A currently prevailing concept in child social welfare that dictates caseworkers should do whatever is necessary to return a child to the biological home when the child or children were removed by the state due to abuse, neglect or abandonment.
It is presumed that the biological home is the best home for a child and that the biological parents can and should be rehabilitated from whatever caused them to abuse, neglect or abandon the child, whether causal factors were drug or alcohol abuse, psychiatric problems, homelessness or a combination of these and other factors.
It should be noted that most children actually wish to be reunited with their biological families, even when they have been abused or neglected. This does not mean such a reunification is in the child's best interest, and caseworkers must make a determination and recommendation to the court, which will make the final decision.
While a child is in foster care, social workers attempt to arrange visits with the biological parent. If the parent appears to show improvement, caseworkers may arrange weekend visitations with the parents, and if these visits appear to go well, the child may be returned to the home. It is likely, however, that a child who enters the foster care system will remain in care for at least several months.
Although social workers are supposed to monitor parental progress to ensure children are not returned to abusive homes, severe errors occur, and sometimes children die at the hands of their abusive parents.
Sometimes it is not clear why a child is not returned to his birthparents, and sometimes it is unclear why he is returned. Experts recommend children be returned to their parents if the parents can properly care for the children; however, there should be clearcut evidence that the parents do have the capability to care for the children and are no longer drug or alcohol dependent or abusive or no longer have the problem that led to the child's removal from the family.
According to experts, the problem with the reunification concept is not the concept itself but the amount of time allowed to elapse before it is determined that reunification cannot occur or is not in the best interests of the child.
A major problem in the 1980s and 1990s was that many children who entered the foster care system were not legally adopted for years. Although two or three years may not seem like much time to an adult, to a six-year-old child this time span represents a significant portion of a child's life.
A child who enters the foster care system as an infant or toddler will usually become attached to the foster parents. It is very painful for the child to leave the people who are his psychological parents and return to his birthparents.
In addition, the older the child becomes, the more difficult it is to place the child in an adoptive home. Also, if the child has been in numerous foster homes, she may also have acquired a host of emotional problems as well, thus making her more difficult to adopt.
Because reunification was seen as the best solution for a foster child, adoption was perceived as the next best solution. "Permanency" is the stated goal for all children, whether through returning to their families or relatives or being placed in an adoptive family. The reality, however, is that thousands of children languish in foster homes and group homes.
Experts argue that these children who are victimized today by repeated moves will become the juvenile delinquents and criminals of tomorrow. As a result of concern over children who were warehoused in the foster care system for years, in 1997 Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act to enable children to be adopted. (See also ADOPTION AND SAFE FAMILIES ACT; ADOPTION ASSISTANCE AND CHILD WELFARE ACT OF 1980; FOSTER CARE; FOSTER PARENTS; PERMANENCY PLANNING; TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS.)
Andrew Stein, "Paradise Lost: How Foster-Care Children Are Being Removed From Loving Homes." New York Magazine, October 1989.
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©2000 by Christine Adamec and William Pierce, Ph.D. Reprinted from The Encyclopedia of Adoption, 2nd Edition (2nd Edition) with permission of Facts On File, Inc.