As foster parents, reunification was one of the hardest things we ever had to do. It was unbelievably difficult, preparing our little one to go back home to her biological family. She was placed in our home as a foster child and lived with us for nearly two years. We were working to adopt her, make her a part of our forever family, when something remarkable happened. The court ordered her family to be reunited. It was a bittersweet moment; we had connected so deeply and were prepared to welcome her into our forever family. We were sad to see her go but also happy that her family had improved to support her. Bittersweet, indeed.
Reunification is when a foster child is returned to their biological family after a certain amount of time in foster care. Across America, there are over 400,000 children in foster care. The majority of those children are reunited either with their parents or other family members. Most foster children spend an average of one year in foster care. For the children whose parents cannot obtain reunification, the courts may advocate for other types of permanence including adoption, independent living, or guardianship. But for foster parents, who just receive a new foster care placement, the main goal should always reunification, unless there are other prevailing circumstances.
Why do kids come into foster care in the first place?
In order to understand reunification, we must first understand the original reason for state custody in the first place. Why do foster children even exist? These children come into care because police officers, school nurses, or a mandatory child abuse reporter makes an allegation of abuse to the child abuse hotline. Child Protective Services (CPS), and possibly the police, investigate and decide as to whether the child is at risk and should be removed and placed into foster care. A child might be placed in foster care for 3 reasons: child abuse, child neglect, and child abandonment. Let’s explore each.
- Child Abuse. The most heartbreaking aspect of the child welfare system is the reality of child abuse. Evidence of child abuse can be physical signs, such as bruises, burns, or broken bones, to name a few. Other types of child abuse are child sexual abuse, child sexual exploitation, and child sex trafficking. If there is enough evidence, a parent can be criminally charged, as well. In some cases, these parents may not be eligible for reunification. But in other, less severe cases, there is hope for reunification.
- Neglect. Neglect is the number one reason why children come into foster care. Neglect is the lack of protection of a child; exposing a child to danger, or harm; or having a home which is unhealthy, or unsafe. Some examples of neglect are substance abuse in the presence of a child; drinking and driving with a child passenger; or prenatal substance abuse, just to name a few.
- Abandonment. Abandonment is leaving a child alone, creating a risk of imminent danger. Of course, it depends on the age and developmental functionality of the child. So, letting a 16-year-old be alone may not be abandonment, but leaving a 6-year-old alone in a home overnight might be. There have also been cases of parents simply dropping off a child at a CPS office, or leaving a child in a hospital.
What supports do foster children have?
- Social Worker. A child, who is a ward of the state, is assigned a state social worker, who will act as the child’s legal guardian. This person makes most of the pertinent decisions in the child’s life, including permanency of placement. They make referrals for behavioral health, referrals for childcare subsidies, and set up supervised family visits, among other things.
- Child’s Attorney. This is the child’s legal representative in court. They advise foster parents, draft legal documents on the child’s behalf, and make motions in court. They can either recommend severance and adoption or reunification.
- Guardian ad Litem (GAL). This is a legal advocate who does what is in the child’s best interest.
- Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). A CASA acts as a mentor and advocate for the foster child. Most importantly, they monitor the foster child’s progress and submit reports directly to the court.
- Behavioral Health. If a child needs counseling or direct support services, they are referred to a behavioral health clinic. Most foster children have experienced some form of trauma. Counseling addresses this trauma and helps a child recover from abuse or neglect. Never underestimate the effect of seeing domestic violence can have on a child.
- Foster Parent. The foster parent is the expert on their foster child! They feed, play with, work with, teach, and guide the foster child. They comfort the foster child when they miss their parents; they take the foster child to the doctor when they are sick, and advocate for the child’s best interest, night and day. Most importantly, a good foster parent will support reunification and work in partnership with the biological parents towards that goal.
- Biological Parents. Probably the most important person in the reunification process is the biological parent. Without their efforts, hard work, and determination, reunification cannot happen. I have heard that some biological parents feel that the work required to attain reunification is like having a full-time job. And rightly so! The reward for this job is well worth it.
What supports do biological parents have?
- Social Worker. A CPS worker, who is the child’s legal guardian, also happens to be the parent’s social worker and makes recommendations to the court.
- Public Defender. An attorney is appointed to each parent, who guides them and advises them along the way.
- Substance Abuse Recovery. In many cases, biological parents must enroll in Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous to address the addiction issues they may have been struggling with for years.
- Behavioral/Mental Health Services. CPS may recommend certain behavioral health services such as counseling. If there seem to be mental health issues, the court may order a psychological evaluation. These services do not necessarily mean the parents cannot get their children back. It may simply mean that they will be recommended to be placed on medication.
