Oregon Refocuses on Reunification

By Jennifer Holman, MSW

June is Reunification Month. For Oregon, every month is Reunification Month since the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) created the Reunification Program Manager position to send a clear message that ODHS believes children should be home with their families.

The Oregon Department of Human Services Child Welfare Vision for Transformation states:

We believe children and young adults do best when they grow up in a family.

Reunification is the primary permanency goal for almost all children experiencing the child welfare system in Oregon. To “walk the walk” and transform our system, we must refocus our efforts away from children spending too many of their days in foster care toward speedy, safe reunification. The Reunification Program Manager position helps achieve this goal.

Why did Oregon create the Reunification Program Manager position?

From Lacey Andresen, MSW, Deputy Director of Program & Practice: When I began working in Central Office, our program structure was centered around safety, permanency, and well-being. Child permanency had historically been adoptions, and while the name changed, the program structure did not. The work of reunification - engaging parents and relatives, Oregon Safety Model fidelity throughout case planning, service delivery, relationship with the court and Citizen Review Board, parenting time - was not “owned” in any one program area. When we implemented the Title IV-E waiver demonstration, that gap was felt acutely. Managing the waiver demonstration, we felt the need for dedicated program staff to support all reunification-related work. Reunifying children and young adults with their families is the bulk of the work we do. Creating the Reunification Program Manager position has directly impacted our service delivery and outcomes for timely reunification of families served in Oregon.

What does a Reunification Program Manager do?

As the Reunification Program Manager I, along with 14 permanency consultants across the state, support our field staff and leadership in their work to get children out of foster care and back in the loving arms of their families quickly and safely. When we are not able to have children return home, we work just as tirelessly to achieve another form of legal permanency. We do this by consistently focusing on the key drivers of reunification:

  • the relationship between the caseworker and the parent,
  • frequent and meaningful family time,
  • clear and understandable communication about what needs to be in place for children to be home, and
  • an antiracist/social justice approach.

This work focuses on a micro level: individual consultation and coaching, group supervision, training and strategic planning. It also focuses on a macro level: supporting or changing practice, policy, partnering and challenging “business as usual.”

What is the impact of refocusing on reunification?

The impacts of refocusing on reunification are felt across programs, organizations, communities, and families. Impacts can be large and small (small things add up to big things!). Some impacts we have seen across Oregon include:

·       More children go safely home. In the past year, the number of children in foster care in Oregon has dropped by over 700. Most of these children reunified with their families. Our Permanency CFSR outcomes related to reunification and case planning continue to improve.

  • A culture shift for ODHS, our legal partners, and our communities recognizes that children and parents do best when they are together, and when we work as a team.
  • ODHS is working toward being an antiracist organization by acknowledging our own bias about what “good” families and homes look like and how these biases delay reunification.
  • We place a greater focus is on what supports safe and timely reunification: a trusted, caring relationship between parent and caseworker, frequent family time (visitation), a team approach, and clear conditions for return.
  • We recognize that to reunify we must ENGAGE. A laser focus has been placed on what ODHS is doing to engage parents in their case plans.  Each district in the state is required to build a Parent Engagement Plan with clear expectations, priorities, data measures, outcomes, and accountability.
  • Our protective services and permanency programs have shifted to co-case management within seven days of placement of a child. Both programs work as a team to engage families quickly to support a safe and speedy return home.
  • At every opportunity we (ODHS, community partners, courts) ask: Can this child go home? Have we met the conditions for return? If not, why not? What needs to be in place and how do we get there?
  • A focus on reunification is a focus on believing parents can do it. As our parent mentors say: The most important thing in my case was that, “My caseworker believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself.”

What are some tips for states considering creating a similar position?

  • Show commitment to reunification by fully staffing the work.
  • Look at how you staff protective services and permanency programs – is it in balance? If not, balance it by moving staff to focus on reunification. 
  • Partner with parents who have experienced the child welfare system to advocate with your legislative body to fund this work.

If you cannot create a position now, make a commitment with staff who are passionate about reunification to start every staffing, discussion, or meeting about a child or family by asking: Can this child go home today? If not, why not? What needs to be in place and how do we get there?


Related Resource

Georgia is also making family reunification a statewide priority with a  reunification manager position. Learn more.