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October 01, 2017

Tip Sheet for Supporting Family Reunification

Dana Leader

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.

Reunification is the most common outcome for youth in out-of-home care and foster parents can be one of the most important resources to help children reunify with their families. During this year’s Reunification Month (June 2017), the ABA Center on Children and the Law spoke with foster families who were outstanding supporters of reunification to gather their insights on this topic. These resource families were recommended by state and tribal child welfare agencies.

What follows are tips and themes shared by these families.

  • Respect birth parents and be compassionate.

  • Encourage visitation and regular contact.

  • Communicate with the family regularly.

  • Remember that safe reunification is best for the children.

Respect Birth Parents and Be Compassionate

Across the board, the resource families emphasized the importance of respecting parents from the start. Several said to treat birth parents not only with respect but with love. Many families highlighted the cyclical nature of dependency cases. A resource parent from Oregon said, “Often times in foster care, parents are villainized and judged. Foster parents need to love them and never make them feel like they are being judged. We need to encourage them and become cheerleaders for them.”

Among the practical tips to show respect and compassion, resource families suggested: 

  • Express genuine concern.

  • Be honest with birth parents.

  • Let the family know that your goal is to help them get their children back.

  • Understand how scared they are and try to alleviate it.

  • Refer to birth parents using parental terms such as “Mom” or “Dad” when with their children and ask your foster kids to call you by another name. 

  • Believe people can change.

  • Assume that things will go well.

  • Understand that the families often have different life experience than you.

  • Look for ways to break down barriers.

  • See birth parents as people and help them as people.

  • Look for positives.

  • Act as a support for family.

Encourage Visitation and Regular Contact

Many of the resource parents stated that visitation is an opportunity not only for parenting, but to improve the relationship between the foster family and birth family. When physical visitation is limited by court order or scheduling, the resource families suggested having regular phone contact between parents and their children. When physical visitation is not limited, the resource parents said it was best for both the children and the birth parents to have as much visitation as possible.

Some practical ways resource families encouraged visitation and contact include:

  • Advocating for increased visitation whenever safe

  • Encouraging children to have phone calls with family, especially during the week and multiple times per week 

  • Helping children video chat with their birth parents and family members

  • Inviting families to community events for visitation where the birth parents and children can act like a family and do activities when it is safe to do so

  • Transporting the parents or children to visitation when possible or safe to do so

  • Sending children with everything they might need on a visit, such as games, snacks, and activities they can do with their parents; meeting spots can be boring

Communicate Regularly with the Family

The resource families we interviewed said that knowledge is power. Birth parents need to know what is going on with their children and foster parents need to know the children and family’s background. A resource parent from Osage Nation/Oklahoma said, “Birth parents are the experts on their kids.” 

The resource families offered these tips to maintain communication with the birth family: 

  • Ask parents about life before and the history of the children.

  • Involve parents or other family members in school functions/meetings. 

  • Stay in constant contact; tell them it’s ok to call any time.

  • Send pictures, photos, art projects, grades, etc. with the children to visits.

  • Have as many early conversations with parents as possible. 

  • Transport kids to visits rather than using transporters if you are able. 

  • Show an interest, not just in the child, but in the family as a whole. 

  • Go to doctor appointments and other meetings together. 

  • Include birth parents in decisions.

Pursue Safe Reunification for Children

The resource families stated that keeping families together was better for the children. Each resource family focused not only on the parent’s need for their children but the children’s need to be with their parents and families whenever possible.

Resource families discussed their attitudes towards reunification and what they wish each foster family was taught during training:

  • Reunification is the first and best option. 

  • It is comforting for the kids to know the foster parents understand the kids want to be with their birth parents. 

  • Foster families need to try to get children back where they belong, with their families. 

  • Supporting reunification is a must. 

  • Foster families should have a deep, strong belief that families should be together.

  • Family units are important; parents should have their children when possible. 

  • Agencies and foster families need to prioritize reunification over adoption when possible.

  • Foster parents need to be on board with reunification from the beginning. 

  • As long as the family is trying, it’s always better to focus on reunification.

  • It’s not all about the foster parent, it’s about the child’s best interest. 

Everyone needs some training about reunification

Promote Cooperative Reunification-Centered Approaches at Agencies

Each of the resource families stated that agency support was integral to promoting a relationship between resource families and families of origin. There are two models of partnership currently used in the United States: the Shared Family Care Model and the Parent Collaboration Model. 

  • In the Shared Family Care Model, resource parents and birth families move into shared housing. The children remain with their families and services are provided in-home.

  • The Parent Collaboration Model  is similar to the traditional foster care model. Resource families communicate with birth families. Increased visitation and communication between the birth parent and child are prioritized.

To read the full summary of interviews conducted with resource families across the country, or to find more information or research regarding potential models that child welfare agencies can implement, read the full article.

Dana Leader was a summer 2017 law student intern at the ABA Center on Children and the Law. She attends the University of Georgia School of Law, where she is a 2019 JD/MSW candidate.

About National Reunification Month

National Reunification Month is held annually in June. The month celebrates the people and efforts around the country that make it possible for families to stay together. As part of Reunification Month, events are held around the country to recognize parents’ who work to bring their children home safely from foster care and the professionals who support them.

The ABA Center on Children and the Law provides resources about National Reunification Month, including stories about reunification heroes. 

Many thanks to: the National Resource Center for Diligent Recruitment at AdoptUSKids for helping make connections with resource families; the state and tribal agencies in Alabama, New Jersey, Oregon, Osage Nation, and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community for recommending resources families to interview; and to the resource families who generously set aside time to speak with us.