- Supervised Visitation. CPS may order supervised visitation between the child and the parent. Depending on the number of children, location of all involved, and other factors, these visits can take place a few days a week or once per week. Once the case progresses and the parents have earned the trust of the court and CPS, the parents may earn unsupervised visits and eventually overnight visits leading up to reunification.
- Education. Parenting education, anger management, and other classes may be ordered to assist the parent in recovery.
What is the legal process of reunification?
- Removal. The first step in the reunification process is the actual removal of the child from the custody of their natural parents. When an allegation of abuse or neglect is made, an investigation must take place. For example, if there is an allegation that a young couple is using methamphetamine in the presence of a child, that is a serious charge and must be investigated. This means the local Child Protective Services (CPS), and/or law enforcement, must go out to the primary residence for the child to determine the level of risk and of danger to the child. If it is determined that the child is in imminent danger, the child is removed and placed into a foster home or with other appropriate relatives.
- Dependency hearing juvenile/family court. Having substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect may not necessarily be a criminal charge but, in most states, it is a civil charge, and will probably end up in juvenile or family court. The accused parent will be given a court date and will have an attorney assigned to him/her. The judge will hear from Child Protective Services, as well as the parents’ attorney, to determine a course of action.
The primary goal is for reunification between child and parent. CPS must make reasonable efforts to not only reunify but also to provide the parents with the services they need to recover. The judge also oversees the dependency process. In the example of meth users, it is possible that the judge could order an “Out of Home” dependency, which means that that the parents will have an opportunity to recover from their addiction while their child is cared for by someone else.
- Report and Review. During the reunification process, all parties involved must make reports to the court and appear before the judge every so often, usually every 90 days. So, attorneys, CASAs, foster parents, and biological parents appear to give an update on the children, as well as the parents’, progress. If the parents do not make progress, the case could be moved from Reunification to Severance and Adoption.
- Termination of Parental Rights (TPR). After CPS has done their due diligence in attempting to reunify a parent with their child, CPS may make a motion to the courts to move the case from reunification to severance and adoption. This can happen either happen voluntarily or involuntarily.
- Trial. If a parent objects to the severance, he may request a trial. If this is the case, the parent is assigned an attorney. A trial is rare because if a trial proceeds, all of the past history is uncovered, including allegations of abuse, neglect, and any criminal history the parent may have. Parents rarely win these trials. Most of the time they do not appear, or they lose the trial.
- Reunification. CPS must make reasonable efforts to reunify a child with their parents. A reunification takes place because the parents have met the threshold set by CPS and approved by the courts to provide a safe and healthy environment for the child. Most reunifications occur early in the process. The longer a reunification takes to take place, the less likely it is to occur.
How long does foster care reunification take?
There many factors in the timetable for reunification including how long the biological parents take to meet their goals. For example, if the parents simply need to clean their home, or to have an unsafe person removed from the home, it may only take a few days. However, more intense problems like substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment, or even mental illness, can take months if not years. The average amount of time a child spends in foster care is one year.
What role do foster parents have in reunification?
Believe it or not, foster parents play a HUGE role in reunification. Foster parents participate in shared parenting. This is when foster parents work in partnership with the biological parents. Foster parents need to encourage and support reunification and not sabotage it. This can mean encouraging family visits, facilitating sibling visits, or journaling back and forth to the biological parents. This can also mean having a different perspective on biological parents; they are not the monsters our imaginations make them out to be. They may simply need some mentoring, guidance, and encouragement. Some are teachable. But in the event that they are not, the foster parents need tough skin to do what is in the best interest of the child. Lastly, shared parenting means not saying anything negative in the presence of the child. That only sows seeds of dissension.
What happens after reunification?
After a child goes back home to their family, there is a time of readjustment, just like when they first left. Therefore, both child and parent will need to be monitored for a period of time. Also, many of the same services they had during foster care should remain in place after reunification. This ensures a smooth transition.
Reunification doesn’t happen overnight. But under the right circumstances and with the right support, biological parents can be successful. Regardless of the mistakes of the past, at the end of the day, children want to be with their parents. They don’t want to bounce from foster home to foster home; children desire permanence, preferably with healthy parents. Whatever road biological parents take to reunification, whether through recovery from addiction, or providing a healthy home, or through the courts, reunification can occur. Every parent has the right to attempt to regain custody of their child. When it happens, it is a beautiful thing!
Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have 8 children: 6 of which are adopted. His adopted children are of all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican, and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast, and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption is a passion and calling for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.