Know Your Rights Guide: Chapter 1 - Rights Related To Family And Permanency

Jennifer Pokempner,

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Foster care is meant to be temporary; all efforts should be made so you can safely go home with your family. If you cannot go home, all efforts should be made to place you with other family members, a permanent guardian, or an adoptive family, who is able to provide you support as you become an adult and whom you can rely on. You deserve permanency and family and the support of family is so important as you make the transition to adulthood. This Chapter gives you information on the rights you have to be with and in contact with your family and the rights you have and services you should receive to help you be with family.

I. Understanding Permanency

What is permanency?

  • Put simply, “permanency” means family. It refers to family relationships that are supportive, legally recognized, and meant to last a lifetime.
  • The term “permanency” is often used to refer to the final outcome of dependency case, such as reunification, adoption, or legal guardianship.
  • The concept of permanency, however, is much broader. It includes both “legal permanency” (a permanent family relationship recognized by the law) and “relational permanency,” (lifelong and permanent connections with people you care about and can count on).

Do I have a permanency goal? 

What are the different permanency goals?3

Permanency goals include:

  • Returning to the family you were removed from (reunification);
  • Adoption;
  • Guardianship, often called in Pennsylvania Permanent Legal Custodianship (PLC);
  • Placement with a relative; or 
  • Another Planned Permanency Living Arrangement (APPLA).

What is reunification or return to parents?

Reunification is when a youth returns to their family. Generally, reunification is the first goal. You and your family have the right to services and supports from the child welfare agency to help you return home, permanently and safely.

If your permanency goal is reunification, family visits should be occurring frequently, usually every week.
The supports and services provided depend on the individual needs of a family. Some examples of supports and services available to help with reunification are: 

  • Education and training, 
  • Employment, 
  • Help getting housing, 
  • Mental health services, 
  • Budgeting/financial planning, 
  • Parenting classes, and 
  • Drug and alcohol services.

You should be told why you are in care, and what it will take so that you can return to your family. Ask your caseworker or lawyer if you do not know. If there are services or supports that you think would help with reunification, you should share your views.

What is termination of parental rights (TPR) 4?

  • TPR is when the court legally ends a parent’s rights and privileges to their child. Some examples of parental rights are custody, contact, and decision making.
  • Both federal and state law require that the child welfare agency file for termination of parental rights when a child has been in foster care 15 of the most recent 22 months5 But there are some exceptions to this requirement, like if you are being cared for by a relative or if your family has not been provided the services they need to reunify.
  • TPR is a complicated process, so you should ask as many questions as you have to your caseworker and lawyer to make sure you understand what is happening and what it means for your future. When parental rights are terminated, the agency has legal custody of you and the responsibility to find you people who can become your family. Ideally, an adoptive family will be identified before TPR, but it’s not required.

What is adoption?

  • Adoption is a way of providing the security, permanency and a family when it is not possible to return home.
  • When you are adopted, the people who adopt you are your parents under the law as if you were born to them. 
  • Adoption is a legal process which transfers parental rights and responsibility from either the child’s birth parents or the agency to the adoptive parents.
  • Adoption is the next most permanent, and preferred option to reunification.
  • Before you can be adopted, the rights of your biological parents must be terminated. 
  • If you are adopted your birth certificate will be updated. The people who adopt you will have their names included as the names of your parents. You can decide if you want to change your last name, but you do not have to change it.6

Does what I think about adoption and my permanency plan matter? 

Can I be adopted at any age? 

  • Yes! You can be adopted at any age.10
  • You are never too old to be adopted. Ever. Everybody needs a committed, supportive and loving family.
  • If you want to be adopted or just want to learn more, let your caseworker, lawyer, and the judge know so that efforts can be made to find the right adoptive family for you. What adoption can look like is as different as what families look like. 

Are the any special procedures for adoption if I am age 18 or older? Is it easier? 

  • You can be adopted after you turn age 18 and the process is a little easier. 
  • When you are age 18, only your consent and the agreement of the people adopting you is needed. 
  • You do not have to go through a TPR process when you are adopted as an adult, but the adoption will result in your adoptive parents being your legal parents. Your biological parents will not keep any legal rights. 

