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Reunification: Bringing Your Children Home from Foster CarePosted Date: 06/08/2017
By: Beki Dunagan, DCFS Assistant Director
June is National Reunification Month. As part of our focus on reunifying families when safe and appropriate, we thought we would offer some insight into what reunification really means and address some common questions people may have about how reunification occurs and why we focus so hard on strengthening families to help in that process.
“When can my children come home?”
This is the first question many parents ask when their children are placed in foster care with the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ Division of Children and Family Services, or DCFS. When children are placed in foster care, it can be very stressful for everyone in the family. Parents may feel angry, overwhelmed, or worried about their children’s safety and well-being. The children may be confused and scared. But foster care is not forever. Children can and do return home to their families. In fact, this is the most common outcome. Here in Arkansas, nearly 70% of all children who exit foster care go home to either their parents or to a relative.
Reunification -- which means getting the family safely back together after the child has been placed in foster care -- is almost always the first goal and in the child’s best interest. Being involved with the foster care system can provide a family with support and afford an opportunity to grow and develop a closer bond than before. By fully participating in the case plan and the services it includes, parents can strengthen their skills to become the best parent that they can be for their children.
“What Can I Expect While My Children Are in Foster Care?”
The goal of the foster care system is to ensure children’s safety and well-being. To do so, DCFS will provide a safe, temporary place for children to live and will work with the family to develop a case plan. Before children can come home, DCFS and the court must be certain that parents can keep their children safe, that they can meet their children’s needs and that they are prepared to be parents. The caseworker will work with parents to develop a case plan to help the family meet these goals. This plan is the road map for reunification and it will spell out exactly what needs to be done and learned in order to bring and keep the children home. A case plan is not just about “checking boxes” to get children home. The goal is to create a stronger and healthier family.
“What Can I Do to Help My Children Come Home?”
While children are in foster care, it is important for parents to fully understand why they are there and to participate in the case plan to make the family home safe for their return. Visiting children while they are in foster care has many benefits. Most importantly, it helps to preserve and strengthen the parent/child bond while separated. Regular visits also can soothe children’s fears and worries by showing them that parents care about their well-being and will be a constant, valuable presence in their lives. It also shows the agency that parents are committed to their child. Also, a parent’s experience with the foster care system will include many different people. Some of these are the caseworker, foster parents, agency attorney, child’s attorney, Court Appointed Special Advocate and so on. Working well with each of these members of the team will improve the chances of bringing children safely home.
“What Will Happen as Reunification Gets Closer?”
One of the best indicators that parents are getting closer to bringing their children home will be their visits with them. Moving from supervised to unsupervised visits and receiving longer visits – overnight, weekend, or more – are good signs that the family’s case is progressing. At some point, the children may come home for a “trial home visit.” This means that they live at home on a trial basis, but the agency still maintains legal custody for a period of time.
“What Can I Expect After My Children Come Home?”
When parents have completed their case plan goals, DCFS and the court are certain that parents can keep their children safe, and the family has shown that the trial visit was positive, the court will order that the children be officially and legally reunified with the parents. After reunification, DCFS may keep the case open for a while. Our goal is to make sure that the children are safe and the family has what it needs to continue to move forward on a positive path. During this time, we may continue to provide services – sometimes referred to as in-home, protective, or post-reunification services – to help the family. This might include consistent monitoring and community-based services such as child care or counseling. These services are intended to support the family and help maintain the progress made. Normally, the case will close after the family has shown for a sufficient amount of time that it can maintain the children’s safety and has displayed an overall ability to move forward on its own.
Parents may also consider using their experience to help others. The support, guidance, and encouragement from someone who has been through the process could make a world of difference. In that role, parents can encourage others and show them, “If I can do it, you can too!”
(Reproduced in part from Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Reunification: Bringing Your Children Home From Foster Care” fact sheet, May 2016. Available online at https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/reunification/.)