Reunification is not just the return of a child to the care of their parent/s. It is a process along a continuum of service delivery. It includes maintaining family relationships, important connections and routines while a child is in short-term care, responsive case planning and ongoing support after the child returns home (DHSS, 2016). As the preferred permanency option, reunification requires careful consideration and decisive action from the point a child first enters care to address the presenting child protection worries and ensure a return home is possible.
‘Reunifying a child with his or her birth parents is not a one-time event. Rather, it is a process involving the reintegration of the child into a family environment that may have changed significantly from the environment the child left’. (Wulczyn, 2004, p99)
The process of reunification involves strong and meaningful family engagement, comprehensive assessment, attention to developing a strong safety and support network and ensuring appropriate support services are in place.
One of the most important things a practitioner can do is develop a genuine and respectful relationship with a family. Establishing this relationship will support a family to engage and participate, which is central to planning and decision making around reunification (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011). Partnering with families early helps to establish clear communication and develop understanding about what needs to change. A collaborative, strengths based approach to articulating case plan goals can develop a sense of ownership and agreement about how to best address the identified protective concerns (DHSS, 2016) and work towards a child’s safe return home.
When engaging with parents, acknowledge the sense of powerlessness they may have experienced from social exclusion. The multiple and complex systems which parents navigate, including the child protection system, contribute to a loss of control or agency in range of areas, often leaving them deeply disempowered. Also contributing to this is the often high number of professionals parents may be involved with and the changes they experience when staff leave or move on to work with other families.
Remember the Framework for Practice Principles.
To determine case plan goals to address the safety and risk factors, use open questions, active listening and sharp observation to uncover parental motivation to change and how they perceive their child’s journey home. Some parents can be ambivalent and perceive the child to be the problem. If the narrative of the parents is characterised by ‘they’ statements, focuses on ‘fixing the child’ and their energy to change is externalised, it may be a challenge to progress successful reunification. If parents use ‘I’ statements, acknowledge their child was unsafe in their care and understand their child’s pathway back home depends on changing their own behaviour, harness that energy to provide the help and support they need. These parents are often easier to work with as they take responsibility for their actions and are willing to change.
Engaging with families also involves consulting with children and providing them with the opportunity to talk about their hopes and fears about returning to live with one or both parents (Farmer, 2018). It is important to recognise that for some children, reunification brings uncertainty about what things may be like if they have experienced significant harm at home. Think creatively about ways to connect with a child, and who might be best placed to find out how they are feeling about the prospect of going home. The narrative of the child is often the best way to track how plans for reunification are progressing.
The Child Welfare Information Gateway (2011) describes four aspects of family engagement which underpin effective reunification outcomes:
- the relationship between case worker and family, which is built through regular and frequent contact
- facilitation of contact between the parent and child and the active use of this as an opportunity to build and observe parental skills
- the involvement of foster carers to mentor and guide parents
- the inclusion of a network of support for parents to help them navigate the complexities of the child protection system.
A range of system related factors such as frequency of contact, worker continuity and perceived views and assumptions are linked to the quality of the relationship between the practitioner and the family (Jackson and McConachy, 2014). This relationship can significantly influence the level of engagement of a family in the reunification process.
Scott and Honner (2004 cited Jackson and McConachy, 2014) suggest some best practice principles for practitioners to guide engagement with families working towards reunification:
- believe in their importance and support their involvement with their child for better outcomes
- approach them with respect, trust, honest, empathy - have positive regard and be non-judgemental
- provide opportunities for active involvement
- be in contact regularly to provide information
- make parents active partners in decision making
- be available, accessible and supportive
- ensure there is a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities
- offer open channels of communication
- make an effort to understand a parent’s situation and work with their loss and grief.
When partnering with families and focusing on strengths to progress reunification, be careful not to deny or minimise the actual harm or risk to the child (Turnell and Edwards cited DHSS, 2016).
How do practitioners build relationships of trust with families?
Are there existing relationships with community services, local Indigenous organisations, or with local culturally and linguistically diverse communities that can be leveraged?
The quality of contact or family time between a child and their parent is an essential tool when making decisions around reunification. Observing the content as well as the nature of interactions during family time can provide practitioners with valuable insight into what things might be like for a child if they return home. It is important to be aware of what the relationship is like at the time of the child’s removal so any changes can be monitored during the period of separation (DHHS, 2020).
