy, culturally appropriate, and lasting living situations with at least one adult who is committed to that child’s care.  Permanency for children and youth usually includes a permanent legal connection to a family, such as being reunited with their birth parents, adoption, permanent placement with a relative or family friend (kinship care), or legal guardianship.

In order to know whether or not we are achieving favorable outcomes for the children and youth served by the child welfare system, it is important to look at what the data shows. We understand that every family is unique, and the data alone can never tell the full story about what is going on within a home.  However, data can shed light on two important issues surrounding permanency: the length of time it takes for a child to obtain a permanent home and how permanent the permanency really is.


How long children wait for permanency
In terms of time, the numbers tell us that:

  • 65% of children and youth who were removed from their homes were reunified with their families.
  • 7% of children and youth exited the child welfare system to live with a guardian.  Of those:
    • 68% left care within 24 months
    • 14% left care within 25-36 months
    • 13% left care after being a state ward for more than 36 months
  • 15.3% of children and youth who left care were adopted.  On average, they were in care for 33 months before adoption.
    • However, the maximum reported time a child spent as a state ward was 112 months (nearly 9 and-a-half years).

While adoption may be the preferred outcome for many child welfare professionals, it is important to note that legal guardianship, which is more culturally appropriate in some families, tends to give children and youth permanent homes nearly a full year quicker.


How “permanent” is permanency anyway?
In terms of achieving overall permanence, however, the data unfortunately shows that:

  • 20% of the children and youth who entered the child welfare system between April 2012 and March 2013 had previously been discharged to a permanent living situation (like guardianship, reunification, and adoption).
  • Of the children and youth who reentered the system, 6% of them reentered within 12 months of being discharged.

We will be the first to tell you that the data available do not make it clear what causes certain children and youth to reenter DHHS custody.   As we continue to look into our child welfare system, it will be interesting to see if improvements being made are able to address the needs of children and youth leaving the children welfare system.

Thank you to taking the time to share!


  1. REPLY
    A'Jamal Byndon says

    Can you provide the racial make of the children?

    • REPLY
      Sarah Forrest says

      Great question! We do have the numbers of children who exited child welfare by race and ethnicity.

      In 2012, 16 Asian youth, 517 Black/African American youth, 372 Hispanic youth, 117 Multi-Racial youth, 184 Native American youth, and 1677 White youth exited the child welfare system. In terms of percentage of exits, these are pretty similar to the percentage of children of each race in out-of-home care during 2012.

      Let us know if you would like more information or more detailed breakouts. We know that significant racial disparities exist for children in the child welfare system, and it’s important to look at all the different system points and make improvements.

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