Saturday, May 06, 2006

Risks of Reunification

In many schools of science, there is an obvious "pendulum swing" from one extreme to another. Regarding foster care, despite the change in focus between 1980 and 1997, the focus on "family preservation" is still dominent -- despite the risks of reunification and frequency of reentry into the foster care system.

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 required states to make reasonable efforts to keep children in the home. If the child must be removed, this law also prioritized returning foster children to their family of origin if at all possible. The assumption was that it would harm a child developmentally if that child lacked contact with his or her biological family.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 addressed many of the risks and concerns about reunification efforts, such as:

-How long should a child remain in limbo before finally getting a stable, permanent placement?
-If the parent continues to abuse substances and/or children, why not just terminate custody?

Section 101 of 1997 Act states that: "Efforts to preserve and reunify the family shall not include certain parents if they pose a serious risk to the child's health and safety."

Despite the change in focus between those two Acts, American legal and social services continue to uphold the value of preserving and reunifying families whenever possible.

Reunification is not a panacea to the foster care problem.
Just as removing a child from the home can create trauma and emotional disturbance, so too can returning the child to their biological family. Studies indicate that foster children who have been reunified with their biological parents often regress in terms of behavioral functioning.

After being reunified, foster children are at-risk for:
-Higher levels of family dysfunction
-Significantly greater behavior problems than foster youth who are not reunified
-Exposure to violence, poor family functioning and lower levels of social support
-Decrease in monitoring children after they exited foster care
-Less likely to receive mental health services
-Higher risk of re-entry to foster care system
-Greater number of foster placements and placement changes than foster youth who are not reunified

Quote: "Reunification prior to age 4 is associated with children being exposed to more adverse life events by age 6, including exposure to elevated family dysfunction, instability and harm" (Lau).

Berliner, L. Is family preservation in the best interest of children? Journal of Interpersonal Violence 8, (1993): p556(2)

Gelles, R. Family reunification/family preservation: Are children really being protected? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, (1993): p557(5)

Lau, A., et all. Going home: the complex effects of reunification on internalizing problems among children in foster care. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 31.4 (Aug. 2003): p345 (14)

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When I first started caring for my great-grandchildren, I opted for guardianship instead of foster care (I had a choice here in CA) just so no one could arbitrarily "reunite".
When I was a child advocate in Arizona, the caseworker I worked with in one case literally seemed like she was spoom feeding one bio family their reunification efforts. The statute of limitations in Arizona for bioparents to get their act together is 18 months. For this child, it had been 22-23 months, and the court was completely ignoring the statute of limitations. It was so frustrating.
It's a real problem, because the system is pressuring social workers to reunify...

-Perhaps to save money?
-Perhaps out of a sense of idealism?
-Perhaps just to get the sense that the case is "finished?"

Yet, so many times the problems remain unresolved. The child is removed and then returned to an abusive home. What has the child learned?

-Not to trust?
-Not to tell?
-Not to connect?

I really worry about this... It's not that I think it's impossible for a parent to get his or her act together.

I just think that it's improbable for many abusive parents to do so...
I just got a chance to visit your blog. Interesting stuff here. Very informative.
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