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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.”

For reunification to occur when appropriate, action must be taken on the part of the county, as well as the caretaker. Movement or lack thereof from either side can create an obstacle to reunification. On the part of the caseworker or the county, reunification needs to be not just the documented goal but the believed in goal as well.

“There has to be a belief that the family can come back together. That’s easier said than done. If you have a worker who believes this child really shouldn’t go back home until the parent(s) does a laundry list of things, [reunification is going to be challenging],” Strong says. He adds that in some cases, the conditions for a child to be returned can be unreasonable. “Most of us would have a difficult time meeting everything listed on the case plan.”

Thus, it is not just the belief of the caseworker but also the feasibility of the action plan they create for the family and the youth that impacts the likelihood of reunification. However, emphasizes Strong, it is not the caseworker alone—the courts (judges and magistrates), child advocates, guardians ad litem, and other county-connected stakeholders can also oppose reunification, creating more obstacles.

Even when all parties within the child welfare system are actively working toward reunification, the family’s actions can make it challenging. “They have to realize ‘We have to do something different,’” Strong says. If the caretaker of origin is not open to making the necessary changes, a plan will not progress. Strong points out that parents must realize and be supported to change the behaviors and action that led to the child being removed in order for reunification to be successful.

Belief in reunification—from county representatives and family members—is not the only or biggest barrier, however. All parties can be committed to the same goal, and yet the services needed to facilitate meaningful change can fall short.

A caretaker may be struggling with their mental health, substance use, or housing, for instance. If that individual(s) cannot access the resources necessary to address any or all of their issues, they will not meet the requirements of the action plan. Particularly in areas with a dearth of mental and physical health care providers and in locations where housing costs have skyrocketed, caretakers are faced with brick walls as opposed to paths forward. Similarly, if a young person requires a level of care for their own mental health or substance use concerns that is not available in their place of origin, they cannot reasonably return home.

The solution to this overwhelming barrier is not simple. Communities need resources and the funding to maintain them. And, Strong says, the resources available cannot be solely reactive—put in place after children have already been removed from the home. They must be both preventative and collaborative. Such services not only would increase the likelihood of reunification once a child is placed in care but also could prevent the need for placement altogether.

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.