After 30 years of marriage, eight kids (six of whom were adopted), and 25 years of foster care, we were done. Then, we got the call to take in the sibling to two of our younger children. Without hesitation, we said yes! Of course, we were a bit older (actually, A LOT older) but we were also a lot more experienced, tougher skinned and well-versed. We had gotten to the point where we were mentoring younger families in their foster/adopt experience. Then we were asked to adopt our precious 6-year-old foster daughter (aka “FD6”)! Again, we said yes! Our case was now changed to severance and adoption! Then, our case took an unexpected U-turn after about two years of fostering. The severance was vacated and was headed back toward foster care reunification. Wow! Talk about a roller-coaster ride! It was perplexing due to a whole host of reasons, but even though we had many concerns, we were a position of facilitating a foster care reunification. Not our ideal plan and not easy. You can’t just turn on and turn off emotions like an Instant Pot! We were torn between many emotions, some of which are listed below, and it was not easy to navigate.
Truth be told, foster care reunification is the major reason most people don’t get into foster care in the first place; they hate to see the children leave. Most people would just rather lock up biological parents and throw away the key! But the fact is, most children who enter foster care are reunified with their biological family every year. The average time in foster care for a child is 1.5 years. The average time a person serves as a foster parent is one year. Clearly, this presents an issue for kids who are in care for a long time. Multiple moves, disruptions, and multiple caregivers are not ideal. The ideal is permanency: adoption, independent living, or return to family. Of course, many things need to take place for foster care reunification to happen and the foster parents are a big part of making that happen; there are pros and cons on both sides of the issue.
BITTER: The difficulty of reunification is realizing that this little person—who has been a part of your family for a month, a year, or two years—is now going home. On the one hand, though, there is the joy that the biological parents have rehabilitated themselves but there is still the heartbreak that this child is leaving. On the front end, there may have been a disruption to the child’s life, on the back end, there will now be a disruption to yours. Another issue is the reality that the standards the child is being returned to may not be quite the standard that is expected of a state-licensed foster parent. And lastly, we were concerned that all the progress that our “FD6” had made would be lost.
SWEET: Who wouldn’t be happy for a person who has rehabilitated their lives? Everyone loves a success story! Everyone wants to be a part of a success story. I was proud of the fact that we adopted six children and headed toward seven. I, now, needed to shift gears quickly and learn to be proud of participating in reunification. A humbling experience, to be sure, but a worthwhile endeavor. We would only hope and pray that all of that hard work would pay off.
Abuse. Many times, children are removed from their parents’ care due to child abuse. Child abuse is defined as inflicting physical injuries to a child that leave visible marks or that have caused physical harm. Some examples of this could be Shaken Baby Syndrome, cigarette burns, burns from an iron, bruises, welts, cuts, or scratches. Some of these injuries are permanent, and some of them result in death. Many of these incidents are reported by mandatory reporters such as teachers, school nurses, child welfare workers, youth pastors, or others in the community. Many times, reunification is possible. But sometimes, it is not possible. Much rehabilitation is needed for a person that would harm a child in this way.
The sad fact is that much abuse inflicted upon children is sexual abuse. This is defined as using children for sexual purposes or engaging in sexual acts with an underaged child. Some examples of this are sexual contact with a minor, prostitution, rape, or using a child for child pornography. Exploitation of this manner is especially heinous. It includes criminal charges as well as other charges. Parents who sexually abuse their children should not expect to be reunited with their children.
Neglect. This is defined as purposefully or indirectly not providing basic survival needs to a child. Examples of putting a child in harm’s way could be anything from leaving a child alone in a hotel while mom goes out to party, drunk driving with a child in the car, medical neglect, or neglecting to stop the abuse of a child when it is possible to do so. One of the most common reasons why children are separated from their parents is neglect due to exposure to drugs. This could be anything from drug use while pregnant to using drugs in the presence of a child. Or it could be leaving drugs within arm’s reach of a child or forcing a child to use drugs. Many of these children are reunited with their parents.
The tough part is when a child goes home and then returns to the foster care system. Many behavioral health experts state that a child is set back developmentally six months with every move. We want to make their next move, the last move a child will ever make. Permanency is the goal.
WHY REUNIFY AT ALL? Reunification varies from state to state and from judge to judge. Every biological parent who has had their child removed from their custody has the right to regain custody of that child. Barring criminal child abuse or sexual abuse of a child, judges usually attempt to reunify upon opening the case. The only mitigating factors in returning a child to their family is the age of the child, the number of children being removed from the family, and the number of times the children have been in care.
WHAT DOES A BIOLOGICAL PARENT NEED TO DO TO REGAIN CUSTODY OF THEIR CHILD?
