18, No. 3
Reunification: Focusing on the Process
I could not wait for that day. I was preparing myself for what to say and do. Should I run and hug them or should I wait for them to come to me? Butterflies were inside my stomach.
-- Tracey Carter (2006)
For parents anticipating a child's return home from foster or kinship care, reunification holds much promise. It's a new start--a milestone that marks their having reached an important goal.
But for families and workers alike, it's important to see reunification as a process, not an event. It's a time of change and adjustment, discovery and challenge.
There are no guarantees of success. It is estimated that nationally 25% of reunified children return to foster care at some point (CWIG, 2011).
As social workers, it's our job to keep our eyes on the process so that when children return home, they get to stay.
A Culture of Encouragement
Many parents need to know that their children can return home. It sounds basic, but some parents have internalized feelings of failure, doubt, or guilt that make it hard for them to see that reunification is truly possible.
In a study that interviewed parents who had successfully reunified, "Every parent told of the huge impact of having someone believing in him or her and saying, ‘you can do this. You can get your kids back'" (Catalyst for Kids, 2006). Some parents said it also helped to see others reunited with their children.
Child welfare workers and supervisors can build a culture of encouragement by using language that affirms parents' abilities and goals, connecting parents to mentors who have had children returned home, sharing information about the number of children who have returned home that year, and focusing with parents on their strengths.
A focus on strengths gives parents hope and helps social workers assess readiness for reunification and how well families are doing after children are back home.
Families have said the following strengths were essential to their ability to reunify, remain intact, and maintain healthy functioning: commitment, insight, communication, humor, initiative, boundary setting, creativity, flexibility, social support (receiving and giving), and spirituality (Lietz & Strength, 2011). This list underscores how important it is for us to identify and emphasize family strengths. It also provides some guidance for skills and resources that you can focus on in your case planning with families.
We also need to be aware of factors that can elevate risk for re-entry into care, such as "the number and type of stressors that would be present if the child returned home" (American Humane Association, 2012). It can be hard for workers to know when there's been enough improvement in the family's situation.
At the same time, we want to be careful not to unfairly raise the bar. Parents don't need to be perfect to get their children back. Families should be reunited when risk has been reduced and the home is safe. We can increase our confidence in a decision to reunify if we use North Carolina's Family Reunification Assessment (DSS-5227) in conjunction with good supervision and work closely with families to prepare for reunification.
An Excerpt from North Carolina policy
The primary consideration for the child's return home should be whether or not the child can be assured of at least a minimally sufficient level of care. Society can require that parents provide this level of basic care, and the County Department of Social Services has been given the authority to intervene when that level of care is not provided. Conversely, social workers should recognize that personal values can lead them to feel that children deserve the "better" life offered by placement than can ever be provided by the parents. Social workers should be careful that their personal standards do not cloud their professional judgment about removal or decisions about reunification (NCDSS, 2009).
What do parents need to be thinking about to prepare for their children's transition back home? How can social workers help parents get ready?
A family's physical home environment can have a big influence on the success of reunification efforts. According Miller and colleagues (2006):
The overall quality of the physical home environment was significantly linked with success of reunification. Children were more likely to stay reunified in homes that were rated by observers as well kept and not cramped. Access to stimulating play options was significantly positively linked with success of reunification. Children rated by observers as having greater access within their immediate home environment to child-oriented play options such as books, puzzles, and balls were more likely to stay reunified.
Social workers are vital partners in helping a family find and afford housing, and in making sure the physical environment in the home is appropriate. We can do this by:
- Advocating for appropriate housing for families
- Helping families rearrange and use available space differently. This may involve providing families with concrete resources such as developmentally appropriate games and books--some families don't know what is appropriate or helpful for children's development and for building a more positive relationship, and may not know to provide space for this in the home.
- Helping families identify and use community resources that provide good space for family activities, such as quality day care, parks, libraries, community centers, and church-based activities.
Rather than penalize parents for housing resources they don't have, our system can recognize when parents are working to meet their children's developmental needs despite housing problems.
Another concrete way parents prepare for reunification is to build a strong, ample support network. Social workers should use the time prior to reunification to explore and plan with parents the types and levels of support the family will need to maintain a successful reunification.
Completing a visual tool with a family, such as a genogram or a schedule of a parent's typical day, can be especially helpful at this point, since it allows parents to visualize what help they have, what help they need, and how to fill in the gaps. Don't forget to ask parents which social supports they would like at each CFT, since this might change over time.
