National Child Abuse Prevention Month 2018: Best Practices in Permanency Planning for Children with Family Connections in a Foreign Country

Several years ago, a child in foster care from a western U.S. state was placed in the care of her extended family in Mexico. There had been no home study on the family, background checks, or other basic assessments to determine if this placement was in the child’s best interest. The child ultimately died of injuries inflicted upon her by her aunt and uncle. The tragedy resulted in a common “knee-jerk” reaction: shut down all foreign placements of foster children with their extended families.

The dual problem with this response is: 1) in too many cases, children are denied a permanent home with appropriate family in other countries, and 2) it does not address the underlying cause of the problem, which is poorly enforced case practice protocols for out-of-country placements. Prevention of abuse and neglect for children already in foster care requires that we follow the best case practice models and thoroughly assess potential caregivers regardless of where the family may live.

The prevention of child abuse and neglect is complex and ever-changing. The challenges faced by parents, step-parents, and other adult caregivers are constantly shifting in the face of multifaceted social and economic problems. The current opioid epidemic, for example, has caused a dramatic increase in the number of children taken into the care of social service agencies due to abuse and/or neglect. Likewise, there is a growing number of children in foster care because their parent(s) are the subject of immigration enforcement.

As the number of children who are taken into the care of public child welfare agencies continues to grow and resources, especially foster families, dwindle; case workers must expand their thinking about where to find, and how to engage family members outside the United States in the permanency planning process. These family members may be in the military, retired abroad, working for a multi-national firm, or they may be foreign members of the child’s extended family.

These families have the same right to be considered for inclusion in the permanency planning process and for placement as a family member living in America. But, like any placement option, families living outside of the U.S. must be assessed in the very same manner as a U.S.-based family would be. While there is no guarantee that home studies, background checks, and other pre-placement assessments will uncover every potential abuser, it is essential that they are conducted for the safety of the child.

In 2017, International Social Service-USA conducted 150 home studies, 40 child welfare checks, and 67 post-placements, serving 325 children.