Getting your child back after Child Protective Services has removed them from your care is a tall order; it’s practically a full-time job! In addition to the juvenile dependency case, there may also be a criminal case, custody battles, and any number of bumps along the road. But what does it take to be reunited with your child?
Drug rehabilitation. The number one reason why children are separated from their parents is neglect due to exposure to drugs. Sometimes the urge for drugs is greater than the urge to be reunited with their child. The newfound freedom of not having a child to care for is sometimes exhilarating. Many parents give up and don’t show up for court. When this happens, their rights are severed by the court. Others voluntarily relinquish their rights. When this happens, an open adoption is sometimes possible.
But others seek treatment. Narcotics Anonymous is one example of drug treatment. These parents take responsibility for their actions and what is necessary to become clean. This is not easy, especially when they are addicted for many years. But it is possible.
Alcohol rehabilitation. Alcoholics Anonymous is a great program that helps parents to become rehabilitated. The prime message of this program is that it teaches personal responsibility.
Anger management classes. Many biological parents have deep-seated anger issues that have been handed down from generation to generation. Many parents who abuse/neglect their child were foster children themselves or were abused/neglected themselves. They don’t know any other way to react to situations. Anger management classes help these parents to diffuse situations and it gives them alternatives and coping skills when faced with potentially explosive situations.
Employment and Housing. Unemployment and homelessness do not necessarily cause a person to lose their children. However, they may be a condition for reunification. The difficult thing is finding a job when you have a criminal record, which may be the case for many of these individuals.
Support system. Any person who has made a significant life change has to have some help along the way. Whether it is family, friends, or the faith-based community, biological parents need help to readjust to having a child back in their lives. Will you be a part of that support system?
WHAT DOES A FOSTER PARENT NEED TO DO TO SUPPORT REUNIFICATION?
Most children in foster care get reunified with their biological parents. The biological parents either received support or were able to function within society without significant support. The question you need to ask yourself is, “Am I willing to be a part of the support system these parents need?” This doesn’t necessarily mean inviting them over to Sunday dinner every week! However, there may be a continuum of contact (or bridge) that each foster parent must be willing to walk along with the biological parent. You must decide how far down the bridge you are willing to meet the parents. For example, are you willing to send a journal back and forth to the parents? Are you willing to facilitate phone visits? Will you allow the parents to attend special school events, extracurricular activities or doctor’s appointments? Will you mentor a young parent in things we take for granted, such as diaper changing, feeding, helping with homework? Will you assist the biological mom after the children have returned home, with tasks such as scheduling doctor’s appointments, enrolling the child in school, navigating the world of behavioral health, enrolling a child in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or enrolling a child in Head Start? This can be an overwhelming task for a single parent. You are not only assisting the parent but, in the long run, you are also assisting the child.
Cooperate with Supervised Visits. Family visits between the child and their parents benefit everyone! They benefit the child because it keeps them connected to their parents. It benefits the parents because it not only keeps them connected, but it also gives them hope and motivation to keep moving toward their goal. It benefits foster parents because it gives them a respite and a break. It is the job of the foster parent to facilitate these visits by making sure the children attend on time, are well-groomed and prepared to visit their parents. Under no circumstances should a foster parent cancel a meeting as a discipline. The goal for the biological parent is to communicate with their child, practice parenting skills, and prepare for reunification.
Communicate with Biological Parents. This is sometimes tough because biological parents are sometimes aggressive or jealous toward the foster parents. But other times, the relationship is positive. Either way, communication is needed, either through a simple journal book, emails, text, or phone calls, the biological parents need updates on the progress of their child. If the relationship has deteriorated, communication can always be completed through a third party, as in the social worker or the attorney.
Communicate with Social Workers. The state social worker always has information no one else is privy to. Communication with them is vital. This is sometimes a barrier because they are sometimes difficult to get in touch with. But emails to the assigned worker and their supervisor usually get a timely response. They need to know the progress of the child and any concerns with the biological parents.
Do not speak ill of biological parents in front of the child, regardless of the situation. This sends a message that you do not like their parents and, by extension, do not like them. The child already is unsure as to who to be loyal to. Don’t add fuel to the fire by causing them to dislike their parents. Remember, little ears are everywhere! And they often repeat what they have heard!
Foster care reunification was hard. It was bittersweet. I know this from experience. Becoming attached to a little one for two years, preparing for adoption, and then only to see her ultimately return home was gut-wrenching. However, what kept me going was my faith and the knowledge that the attachment was more for her benefit than mine. And that the care and unconditional love we showed her was something that she will remember for the rest of her life!