Hierarchy of Permanency

In Pennsylvania, the juvenile court judge has ultimate responsibility at several key decision points to determine:

  1. Are the child’s parents providing adequate care and supervision?
  2. Given the circumstances of the case, is the goal established by the agency with custody a valid one?
  3. Based on the parents’ response to services provided, should the child be returned home or should parental rights be terminated?

Once the court rules that a child is dependent, a worker must report to the court any progress made toward achieving permanency for the child. These reports are made every three to six months at permanency hearings and contribute to the court’s decision about the continuing appropriateness of the child’s placement goal. Based upon the worker’s documentation, and the documentation and testimony by other parties, the court must determine if and when it is best suited for the safety and welfare of the child to establish or change the child’s primary and secondary permanency goals.

Five permanency goals are approved for a child who enters agency care:

  1. Reunification
  2. Adoption
  3. Permanent Legal Custodianship, PLC
  4. Fit and Willing Relative
  5. Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement, APPLA

These permanency options reflect the priorities established in federal child protective services law.   Only when each preceding option was considered and held not “best suited to the safety, protection and physical, mental and moral welfare of the child,” 42 Pa. C. S. §6351(f.1) may the court move down the list and consider the next option.

1. Reunification

Reunification of a child with his or her birth family continues to be the most preferred permanency choice under ASFA and the Juvenile Act. For the majority of cases, permanency hearings will focus on the agency’s efforts to reunite the family as established in the family service plan. A decision on reunification must be based on an assessment of the risk and safety factors the child will encounter if he or she is returned to the home, as well as on the reasonable efforts the agency has made towards reunification. This goal is achieved when the child is able to safely return to the parent from whom they were removed or can safely live with the non-custodial parent and that parent takes steps to secure the custody of the child.

2. Adoption

When children are not able to return home, another permanent family is sought through adoption. When adoption is considered, relatives or other kin must be investigated first as potential adoptive resources. If a kinship resource is not available, then other caring adults from a youth’s network of connections (such as former foster parent, coach, etc.) should be investigated before looking to recruit a resource family through child-specific recruitment.

Adoption requires that the rights of a child’s birth parents be terminated. A definite plan for adoption is crucial for children whose parents’ legal rights are terminated. Termination of parental rights without adoption results in the child becoming a legal orphan.

3. Permanent Legal Custodianship, PLC

Permanent legal guardianship as a permanency alternative for dependent children was legislated by Congress as part of ASFA. To comply with the requirements of ASFA, Pennsylvania established permanent legal custodianship, PLC, or subsidized permanent legal custodianship, SPLC, as a permanency option for dependent children. PLC or SPLC is third in the hierarchy of permanency alternatives available to the court when placing dependent children. When neither reunification nor adoption is appropriate, permanent legal custodianship, either with or without a financial subsidy, may be the next best option.

A legal custodian can be a relative, a formal kinship caregiver, an unrelated foster parent or another suitable adult. The person must be able to meet a child’s need for a secure, legally and physically permanent relationship in a family-like setting. Once PLC or SPLC is established, the child is no longer a dependent, supervision by the court, legal representation, and in most cases the child welfare agency, ends. Birth parents whose parental rights are not terminated may petition the court for a change of custody or visitation in a PLC or SPLC arrangement. Both custodians and parents should be advised and agree that the PLC or SPLC is intended to provide a permanent, stable placement for the child, and frequent changes in custody, while they may occur, are not the anticipated outcome.

4. Fit and Willing Relative

The Juvenile Act provides for permanent placement with a fit and willing relative as the fourth choice in the hierarchy of permanency alternatives available to the court. The court must determine that reunification, adoption and permanent legal custodianship are not “best suited to the safety, protection, and physical, mental and moral welfare of the child” before ordering permanent placement with a fit and willing relative. 42 Pa C.S. §6351(f.1)(4)

Some special circumstances are related to this permanency goal:

  • If there is a finding of aggravated circumstances and the court finds that the reunification efforts are not appropriate and the court can rule out adoption and permanent legal custodianship, permanent placement with a relative could be ordered as soon as 30 days after a child is adjudicated dependent.
  • Placement with a relative “best suited to the physical, mental and moral welfare of the child” is an exception to the requirement that when a child has been in substitute care for 15 out of the last 22 months, that the agency has filed or begun the process to petition to terminate parental rights and to identify an adoptive resource. 42 Pa. C.S. §6351(f)(9)(i) If the court believes the birth family, with more time, might be able to reunify, or that relative placement is the best permanency plan, continued placement with the relative may be appropriate. If, on the other hand, the court believes that the agency is simply using placement with a relative because it has not fully explored adoption or permanent legal custodianship, the court should not permit the exception.

If the goal for a child is placement with a fit and willing relative, the dependency case remains open and six-month reviews continue. Relative caregivers, who wish to be relieved of court oversight and agency involvement, must pursue permanent legal custodianship or adoption of the child in their care, with or without subsidies.

5. Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement, APPLA

Another planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA) is a plan for a stable, secure living arrangement that includes relationships with significant adults in the child’s life that will continue beyond foster care. APPLA is the least preferred permanency goal and may only be used when other more permanent plans, including reunification, adoption and permanent legal custodianship are ruled out. When APPLA is a child’s permanency goal, it must be regularly reviewed to make sure another goal is not more appropriate.

See PA Code:

  • 42 Pa. C. S. §6351(f.1)
  • 42 Pa C.S. §6351(f.1)(4)
  • 42 Pa. C.S. §6351(f)(9)(i)