The reunification process in foster care is when a foster child is in the process of being reunified with their parents. When a child is no longer part of the foster care system, and the case is closed, they have been successfully reunified. At that time, parents have regained placement of the child, and Social Services has deemed the home safe for the child’s return.
Each foster care case begins with the goal of reunification. Parents are given goals to meet in a timely manner to be reunited with their children. Most children are able to return home to their families. There are instances in which the parent has their parental rights terminated, and then the child is placed for adoption. Reunification is the goal and must be pursued when possible and safe for the child.
When a child is placed in foster care, their parents will be given a case plan with things that they need to do in order to have the children return home. Children are removed when the situation they are in is one that is unsafe. The case plan will work to remedy any issues that are considered unsafe, and help the home become one that is more stable.
Some examples of what a case plan may include is AODA counseling, drug testing, therapy, parenting classes, health assessments (including mental health if applicable), home visits, maybe a change in residence if deemed necessary, secure job and income, etc.
There is no guaranteed time frame for how long a child will remain in foster care. Some cases are short-term cases and can result in reunification after a few weeks, while other cases can go on for years. When the time frame turns to years, the case plan may become one of reunification with the concurrent plan of adoption. At this time, the state is acknowledging that the case plan is taking a significant amount of time and that the parents may not be able to complete all the tasks. At this time, the child is considered at legal risk and may be placed into a pre-adoptive foster home. A pre-adoptive foster home is one in which the foster family has expressed interest in pursuing adoption, and is home studied and ready to do so. While each case is different, a general rule of thumb is that if a child has spent 15 months in foster care, it is time to reassess and decide how to proceed, and if adoption ought to be added as a potential goal.
While parents are working on the reunification of a child, they will need to participate in the case plan requirements. They will also (as safety allows) participate in visits with their child during this time. Visitation may be supervised or unsupervised, depending on the reason for the removal of the child from the home. In more extreme cases, where a child’s safety is in question, there may be a court order that prevents visits until the court can be assured that visits will be safe for the child. In these cases, parents may need to complete certain steps before being allowed contact with their children. The most important thing is to be sure the child is safe.
Because being removed from their parents is a traumatic event, social workers are required to try to find kinship placement for children. Kinship placement is any home where the caregiver has a relationship with the child and is not a stranger. Typically, kinship care refers to placing the child with a relative. However, teachers, family friends, and others who the child may be familiar with can be considered. A child will be more comfortable if they are familiar with their caregiver, and far less stressed. Kinship care is not always possible, however, and that is why there is a need for licensed foster homes.
The goal of the case plan to reunify parents and children is to educate parents on how to safely parent their children, as well as provide support and help. Sometimes, even after reunification, parents may be required to continue services to have their children in the home.
There are times when parents know they need assistance, but don’t know how to get help. Some parents may be relieved to have help to learn parenting strategies and to be able to have parenting support. When making a plan with a social worker, parents are able to highlight their strengths, as well as express concerns they may have. It is important that parents are honest with the caseworker, and disclose any mental health, physical health, or abuse and neglect issues within the home. Also, providing a list of potential relatives and friends who may be supportive is important. This list will help the caseworker search for kinship care, as well as help to set up a support system to help in the reunification process and working on the case plan.
Along with social workers, there will be a guardian ad litem, or GAL, assigned to the case. This is an attorney who represents the best interest of the child. They are responsible for gathering information from the case, the parents, and if age-appropriate, the child. They do not work for the parents or for Social Services. This is the child’s attorney. The GAL represents, to the best of their ability, what they believe is in the child’s best interest. The GAL’s recommendation in court is usually taken seriously and weighed heavily by the judge.
If a parent has a hard time meeting the reunification goals, they can ask for assistance or more time to do so. Because reunification is the goal, a parent can receive a lot of support and help to aid them in their case plan.
Help can be in the form of transportation to and from visits or support meetings, gift cards for gas money, help with food, help with getting a stable job, and help with finding adequate housing. These are just a few ways that parents are able to get help from Social Services. There are many ways that the Department of Social Services is able and willing to help a parent in order to reunite them with their child.
It is often vital to the reunification process for parents to know they can have assistance and support in working to reunite with their child and in completing the tasks detailed in their case plans. When there isn’t enough support, a parent may feel too overwhelmed and unable to move forward.
