Although reunification is considered the end goal or the preferred outcome, it is not the point at which the case can close. Returning a child home is potentially the most high-risk part of the reunification process and requires robust planning to mitigate any vulnerabilities that may lead to relapse. Help a family to understand, anticipate and respond to challenges that may arise during reunification (Wulczyn, 2004) and talk about what services can assist. Providing support once a child returns home is an opportunity to consolidate the work undertaken and is essential ensure reunification is long-lasting.
When a child goes home, they need a long-term safety and support plan which involves the safety and support network. Have conversations about the ‘what ifs?’:
- What if dad comes over and causes trouble?
- What if mum starts drinking again?
- What if mum is unwell and needs a break?
- What if dad becomes frustrated because the child isn’t listening?
These are opportunities to involve the safety and support network.
Children who have been in care for an extended period may come home to a changed family – and they will no doubt have changed themselves. How can you best support each family member to find their place amid the changes?
As families adjust to a child returning home, be aware that a family under stress may find it difficult to maintain safety and stability (Farmer, 2018). Parents may experience anxiety as they try to get to know their child again and a child may test out their parent’s commitment through challenging behaviour (Wilkins and Farmer, 2015). There is often a ‘honeymoon’ period after reunification, which can be followed by a disagreement over something minor. This may surface complex and intense feelings associated with the trauma of being separated and frustration of being involved with Child Safety. Talking through these feelings is an important part of the reunification process and rather than see it as something negative, reframe it as an opportunity to talk through and acknowledge these feelings (DHSS, 2020).
To respond to the stresses associated with reunification, post reunification support is essential to prevent a child’s re-entry in care. Consider services that will best continue to enhance parenting skills, address developmental needs of the child and connect the family to community supports. What in-home support packages can be provided to mitigate risk and support the child to return home? Think about the assessments undertaken and knowledge of the family’s needs to determine if the following services and supports may be helpful:
- Housing assistance
- Financial support
- Drug and alcohol
- Mental health
- Family violence
- Therapy or counselling – individual or family.
(Farmer, 2018; DHSS, 2016)
Any post reunification services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families must be culturally safe. Partner with the parents, family, network and community to find the right options to provide ongoing support to ensure the family is visited regularly, has access to timely and specialist services and that Active Efforts are made to identify and progress changes (SNAICC, 2019).
Ongoing communication and contact with the network are also an essential part of post reunification support. It is the network that will provide sustained support beyond reunification to address concerns and prevent re-entry into care. Continue to schedule regular meetings, including review meetings, where the ongoing role of the network post reunification can be discussed confirmed. Adjust your safety and support plan a required
Part of post reunification support is the formal reassessment of safety. This can help to determine the scope of Child Safety involvement and whether the family is ready to transition to longer term community supports. Once there is an assessment which supports safety and stability, and the network and support services are established, the focus of intervention can turn towards planning case closure.
Use the safety assessment to check safety and the Family Risk Re-Evaluation tool to monitor progress and inform when it is safe to close the case.
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