Helping Families Support Reunification
Reunification is the most common goal and outcome for children and youth in out-of-home care, and safe and timely family reunification is the preferred permanency outcome.
It is important for child welfare systems to recruit, develop, and support resource parents who can actively support reunification when it is the best permanency option so that foster parents continue to open their homes to children and youth in need of care.
The NRCDR has compiled the following ideas and strategies to help child welfare systems recruit, develop, and support foster parents who can support reunification when it is the best permanency option for a child in their care. You can also find resources for supporting reunification at the 2016 National Foster Care Month website.
- Use clear, consistent messaging about the importance of supporting reunification. As you recruit, respond to, develop, and support foster parents, be sure that your child welfare system is providing clear and consistent information about how reunification is the first goal for children in foster care and about the need for foster parents to be actively supportive of reunification. Provide opportunities for prospective foster parents to discuss their thoughts and questions about reunification and about their role in helping achieve the goal of reunification for children in their home. Sharing clear information about the importance of reunification—including how it is in the best interests of children—throughout the whole process, from recruitment through to after foster parents have children placed with them, can help ensure that foster parents understand the need to be part of the team working toward each child’s permanency goal.
- Use data to help develop prospective resource parents’ understanding and knowledge about their role. Help prospective parents understand the likelihood of various experiences and permanency outcomes for children exiting foster care by providing data on the percentage of children in foster care who are reunified, adopted, and placed into permanent guardianship. Many prospective foster and adoptive parents may not be aware of how common each permanency outcome is for children in foster care, especially how many children are reunified with their birth family. You can help prospective foster parents develop realistic expectations about what the goal will be for children they will parent by discussing the trends in the data for children involved in your child welfare system.
- Incorporate concurrent planning concepts into core training for all prospective foster parents. Concurrent planning involves working toward one permanency goal (typically reunification) while simultaneously preparing for an alternative permanency option in order to move children and youth into safe and stable permanent families more quickly. Whether or not foster parents are officially designated as concurrent planning parents, they can benefit from being prepared and supported to help achieve reunification for children they parent in similar ways that concurrent planning families are prepared and supported.
- Engage birth parents who have reunified with their children and foster parents who have successfully supported families in reunifying as co-trainers for prospective foster parents. By having foster parents co-train prospective foster parents, you can help ensure that prospective parents receive information and insights about the real experiences of foster parenting. Using this approach can help ensure that you are supporting prospective parents in developing realistic expectations for the needs of children they will parent and understanding their role as foster parents and the range of emotions and experiences they may face. It is also important for foster parents to understand birth families' feelings and experiences. Birth parents who have reunified with their children can share their perspective on the role foster parents can play in helping families to maintain connections and supporting reunification. Having foster parents and birth parents deliver training and strategically share their stories can be particularly valuable in helping prospective parents deepen their understanding of the importance of supporting each child’s permanency goal, including working with a child’s birth family to support reunification, when applicable. In instances when this is not possible, videos and digital stories can be a useful tool for bringing foster and birth parent voices into the room and creating a deeper understanding of their experiences.
- Provide peer support for foster parents. Connect new foster parents with peer mentors or peer support networks of other foster parents to help them develop realistic expectations about their role and receive support through all stages in supporting reunification, including after children return home. Engage current foster parents in providing this type of support and information to prospective foster parents during the licensure process.
- Establish practices that build relationships between foster parents and birth parents. Consider offering "icebreaker" meetings so that birth parents and foster parents can meet, discuss the needs of the child, and begin to work together early on. Provide information to foster parents about how they can partner with, mentor, and support the birth family. Work with foster parents and birth parents to facilitate their ongoing communication and strengthen their relationship. As a Diligent Recruitment Grantee, the Arkansas' Division of Children and Family Services developed a practice guide, Bridging the Gap (PDF – 282 KB), to provide information on coordinating contact between resource families and birth families, including practice considerations for caseworkers, resource families, and birth parents.
- Provide foster families with support around grief and loss during training, throughout the reunification process, and after reunification takes place. Foster families find information about how to handle their own grief and loss particularly helpful as part of developing their ability to manage transitions when children in their home return to their birth families. Offer support groups for resource families as well as for children—such as for foster families’ biological children—to help them process their loss when children leave the foster home. Some of the Diligent Recruitment Grantees developed strategies for addressing foster parent grief and loss. For example, the Loss Intervention for Families in Transition (LIFT) Program in Los Angeles County was designed to provide resource parents with grief counseling during or following the reunification of a child with his or her birth family. New Mexico's Step Up! Diligent Recruitment Project developed training and support groups focused on grief and loss for foster families.
- Explore whether foster and birth families are interested in maintaining contact after reunification. This ongoing connection can help foster families, birth families, and children with their emotions and can help provide stability for children during this transition. The foster family can have a role in continuing to support the child and family, for instance, by providing occasional respite care.