Children played and parents fought back tears of joy. An audience of over 100, including child welfare caseworkers, resource parents, attorneys for parents and children, judges, and service providers, watched and smiled.
On June 27, 2011, Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ) held the state’s second annual Family Reunification Day. The event, part of a National Reunification Month celebration supported by the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Casey Family Programs, the National Center for Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the National Association of Counsel for Children and others, was held at the Law Center in New Brunswick, NJ. LSNJ honored families and members of the legal, advocacy, and child welfare communities for their dedication to preserving and reunifying families involved in the child welfare system.
Keys to Success
Look for success stories. A successful reunification event begins with a story of an actual reunification. Although reunification is the ultimate goal of all child welfare cases, it is often difficult to achieve. A family reunification event raises awareness of these difficulties and promotes future reunification successes.
Find strengths. As we plan our June 2012 family reunification event, I look back to what made past events succeed. At our first event in 2010, we honored a parent, ironically named Hope. Hope was a married homemaker and mother of two girls, ages 8 and 10. Hope faced several challenges. Like many parents, she was trying to care for her family, while also protecting them from the fact she was being abused by her alcoholic husband.
Along with the abuse, Hope’s family was in financial crisis and would soon be homeless. In attempting to support her family, Hope wrote several bad checks, which led to her arrest and incarceration. While Hope was serving time in an all-women’s prison, the state child welfare agency became involved with her family due to allegations of abuse or neglect resulting from her husband’s alcoholism. The children were ultimately removed and placed several times before being placed in a preadoptive home.
Focus on what’s going well. On paper, reviewing this case, one would not be hopeful. It appeared likely this case would result in a termination of Hope’s parental rights. A superficial review of the file revealed a mother who was incarcerated without a release date and a father unwilling to seek services and comply with court orders. In reality, Hope was active in services offered by her prison, including taking every parenting class available and ensuring the programs complied with the child welfare agency’s service plan. As her attorneys, we applied several times to have the girls placed with Hope’s family and sought to increase contact and parenting time.
Highlight efforts that support the parent and child. Two years after their removal, the girls were placed with a resource parent who wanted to adopt them. The girls were clear about what they wanted: to be home with mommy. When the resource mother realized Hope was a loving mother who would do anything for them, she supported Hope and facilitated parenting time with her daughters.
After Hope was released from prison on a reentry program, services continued and visits were increased. Hope had a team behind her consisting of the child welfare agency, resource parent, legal advocates and the court system. They were committed to Hope successfully reunifying with her girls. They banded together to make reunification work. Hope now owns her home and a business and her girls love soccer and dancing.
Integrate educational opportunities. In New Jersey, our event not only honors parents, service providers and other Reunification Day heroes. It also includes a panel presentation of experts ranging from parent advocates to judges to service providers who present on what elements are needed and what works towards a successful reunification. Our first year, we focused on how resource parents are key to achieving reunification. When resource parents are included in the reunification process, and meet and form a relationship with the parents, the chances for a successful reunification significantly improve.
Last year, experts presented on services and safety nets for parents and how specific services target issues more effectively. We knew the event was a success both years when we heard overwhelmingly positive feedback from the reunified families and various child welfare stakeholders.
Below are tips for planning a Family Reunification event. Visit the ABA National Reunification Month website for other helpful tools and information about how communities throughout the country are celebrating reunification:
- Create a planning committee. Include individuals with varied expertise—child welfare, media/communications, and grant experts. Meet early with your event planning committee.
- Identify the type of event (panel discussion, educational, picnic or hybrid).
- Start the nomination process for families and other individuals you want to honor on the event day. If you have a nomination process, send forms out early.
- Identify a theme for your event. Themes might focus on services, parental engagement, or services. After choosing your theme, pick a speaker and tailor your program.
- Involve families. Seek input from parents about the event they would like to attend. Make sure the event is appropriate for their children and is educational and interesting for all child welfare stakeholders.
Jey Rajaraman is a supervising attorney at the Family Representation Project, Legal Services of New Jersey.
This article was written as part of the ABA Center on Children and the Law’s National Project to Improve Representation for Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System.