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Social Work Today
E-Newsletter    July 2023
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Editor's E-Note

Reuniting children and adolescents with their families is a key goal of foster care, but it’s one that’s not always met or that may be achieved with difficulty. Contributor Sue Coyle writes about the obstacles to reunification.

We welcome your comments at SWTeditor@gvpub.com. Visit our website at www.SocialWorkToday.com, like our Facebook page, and follow us on Twitter.

— Kate Jackson, editor
In This E-Newsletter
E-News Exclusive

Foster Care: Barriers to Reunification

By Sue Coyle, MSW

Billed as the number one goal of foster care, reunification when safe and appropriate can be challenging to achieve.

More than 200,000 children entered foster care in 2021, putting the number of youth living in foster care that year at nearly 400,000. For each one of those children, the primary goal of foster care is to give them a safe place to stay until they can be reunified with their parents or primary caretaker of origin. Living with a relative in kinship care, being adopted, or finding an alternative permanent placement is secondary to the goal of reunification. And in fact, reunification occurs more frequently than many assume. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that in 2021, 47% of youth exiting foster care reunited with their parent or primary caretaker.

“It’s the most achieved goal,” says Chauncey Strong, MSW, executive director of Strong Training and Consulting. Strong has been working in welfare for 30 years, in both the public and private sectors. He is an advocate for reunification and believes it should be supported and celebrated. He adds that there are many young people who return home within a few days of being placed in foster care. Others are reunified within 12 months. But the longer a young person is in foster care, the less likely reunification becomes. “If the child remains in foster care for 15 out of 22 months, in most cases, the law requires the child welfare agency to ask the court to terminate parental rights,” according to the Children’s Bureau Family Fact Sheet “Reunification: Bringing Your Children Home from Foster Care.”

Similarly, the older a child is at the time of placement, the harder reunification becomes, says Strong, clarifying that a young person aging out of care and then returning to their parent or guardian does not qualify as legal reunification.

Length of stay and age at placement, however, are not the reasons reunification may not occur. Rather, they are an indication of the many barriers that exist in achieving this goal. “Part of it,” says Strong, reflecting on the correlation between age and reunification, “is by the time they actually get to their teen years, it [chronic neglect, abuse, behavioral issues, and more] has been going on for so long, they can’t actually go back to where they were removed.”

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