If I’m adopted and am under age 18, can I still have a relationship with my family? 

What is a post-adoption contact agreement (PACA)?

Who must agree to the PACA? 

If you are 12 or older you, your adoptive parents and your birth relatives who you want to have contact with must consent to the voluntary post-adoption agreement. Afterwards, the court will review the agreement, and once “entered” by the court, it can be enforced legally.19

What types of contact can be in a PACA? 

Who are birth relatives under a PACA?

  • You can enter one agreement that covers all the relatives you want to have contact with or you can have separate agreements with each family member. 
  • Family, in this context, does not included extended family such as cousins or “fictive kin” (this term is used to refer to friends who are so close you consider them family). You should ask your adoptive family about having contact with these people as well even if they are not part of the PACA. 

How long does a PACA last? 

  • A PACA lasts until you turn 18 and become a legal adult, but the court can decide to extend until you are age 21 if you are in agreement.
  • Once you turn 18, you can make all decisions about who you wish to contact, including members of your biological family.

Can I change the terms of my PACA? 

Are there any materials for youth that describe the PACA? 

If I’m adopted and am over age 18, can I still have a relationship and contact with my birth family? 

What is permanent legal custodianship?

Who can be a permanent legal custodian?

  • A PLC should be someone who is committed to caring for you as you grow up and providing the love, care, support, and resources that a parent would. The court needs to approve the PLC. Some (but not all) examples include:
    • Current or former foster parent, 
    • Grandparent;
    • Sibling; 
    • Aunt/uncle; 
    • Family friend;
    • Teacher;
    • Mentor; and
    • Godparent.

What is a subsidized legal custodianship? 

 What is placement with a relative? 

Be aware of the rights you and your relatives have.

Important Rights You and Your Relatives Have 

When you first come into care, the agency is obligated to notify your relatives that you have come into care and explain to them how they can help you and your family, including options to become a foster parent or a permanency resource for you.32

The child welfare agency should be looking for family and kin for you as soon as you come into care, and should continue to do family finding at least once each year.33
✓     If you are removed from your family, the child welfare agency must give first consideration to your relatives or kin for your placement.34
✓     If your relative meets all the same licensing requirements as a foster care provider, your relative can receive financial help to take care of you as a “kinship care provider.” 

Let your caseworker, attorney and judge know if there is someone that YOU consider family and would want to live with or spend time with.  

What is another planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA)? 

The Permanency Pact has ideas for the different types of supportive relationships you may want and need as you transition out of care. The Pact provides a place where you and the person you choose to have this relationship with can record the commitment you are making to each other to remain in each other’s lives.

How are my permanency goals determined? 

  • State and federal law describe an order of legal preference for permanency goals. Generally, the first, most preferred goal is for you to return to your family. 
  • Permanency hearings are an important part of determining permanency goals. The court will hold a permanency hearing every six months after you enter foster care and have these hearings until you leave care to permanency or age out.
  • The purpose of permanency hearings is to decide your permanency goal as well as other goals related to caring for you and meeting your needs as you grow up.
  • The court will also ask what services are being provided to help achieve permanency.39

Why do I have multiple permanency goals?

What’s the purpose of having more than one goal?

  • The ultimate goal is that every child exits foster care to permanency.
  • If one plan isn’t working out or is taking too long, then there is already another option that provides a safe, stable home with lifelong supportive connections. For example, reunification and placement with a fit and willing relative might both be your permanency goal.

Do I get to provide input on what my permanency plan is?41

No matter what age you are, you deserve family and permanency. Everyone needs the love and support of family. Always let your caseworker, your lawyer, and the judge know where you want to live, who you consider family and what it would take to be part of the family you choose!

Can my permanency goal change?

  • Yes. Things change, and what’s best for you or even what you want can change. That’s why the court is required to review your permanency plan every six months. 

II. Getting to Permanency

Foster care is meant to be temporary and is supposed to provide care for youth until they can go safely home. It should provide services to help youth return home safely or help them find people who they can create a family with safely. Permanency services is a name for the types of services that should be provided to youth and families so that youth can return home or find family through adoption, PLC, or placement with a relative. Below is a chart with what services are available based on your permanency plan. Below the chart is a summary of what the services provide and how it can help you achieve permanency.