When it is nearing time for a family to be reunified, there may be an increase in visitations or even some overnight visitations to help the adjustment, prior to the children returning home on a full-time basis. Everyone will need time to adjust to the new boundaries and lessons they have learned during the time away. There may be a new housing situation to adjust to, or even new schedules, schools, or jobs to consider. Parents will be working hard to implement lessons learned, and children will be working on understanding that many things have changed, and expectations should be different. Talking about these things together as a family can help the transition.
Once reunification occurs, it does not mean that services are no longer available. There should still be support to ensure that the reunification lasts and that the child is not removed from the home again. Sometimes, parents resist the involvement of Social Services once their child has been placed back in their care. Some fear that having a social worker checking in and staying involved is too much scrutiny and that they will inevitably “mess up” and have their child removed again. Others, however, like the support after reunification, and find it motivating and helpful. Some parents prefer to continue having an open case file in order to maintain the level of support they feel they need in order to parent appropriately. It works like a checks and balances system for them so that they don’t slip up and risk the children being removed again.
Parents sometimes feel anxious or scared to ask for support after reunification. There is a fear in showing that you still need assistance and that you are still relying on help. However, a social worker’s job is to continue the support as long as needed and to provide help rather than judgment.
Asking for help should be considered a sign of strength rather than a sign of weakness. There is no shame in knowing you need help and vocalizing it. When you try to do things on your own without help, you may become too overwhelmed. This could lead you back to the poor decisions and harmful choices that brought Social Services into the picture in the first place. It is healthy to know when you are struggling that you can seek help. It is also completely normal to struggle with parenting. It is the hardest, yet most rewarding “job” you will ever do.
Another thing to remember as the reunification process begins is that there may be some unexpected feelings that come up. Kids may feel both excited and scared to return to their parents’ care. While they were in foster care, they may have become comfortable in their foster home. This may cause them to feel guilty, and they may feel they have let their parents down by “liking” the foster home. However, leaving the foster home to return to their family may feel like a relief, but also frightening. They were removed for safety, so whatever made the home unsafe (abuse, neglect, drug or alcohol use, etc.) may still be a great concern for the children. While they may be aware that their parents are working on improving the home situation, it may be hard to trust that it has improved.
Parents may also feel some conflicting feelings. While it will be a relief to have their children back, it may also be scary. They have been working on the case plan while having their children being cared for. When you add the stress of parenting back into the equation, will they be able to continue making the right choices? Will the stress of parenting send them back into old habits? Will their child feel disappointed in returning home, where things may not be as “nice” as the foster home they were placed in? Will the child have resentment for being placed in foster care? There are a lot of feelings and insecurities that may come along with the reunification process. Often, people don’t realize that there will be such a span of emotion during this time, so it can cause a bit of extra stress.
Both kids and parents may feel guilt for any scared or negative emotions they feel. The expectation is that everyone would be feeling pure joy, but that is not always the case. It may feel difficult to acknowledge the other emotions, but they need to be dealt with too.
Because there is such a range of emotions, it is important to continue to seek support and help during the reunification process in order to make the reunification successful. Whether the support is that of a professional, such as continuing therapy, or if it is simply having a friend to talk to when you are overwhelmed, support is very important for this process to be successful. It is important for everyone involved (parents, children, and foster families) to have someone to support them and be there for them.
The reunification process can be emotional for the foster family as well. They have come to love and care for the child that they took placement of, and it can be hard to let them go back to their families. Foster parents do not always agree with the reunification process and may be so attached to the child that they wish the child could become their own. However, foster families know that the first goal is reunification. They must trust the process and the system to work to protect these children and do what is right for them. In some cases, foster parents are able to maintain relationships after reunification. This is not a guarantee, though, which is part of what makes fostering so difficult. It is hard to bring a child into your life, and then have them leave without updates or knowledge of how they are. Foster parents also need support during the reunification process, and those around them need to recognize that they are experiencing a loss too.
Jennifer is a mother to 3 children (one biological, two adopted). She is also a mom to numerous pets. She enjoys volunteering in her children’s classroom, reading, and crafting in her spare time. She has been married for almost 15 years.