August 01, 2014

Celebrating Family Reunification Month: State Highlights

Tameka Tilliman

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

In most cases, the permanency plan for children who have been separated from their families and placed in foster care is to return home to their birth families. In 2010, the ABA Center on Children and the Law began publicizing National Reunification Month to celebrate parents who successfully reunified with their children and recognize the professionals who supported and guided them. As a result of the ABA’s efforts, June is now known as National Reunification Month in the child welfare system. This article highlights events from various states to show the impact Reunification Month has in the child welfare system. 

The first known celebrations of reunified families occurred in 1999, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The idea to celebrate reunifications occurred after Congress passed the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) in 1997. ASFA recognized the importance of adoption for children in the child welfare system. However, most children return home to their families. As such, different jurisdictions began holding reunification celebrations to recognize parents who successfully achieved reunification. 

This year, states took different approaches to celebrating National Reunification Month:

Family celebrations

Most states, including Kansas and Wisconsin, held their events at local parks where successfully reunified families and heroes were honored. In addition, food, games, and prizes were provided to children and families. In Philadelphia, PA, this basic approach was used for their “6th National Reunification Day” celebration, with one exception. Unlike the events in Kansas and Wisconsin, which were planned by the local child welfare agencies, this event was planned and run by The Achieving Reunification Center (ARC). ARC is a community program and the only facility in the nation focused on helping reunify parents with their children.

Collaborative approaches

Some states took a collaborative approach to their National Reunification Day event. At their “4th Annual Reunification Day Celebration,” Denver’s Department of Human Services (DHS) partnered with the local juvenile court, Denver’s CASA volunteers and guardians ad litem, parent attorneys, and community volunteers to recognize and honor reunified families. In addition to food, music, and activities; the local police department and fire department joined the celebration by providing mounted police patrol and trucks for the children. 

New York took a similar approach at its “4th Annual Celebration of Families.” The Bronx Defenders partnered with Bridging Education and Art Together (B.E.A.T. NYC) to reflect on the value of reunifying families. B.E.A.T. NYC serves indigent youth by engaging them in music, dance, and writing programs as a means of self-expression.  At this event, B.E.A.T. NYC taught children to express themselves through beatboxing and rhyming; some children even shared and performed their artistic creations.

Motivational approaches

To encourage families currently working on reunification, other states took an inspirational approach to their events. In Pierce County, Washington, the “5th Annual Reunification Celebration” recognized successfully reunified families and their supporters by holding a certificate ceremony. In addition to recognizing these families, the event hoped to inspire the community and help them see the primary goal of the child welfare system is to preserve families. With the theme “People Change, Families Reunite,” Pierce County aimed to encourage families currently working to reunite that they can successfully do so. 

Educational approaches

Each year, New Jersey focuses its “Family Reunification Day” on educating families about critical stages and procedures for successful reunifications. In addition to honoring families and heroes from various counties, Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ) —a free legal assistance program for low-income New Jerseyans – focused this year’s event on understanding and treating substance abuse. The event included several speakers who provided the families and other attendees information about substance abuse and how it leads to removal of children. 

Rise magazine recently interviewed Scott Trowbridge, an attorney with the ABA Center on Children and the Law, about National Reunification Month and its impact in the child welfare system. Scott stated that “within the system… parents are too often told they’ve done wrong. It’s important to recognize when parents have also done right by their children.”  These events do just that, they are opportunities to recognize parents and honor the professionals who positively impact reunification. They inspire parents currently in the child welfare system, reassuring them that reunification is not just a goal but one they can reach.

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Tameka Tilliman, MSCJ, is a rising second year law student at The University of District of Columbia - David A. Clarke School of Law. Before law school, Tameka worked as a caseworker and casework specialist for Allegheny County, Office of Children, Youth, and Families.