Permanency Services 

Services Available Based on Your Permanency Goal
Permanency Services Permanency Goals
  Return to Parents (Reunification) Adoption Permanent Legal Custodianship Placement with a Relative (Kinship Care) Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA)
Child/Family Visitation Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Child Profile Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Child Preparation Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Child Placement No Yes Yes No No
Child-Specific Recruitment No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Family Finding Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Family Profile No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Adoption Finalization No Yes No No No
Post-Permanency Services No Yes Yes Yes No
Transition to Adulthood Living Services (Independent Living Services) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
See Below for details and examples on how each service can be used


What is the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network (SWAN) and what does it have to do with permanency services? 

  • SWAN (Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network) is a Pennsylvania network of agencies, organizations, judges, advocates, and others that is meant to help youth in foster care achieve permanency. 
  • The SWAN program helps county child welfare agencies provide certain permanency services to youth in the child welfare system. While these are not the only permanency services youth can receive, these services are very helpful and are important for youth to understand. 

What is family finding and engagement?

  • Family finding is a legal requirement that the child welfare agency take steps to identify, locate and engage your family. 
  • Family finding aims to help identify, begin, and or rebuild important family relationships. 
  • Family finding is important because it recognizes that meaningful, supportive, permanent relationships with loving adults is essential and that being removed from your family often means losing or forgetting these connections.
  • The agency is legally required to do this at least once every year, regardless of your permanency goal.45
  • Family finding starts when you first enter care and continues throughout the entirety of your time in the child welfare system, unless you are in a pre-adoptive placement or the court find family finding is no longer in your best interest or harmful to your wellbeing.
  • Even if you can’t live with your family members, the agency should provide you with services to help build and strengthen your connection to  them if those relationships would be safe and stable for you. 
  • Your voice matters. If you know of any family or kin (people with whom you or your family have a significant, positive relationships like Godparents or tribal members), share their information with your caseworker, lawyer, or judge. Even if you do not know their address or phone number, share their names and whatever information you do know about them.

How does family finding and engagement help with permanency?

  • Family finding recognizes permanency as a permanent belonging, which includes knowledge of personal history, understanding your identity, and relationships with a range of involved and supportive adults rather than just one legal resource. 
  • Every youth in foster care has a family, and when they are removed it can be extremely lonely to lose those connections.
  • Family finding can help you reconnect with family members or other significant people you lost contact with or never had the chance to meet. 
  • Specially trained social workers work to connect you with caring adult family members. These connections can help you feel less alone, discover your history and place in the world. 

What is a child profile?

How does a child profile help youth find permanency? 

  • It can feel strange and isolating when you don’t know your own history and have no one to ask; a child profile can help you know and understand your history. 
  • The profile can also help find existing or past connections and supports or help find and introduce you to families and relatives that can be supports and connections.

What is child preparation? 

  • Child preparation47 is a six-month service that YOU lead.
  • It helps you process your life history.
  • It is not therapy. It just gives you time and support to work through issues and feelings that are important and can get you ready for finding or being placed with 
  • family. For example, some of the activities in the written plan can include videos, shadowboxes, selfies. 
  • This is a service available for any youth in foster care regardless of your permanency goal and can be done multiple times through SWAN.

What is Child-Specific Recruitment and the Pennsylvania Older Child Matching Initiative?48

  • This service helps you find and build permanent supportive adult connections.
  • The search begins by identifying people and relationships that are important to you. YOU are engaged in the whole process. 
  • This service can help you find people you can live with and find legal permanency with, but it can also be used to build your network of supportive adults who will be involved in your life.  
  • This service is available for any youth in care up to age 21.

How can child-specific recruitment help youth achieve permanency? 

  • Child-Specific Recruitment is designed to help find you a “forever family” however that is defined by you. It can be used to recruit an adoptive resource, or PLC. It can also be used to find family members for kinship care or caring adults who can be life-long supportive connections.

What is a family profile?

  • This service is primarily used to help prepare families for adoption, PLC or kinship care.
  • It can also be used to help identify and build lifelong supportive connections for older youth. 

How does a family profile help with permanency?

  • Family profile services help families be better prepared to make permanency successful.
  • All relationships have strengths and challenges. This service helps identify family strengths and challenges and resources to overcome these challenges. 