Before reunification, therapy and other formal supports will be valuable for many families, as will supports that help parents learn and use effective parenting skills. Parents need information that will help them understand the kinds of behaviors they may see once children come home, and practical skills for helping children manage behavior, as well as respite services.
Preparing for reunification also means learning about the emotional side of reunification and coming to terms with what that experience might be like for different family members.
It's common for parents and children to have a mix of feelings about the upcoming transition--excitement, relief, joy, ambivalence, anxiety, stress, hope, anger, and insecurity. Parents and children may not be ready or willing to talk with a social worker about their feelings, but social workers can nonetheless explain to all family members that it's normal and OK to feel a wide range of emotions.
Workers should help parents examine their expectations about reunifying.
Do parents envision that children will forget about the time they spent in foster care? Or do they think their children will miss living with their aunt and uncle or foster family? Do they picture their family bonding right away, or do they think it will take time?
The following points from RISE magazine (2006, 2012) highlight some of the realities of reunification.
- Though it's good, reunification is a big change. When children come home, everyone wants things to be positive. But usually parents and children have such strong feelings that it's not easy. Children may be angry at their parents. There can be confusing emotions and tensions, both for children and parents.
- After being apart it can take time to get to know--and trust--each other again. Parents who've been to rehab, therapy, or parenting classes have changed, and their children have had experiences in care that their parents don't know about or understand.
- There may be new siblings at home that the children don't know; it can take time to get to know one another.
- Sometimes, parents feel rejected. The parents have all of their hopes pinned on reunion. But then, because the child is angry or traumatized, the child misbehaves, and the parent in turn feels angry and let down.
- A lot of parents convince themselves that being in foster care was no big deal for their child. It can be hard for them to remember that a child's sense of security can be shaken by foster care, and that the child may need extra support, security, understanding, and patience when he comes home.
Social workers can and should introduce and explore these themes with families prior to reunification, but sometimes a parent can't really understand them until after reunification when they have spent time as a family and can reflect on their experiences. That's why reunification is a process--it's about a family coming back together and rebuilding over time.
To help prepare families as best they can, social workers may find it helpful to share issues of RISE (see box below) with parents to help open conversation, adjust expectations, and normalize reactions.
||Rise is a magazine written by and for parents affected by the child welfare system. Issues are available free at www.risemagazine.org. If parents don't have Internet access at home, the public library is a reliable Internet source and provides printing services at low cost.
Support After Reunification
Parents often need help understanding and working through their children's reactions, responding to children's physical and behavioral needs, and dealing with the stress of unforeseen challenges. Studies tell us that the following kinds of support and services are closely connected with reunifications that last:
- Provision of information and services to parents by the child's primary service provider (Miller et al., 2006)
- Special educational services for the child (Miller et al., 2006)
- Therapy (Miller et al.) and intensive family-based services (Dougherty, 2004)
- Coaching and information for parents about children's developmental stages (Catalyst, 2006)
- Housing support (Catalyst, 2006)
- Paid child care or respite (Catalyst, 2006)
The child welfare worker's involvement with a family should continue for some time after reunification to ensure the family's needs are addressed and that the child is safe.
Parents may feel conflicted about this. When they are struggling, they may want a social worker's help, but they may also fear it could jeopardize permanency if they appear to have difficulties. They may long for respite care to give them a break, but shy away because of a "perceived pressure not to slip up again" (Malet et al., 2010). It's up to social workers to let families know they can check back anytime without being stigmatized.
Parents may resist involving a social worker for another reason: "After complying with case plans that may have required significant life changes in order to regain custody of their children, birth parents may simply want to end any involvement with the child welfare system" (Dougherty, 2004). Some parents want to be done with the system the moment a child comes home. Others see the value of continued services, such as this parent:
My six months came and went (after reunification), and they said now we can close your file, and I didn't want them to. Part of it was kind of my security. I knew they were watching me so I wouldn't go out and do something stupid (Catalyst for Kids, 2006).
Research indicates that after reunification parents may be more receptive to and satisfied with practical help (such as financial support, transportation, and respite) and less interested in anything that looks to them like statutory visits for the purposes of monitoring families (Broadhurst & Pendleton, 2007).
With this in mind, social workers should examine their efforts, making sure they assist with concrete support and coaching that the family acknowledges has value for them. Even if a worker's efforts are rejected, there may come a time after the reunification "honeymoon period" when a worker's involvement is exactly what's needed to keep the child at home.
Workers serve families well throughout reunification by being accessible and knowledgeable, by helping families plan and work through challenges, and by encouraging and focusing on strengths as families rebuild.
It's not an easy process, but it can yield great rewards.
References for this and other articles in this issue