Carers play a significant role as partners in reunification due to their close connection and knowledge of the child (DHSS, 2016). Think about the physical permanency a carer provides for example a home, transport to school, and support in attending medical appointments. Carers are also a big part of relational permanency and this can help with hearing the voice of the child about what is happening. A child builds a relationship with the carer even when they are placed in their care for a short period of time. When a child leaves a care arrangement, consider how to maintain this connection and support ongoing relational permanency.
If staying connected with a carer is not possible, consider how the relationship can be recorded for the child to remember. Life Story work or completing The Immediate Story tool can help a child understand placement moves and relationship endings.
When the primary goal is reunification, consider how carers can support and be part of the long-term safety and support plan. If long-term care becomes the primary goal, consider how carers are partnering with a child’s parents or family to achieve permanency together. Be mindful that not all carers are suited to this level of support and may need help to shift from a place of rescue. Their journey is different, and transparency about plans for reunification at the outset will help to determine how involved the carers are able and willing to be. It is important to ensure foster care agencies are involved to support carers as they considering their contributions to this part of service delivery.
When supporting reunification, carers can act as mentors to parents and play an ongoing role in their life post-reunification (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011). ‘Icebreaker meetings’ can be an effective tool in connecting parents with carers to find common ground and ensure the wellbeing of the child remains central. It is also a way to ensure parents retain their role and engage them as true partners in decision making about their child, including those focused on reunification. An encouraging relationship between parents and carers can support a child to feel safe as they transition from a care arrangement to home.
Watch this video from the Annie E. Casey Foundation regarding the importance of bringing parents and carers together to improve outcomes for a child:
A robust network made up of family, friends, significant others and service providers is fundamental to supporting the reunification process. A sustained network can provide a family with containment and support which can help to prevent a reoccurrence of what contributed to the child being brought into care (see below).
Early assessment is necessary to inform plans to progress both the primary and alternative permanency goals. Strong engagement with a family enables practitioners to comprehensively assess their strengths, needs and capacity to work towards reunification as the most desirable permanency outcome. Consider within the assessment the worries (safety issues and risks) when a child came into care, if there are any new worries, the child’s history as well as the history of the parents, to understand what things look like now and what needs to change. Are things still happening which means planning for reunification cannot be progressed? Have there been any previous attempts at reunification with this child or any other children in the family? Have any of these attempts been successful? These considerations are central to the assessment to understand what has, or has not, worked in the past.
When risk factors are identified, name the worries associated with these. Then link the worries to clear actions – this enables risks to be measured more effectively.
Parental capacity and capability make up a significant part of any assessment focused on reunification. Explore:
- the ability of the parents to care either together or separately
- the capabilities of the abusing parent and the potentially protective parent when the child has experienced significant harm
- a parent’s capacity to change within the child’s timeframe
- capacity of each parent to prioritise and provide for the child’s needs.
(Farmer, 2018; DHSS, 2016)
The assessments that begin on day 1 must reflect the individual needs of the child and family to develop a clear understanding of their circumstances, environment and potential (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011). These early connections to gather information play an important part in informing the case plan goals that will either lead to reunification or the implementation of an alternative long-term care arrangement.
Strong safety and support network
Safety and support networks are fundamental to an integrated child protection intervention with a family (DCSYW and Encompass Family and Community, 2018). They are vital to promote and maintain safety, belonging and wellbeing for a child, both during and beyond formal Child Safety involvement. When working towards reunification, a strong safety and support network can create containment for parents and keep them focused on making the changes necessary to ensure home is safe for their child.
Networks are not static. As an intervention progresses, notice when relationships change. Support a child and their parents to build their network so as many people as possible can help achieve the goals set out in the case plan. A safety plan which does not include a network is unlikely to be effective in keeping a child safe.
Remember: no network = no plan.
Establishing links with services that respond to identified needs and are intensive enough to help parents make and maintain the changes needed to support reunification can significantly influence permanency outcomes (Farmer, 2018). Services also need to be culturally appropriate to ensure decision making for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children accounts for the unique challenges faced by these families. Coordinated services must form part of the network surrounding the family that can be remain involved once a child returns home, to maximise the potential for sustained reunification.
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