Engage & Learn

The Ins and Outs of Family Reunification

To prevent instability and provide a living environment that would best serve the child, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has adopted family reunification as a preferred permanency goal. Family reunification refers to the process of returning children placed in foster care due to their birth parents’ neglect, abuse, or dependency to their original homes. The justification for this policy can be found in the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA) of 1980, which states that reunification is vital to the upbringing of a child because there is more potential for the child to create a long-term relationship with his parent. Reuniting a child with his or her family also avoids the displacement that accompanies moving a child to a new household. The parents, however, must show that they are capable of taking adequate care of themselves and their child by seeking help and rehabilitation. The state can aid this process by providing parents mentorship and access to resources for treatment. They can also facilitate communication between the child, the birthparents, and the foster family. The child is reunited with his or her family once that environment is deemed safe and secure.

With so many issues at play, it is important to note that family reunification is not a simple process. On the caseworker’s side, it requires significant individual attention to each family, in-depth knowledge of local resources, and the ability to make extremely complex and informed decisions regarding the well-being of a child and their family. The family, meanwhile, must make major changes to their lives and parenting styles while working within a system removed from their personal experience. This issue can be exacerbated by societal attitudes towards the foster care system and those who become involved with it. Families see the tragic consequences of familial separation, child deaths, and abusive foster parents and so distrust social workers. Social workers, on the other hand, are remarkably overburdened, making these types of outcomes even more likely. The popular perception of the system as failing can make arguing for increased funding or reform politically difficult. As for the parents who lose their children to the foster care system, societal attitudes can be less than forgiving. Patrick Murphy, the Public Guardian of Cook County, even went as far as to argue that “in most cases giving services and money to parents who have abused or neglected their children can do nothing but reward irresponsible and even criminal behavior.” This type of attitude excludes redemption as an option for parents, instead relying on moral judgment and punishment that further discourages parents and inhibits the improvement of the family.

A number of changes have been made to improve the way DCFS handles reunification. A greater emphasis on family engagement is one of the most significant of these changes. Effective family engagement involves birthparents in planning and decision-making, encourages foster parent support of the birthparents, and facilitates visitation between children in foster care and their birthparents. This process can be further aided by respecting and encouraging the birthparents’ capacity for improvement. The child and the family must also have sufficient access to resources such as rehabilitation, therapy, or peer mentorship. Coordination between family welfare agencies and local resources can ensure the quality of these resources. Ideally, this would require very skilled and experienced caseworkers with manageable caseloads. This would allow each worker to devote more time to each family so they can develop an individualized needs assessment and mutually-established goals.

The Illinois DCFS has tested the effects of lightening caseloads and improving the relationship between caseworkers and families, in what is known as the Illinois Family First initiative. Caseworkers participating in the program each had five cases on average, compared to the 50 cases given to each worker in the control group. It found that Family First cases were more likely to receive counseling, crisis intervention, advocacy, parent education, referrals for medical and specialized services, and concrete services such as transportation, material aid, and cash assistance. 21 percent of cases in the control group were not even opened. While this did not significantly change the average amount of time the reunification process takes, the quality of care and the widening of services have the potential to improve the long-term success rate of reunification and prevent repeated or failed placements. However, implementing a similar model on a larger scale would necessitate greater longitudinal studies to track the long-term success of reunification. It will also be necessary to train and hire more caseworkers with greater qualifications. Fortunately, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of child, family, and school social workers is expected to increase by 20 percent from 2010 to 2020 while employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is expected to increase by 31 percent. These figures may be limited by budget constraints in local, state, and federal governments, though the need for these services will likely increase.

Models for family reunification continue to be tested and improved, but the shift in permanency goal from foster care and institutionalization to preserving families should not be underestimated. The best solutions, however, will require more than policy shifts. As a society, we must wrestle with many long-held schemas and biases. We must also accept the possibility that, while many families will benefit from reunification, there may indeed be families whose issues are too entrenched to remedy even with greater access to resources. At least now we can hope that assessment will be verified rather than assumed. This step requires a great deal of compassion and patience, which the system in many cases has been ill-equipped to give. Placing greater emphasis on reuniting families will have an immeasurably positive effect on individuals and communities, making this a task of the greatest importance.