What are post-permanency services?

  • Post-Permanency services are available for youth and families who have achieved permanency.
  • These services are available for families who have achieved permanency through adoption, permanent legal custody, or kinship care. 
  • Creating a new “family” is a major change and can come with challenges. Post-Permanency services are designed to help families identify their strengths, establish goals, and locate community resources for ongoing supports. 
  • The services are family-driven, and families can access them by calling the SWAN Helpline at 1-800-585-7926 or by email at [email protected]

What are transition to adulthood services (independent living services)? 

  • Transition services help you gain the skills everyone needs to be a successful adult. These skills can include budgeting, planning for your career and education, and help finding and managing housing.
  • These services should be provided to you along with permanency services.
  • You are eligible for these services until age 23 in Pennsylvania. 

If you exited care at age 16 or older, you are eligible for transition services – even if you are no longer in care. See Chapter 9.


III. Family

Why are visits with family important? 

  • Visitation helps you keep your connection with your family and community. They can help you and your family overcome the issues that brought you into foster care or just help you build healthier relationships with your family.

What is visitation? 

  • Visitation is in-person contact with your family or kin. 
  • Visitation with your family helps you stay connected. Visits are important because connection with family is important!
  • Visits should occur in the most family-like setting appropriate and available.
  • When appropriate, parents should also be invited to participate in your extracurricular activities like school; sports; education; and medical events, meetings or appointments.
  • The law guarantees visitation with parents and siblings if you are in foster care, but visits with other people you consider family or kin are also a great idea and should be supported. 

Make sure that there is a visitation schedule. Even when you are placed out of state, you still have the right to visit your parents. Scheduling these visits can be difficult, but they should still occur.

Can I refuse visitation?

  • Visits are usually court ordered.
  • Tell your caseworker and your lawyer if visiting with your family upsets you or if you are being hurt during visits.
  • The visitation order can be changed, or conditions can be added to make you feel safe, like supervision of a change in location or time.
  • Your lawyer can request a hearing at any time and ask the judge to change the visitation order. Link: Self-Advocacy/Grievance

What do I do if I have concerns about how my visits are going? 

See Chapter 17.

Where will visitation be? 

What is supervised visitation? 

  • Supervised visitation is an in-person visitation that is monitored by a caseworker, foster parent, biological family member, family friend or another adult who is approved to make sure everyone is safe. The court is normally the one to order supervised visitation. 

What’s unsupervised visitation?

  • Unsupervised visitation is in-person contact that isn’t monitored by anyone.

Is visitation the same as a “Home Pass” or weekend visit home? 

  • Not necessarily. Visitation just means that you get to see your family.
  • Visitation can occur at your placement, at the agency, or in the community (like a restaurant or park).
  • Going to your parents’ or relatives’ home and sleeping overnight is often called a “home pass” or an overnight visit. 

Can visitation be taken away as punishment?

Call your lawyer if you think your visits have been taken away as punishment or if you are not getting to see your family and do not understand why. Raise any questions or concerns you have about visitation in court because Judges get to make most of the decisions about visitation. Your visits can only be restricted by a judge's court order. 

See Chapter 17 for more information.

How often can I visit with my parents?

  • You have a right to visit with your parents at least once every two weeks, unless the judge restricts visits by a court order.
  • Every two weeks is a minimum; more visitations can be provided. 
  • Your county child welfare agency must help you and your parents get to the location where the visit can occur and should help make visits convenient for you and your parents. This should include things like having visits in places close to where your parents live or providing your parents money for transportation. 
  • When you create a Child Permanency Plan (CPP) and Individualized Service Plan (ISP), make sure that you include your visitation schedule and along with any support needed to make visitation possible, such as transportation or supervision.
  • Even when you are placed out of county or state, you still have the right to visit your parents. 

When and why can a judge limit visits?

  • A judge can limit visitation if you are being greatly harmed by the visits and there are no alternatives or changes that can be made that will make you safe, such as having someone supervise the visits.
  • Visitation with your parents may decrease if you plan to become adopted. Once your parents’ rights are terminated, they no longer have any legal right to visit you. While you are in placement, the agency may allow you to have visits but they are not required to. See the glossary entry for Post-Adoption Contact Agreement for more information.

