Reunification and Foster Care: What You Need to Know
According to the latest data from the Children’s Bureau, 47% of all youth who exited foster care – over 100,000 in total – in the 2021 fiscal year reunified with a parent or a previous caretaker. Reunification is the main goal for 53% of all youth currently in foster care. Right now, in the United States, more than 200,000 youth are aiming to reunify with a biological parent or other caretaker.
Should A Foster Child or Teen Be Reunited with Their Parents?
In short, yes! Both here at AFS and within the wider child welfare space, the main goal is always that a youth in care returns home whenever feasible. While foster families are key to ensuring that youth are cared for and nurtured in the short-term, statistics show in the long-term it is best for the children and birth parents to be together full time.
Stabilizing, teaching and guiding families to learn how to heal trauma and create a loving home where the child feels cared for, supported and loved is the overarching goal for any family entering the child welfare system. Youth often prefer a home where they are comfortable and with people they know intimately and love, as opposed to a foster home, no matter how supportive.
As the Child Welfare Information Gateway has noted, “When children are separated from their families, the first goal is to reunify them when it is safe enough to do so.”
Why should foster families, foster care agencies, county social workers and others support reunification? There are a few key reasons why:
- The removal of a child or youth from their home is always a traumatic experience, no matter what the reasons or rationale behind the removal. It is usually best for the child’s mental health to be with their own biological family members. As former foster youth Sweetie Moon has written in Fostering Families Today, “As a child, being removed from your family is a scary traumatic experience that can affect you the rest of your life. Some think because the child was removed from an awful situation, they should be grateful. No child is going to be grateful for losing their biological family.”
- As Tara Perry, CEO of National CASA/GAL Association for Children, has noted, “children do best when raised in a safe environment with their family of origin.”
- Reunification – when done well, with the needs of youth and biological families centered – can help ensure that youth do not re-enter the child welfare system later on in life.
Understanding Reunification: Parents and Youth Working Together Towards Positive Outcomes
What does the reunification process look like, and who is involved? How do various stakeholders work together to ensure that families thrive? Let’s dive into what that looks like.
Here, at AFS, we provide a variety of support to both youth and biological families to ensure reunification. A professional team, including a parent partner, teaches, guides and assists parents through the work on the skills they need to help their family heal and thrive, including facilitating support groups and mental health services for youth and biological families.
“Child welfare agencies implement many strategies that build on family strengths and address safety concerns,” the Child Welfare Information Gateway has noted. “Strategies may include family engagement, maintaining family and cultural connections, connecting families to evidence-based services in the community, regular and frequent visits among family members and with the worker, and parent education, among others.”
Resource parents play a critical role in the reunification process too.
“Reunification is more successful and easier if foster parents and parents form a relationship,” Moon wrote. “Kids aren’t dumb; they know. If parents don’t want to stay in touch, accept their decision. If you’re a good foster parent, you provide care during a difficult time. While one chapter has closed, there is a new one just ahead and another child will need the temporary care you can offer.”
Resource parents can and should aim to have a positive relationship with biological families whenever possible, as this both can ensure a placement is positive and increase the likelihood of a successful reunification.
For example, consider the Sobalvarros, resource parents currently working with AFS. In one past instance, they became friends with the biological parents of two brothers they previously fostered. Thanks to therapeutic visitation, the boys were able to reunify with their biological parents. Overall, they are grateful that they were able to maintain close contact with the boys and their parents. For more about the Sobalvarros, head here.
“The majority of kids in foster care will ultimately be reunified with their birth parents. If you support birth parents and treat them with respect, it helps them and it lessens the trauma of the child when they go home,” Rebecca Lahue, a former foster youth and a current fost-adopt parent, wrote in an AdoptUSKids blog post.
Interested in learning more? Check out our webpages on our Therapeutic Visitation services and on The Gathering Place, a collaborative project among AFS, Alameda County Social Services Agency and Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services.