Family Reunification: Why It Matters

Friday, July 19th, 2019

Reunification refers to the reunion of children in foster care with their families after parents have shown they can provide a safe and nurturing environment. For children, timely reunification is important: brain scans of elderly adults who were separated from parents as children show structural changes in their brains that have lasted a lifetime. Families need access to quality resources to help them quickly reunite.

Is Virginia doing enough to help families reunite?

Virginia has a low rate of reunification: only 26% of kids in foster care were returned to their family compared to the national average of 50%. Children not returned to family may be adopted or age out of foster care without family. In Virginia, 19% of Virginia children age out of foster care—more than twice the national average. Many young adults who age out of foster care have difficulty creating stable lives: around 25% of former foster youth become homeless for some period, and many struggle to finish schooling and find employment.

Children in foster care eager to return to their families often do so after reaching the age of emancipation. Some are so desperate to reunite with family that they reject the opportunity to be adopted‑or to stay in foster care until age 21, losing out on supports the state provides foster youth as they transition to adulthood.

Local departments of social services are required by law to make “reasonable efforts” to reunite families, but what a does a reasonable effort look like? In Virginia, localities decide what services they’ll provide parents. Considering the fundamental constitutional right to parent one’s child and a child’s right to maintain bonds with the parents they love, what “reasonable” effort is enough?

Most children—75%—removed from their parents are removed for neglect, not abuse. Many of these “neglectful” parents are not terrible people but grew up in homes without good models of parenting, have different ideas about the age at which children can be left alone, or are struggling to make ends meet. Parents who suffer from substance use disorders often need more time to recover than the law provides (12 months).

Even when a parent recovers from substance use, it may be too late for reunification—even if their child has not been adopted. In Virginia, local agencies can file to terminate a parent’s rights even without securing an adoptive home for the child, leaving the child legally an “orphan.” (It’s possible for a parent to get their rights restored, but only if the child is age 14 or older.)

What can be done to improve Virginia’s reunification statistics?

The Family First Prevention Services Act, a federal law that changes how states can use money intended to be spent on foster care, will allow states to spend more effort on keeping families together and reunifying families, providing services for up to 15 months after a child returns home.

Local departments can start thinking now about how to better help parents reunite with children: do they consider that a parent who experienced trauma as a child may respond differently to interventions than one who has not? Are the resources they’re providing to parents resources the parents need, or just those they have on offer?

Reunification is important. Let’s do more to get Virginia families back together.

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