Can I visit my parents if my permanency goal is not reunification (returning to your family)?

  • Visitation with family should occur regardless of your permanency goal but visiting with your parents generally decreases if your permanency goal is no longer reunification. 
  • If your parents’ rights have not been terminated (see Permanency Chapter: Termination of Parental Rights), the judge will decide whether you have a right to visitation and support from the agency.51 The judge looks at several factors to determine whether visitation continues to be in your “best interests.” Some of the factors52 the Judge might consider include: 
    • Length of separation from natural parents; 
    • Effect of visitation on the child; 
    • The age, sex and health of the child; 
    • The emotional relationship between child and parents; 
    • The special needs of the child; and 
    • The effect on the child’s relationship with the current caregiver, usually the foster parents.
  • YOUR wishes matter! Stating whether you want visits and any supports you need to make visits best for YOU is important. 

Can I visit my parent(s) in jail/prison?

If you want to visit with an incarcerated parent but are not being provided that opportunity, speak with your caseworker, lawyer and Judge. See Chapter 17 for more information.

Other than visitation, how else will I be able to have contact with my parents? 

  • Unless there are safety concerns, your parents should attend your extracurricular activities, school activities, sporting events, and doctor’s appointments.
  • Talk to your caseworker or lawyer if there’s something you’d like to invite your parent to attend. See Chapter 17 for more information.
  • You should also be able to maintain contact through phone, mail, email, social networking and/or video conferencing. This should be in addition to, not instead of, regularly scheduled visits.57

What is in a visitation plan?

  • A visitation plan helps to make sure everyone knows when, where, how often visits are happening, and how everyone will get to there.


IV. Siblings

Who is considered a sibling who I have a right to visit with?

  • Pennsylvania policy defines siblings broadly and includes full siblings, half-siblings, stepsiblings, or other kinship bonds that model the brother-sister relationship.
  • The policy recognizes that siblings share life experiences that create and solidify the “sibling bond.” 

Do I have the right to be placed with my sibling? 

Do I have the right to visit my sibling(s) if I am in foster care?

What is a safety or well-being concern and why would it prevent a sibling visit?

  • Generally, this means that there is something that makes visitation between you and your sibling/s unsafe. For example, if one sibling is hurting the other.
  • If the agency has concerns about your relationship with your sibling, they are required to make efforts to address any concerns they have.

What should the agency do to help address a safety or well-being concern?

  • If the agency has a safety or well-being concern, they must provide you with services that help overcome any safety or well-being concerns. Examples of things that could help with safety concerns include: providing supervision and having a support person available. 
  • The court should make sure that you are having visitation or explain why it’s not safe. So, make sure to tell your lawyer and judge if you aren’t having visitation with your sibling. See Chapter 17 for more information.

V. Contact with People

Why is visitation with people other than my parents and siblings important?

  • Finding family, maintaining family connections, and building a support system are important as you get older and help you transition out of care.
  • Talk about the connections you already have and want to make through visits and other contact at all your case planning meetings and in court.
  • If you need help making connections with people, such as reaching out to people in your past or arranging visits, let your team know. 

Can I have contact and visits with extended family, mentors, or community members? 

  • Sometimes. Even when you are separated, you are still a part of communities and have relationships that are important to you.
  • Extended family members, mentors, and strong supportive connections can be an important part of your permanency plan.
  • You should be supported in having contact and visits with these supportive connections. Let your caseworker know who the important people in your life are, including extended family, mentors and community members you want to visit. See Chapter 17 for more information.

How do I request visitation with other extended family, mentors, or community members? 

  • Let your caregiver, resource parent, and caseworker know about people you care about and want to contact. They should work with you to make this contact possible. They will want to make sure you are safe, but having a support system and network is really important as you grow up. See Reasonable Prudent Parent Decision-Making.
  • Overnight or more long-term visits are also possible, but some processes will need to be followed to make sure you are safe. 
  • Be persistent and tell your lawyer or judge if you are having problems getting these visits or connecting with people you care about. The court can order the agency to provide visitation with extended family members or people who are important to you. 

Can I spend time with friends or a boyfriend/girlfriend?

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