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Defining reunification

Reunification is the safe return of a child to the care of one or both parents after a period of being placed in care. It is a planned and timely process (DHSS, 2016) which pays attention to strong partnerships, thoughtful planning and considered practice to ensure reunification is sustainable and long-lasting.

For a child on short-term custody or guardianship child protection orders or placed away from home on a Child Protection Care Agreement, the case plan will usually have reunification to parents as the primary permanency goal. This reflects the order of preference for progressing permanency, as outlined in the Child Protection Act 1999 section 5BA.

Note

The Child Protection Act 1999 section 5C provides additional principles and a placement hierarchy that must be taken into account when considering permanency for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

When a child is reunited with a parent, it often means they are also reuniting with a broader family network, including siblings who may not be in care, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and others who are significant to them.

Consider these guiding points from the Act when working with a family towards reunification:

  • The safety, wellbeing and best interests of a child, both through childhood and for the rest of the child’s life, are paramount.
  • The preferred permanency arrangement for a child is to live with their family.
  • If a child is removed from their family, support the child and their family to enable the child to return to their care if it is in the child’s best interests.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families have the right to self-determination.
  • The five elements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child placement principle (prevention, partnership, participation, placement and connection) must apply at all stages of the intervention.

How to safely reunify a child to the care of their parents after they have experienced abuse and neglect presents a number of considerations for practitioners to balance. For example:

There may be risks associated with returning a child to a home where they were unsafe….on the other hand, not being with their family also carries risk.

A child requires timely decisions….on the other hand, supporting families to make genuine, long-lasting changes to entrenched difficulties takes a long time.

Regular, safe and meaningful family contact is essential when working towards reunification…on the other hand, contact can remind a child of the abuse they have experienced and exacerbate current difficulties they may be facing (Jackson and McConachy, 2014).

These considerations reinforce that it is not just the complex decisions around reunification that require thought and consideration, but how these decisions are implemented (Jackson and McConachy, 2014).

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