Why Reunification is Critical for Foster Care | Foster Parents Talk About Reunification
Last updated: July 22, 2021, at 9:25 a.m. PT
Originally published: July 21, 2021, at 2:00 p.m. PT
Foster care isn’t about saving kids from their families, it’s about providing a safe and loving temporary home for kids, with the primary goal of reuniting them with their family whenever possible. Foster parents can play a key role in family reunification and foster parents at the Y have shared some helpful insights into the challenges and rewards of this important work.
“Foster Parents can do a whole lot to help families reunite. We can be a huge barrier, or we can actually help and make reunification more possible.” – Ashleigh and Quinn
“If you’re able to have a relationship with the birth parents, you should – and it’s important to remember that as the foster parent, the onus of responsibility for being positive in that relationship is always going to be on you.” –Angie and Jen
“It’s important in your home to have pictures of their family up on the walls and to talk about them in a positive way and make sure family comes up in conversation all the time. Like, I bet your mom would be proud of you for x. Treating their family like they are part of our family, not just the kid, it’s really important – and not expecting their family to treat us like that.” – Megan
Five ways foster parents can partner with and support the child’s parents and family
We asked Y foster parents to reflect on their experiences and the responses we received gave us new insights into care and reunification efforts. Here's what they have to say:
1. Break down myths and educate the people in your life.
“I would run into [misunderstanding] with my own family and their understanding of the kid’s biological family. They’re not bad people. Usually they haven’t intentionally done something terrible but they are people who were often in foster care themselves and often never had anyone teach them how to parent - how do you do that? How do you learn that? If no one has ever shown you - I think it’s important for people to recognize that because it’s easy to just see them as the “bad guys” - And, that’s really tough too because it’s hard to have sympathy for someone who has harmed a child that you love and cared for, but it’s important to think of the bigger picture” – Angie and Jen
“Birth families are trying to survive the hardest thing—having their children taken away. I cannot imagine what that feels like. The strength it takes to keep fighting to get your kids back, to stay upright within a system set up to tabulate your failure, is incredible. I will not hesitate to share my feelings on this with anyone on the sidelines who starts to speak up with negative thoughts about birth families.” – Megan
2. Extend the empathy and patience you have for the children to their families.
“I didn’t realize that sometimes visits would be hard from the parents’ end – I think I assumed that the parents would think and react in the way that I thought that I would think and react – I knew there was the trauma work that the kids are doing, but the parents are on their own with their own trauma work, with even fewer supports than the kids a lot of the time. I didn’t realize that the parents wouldn’t just be up against the loss of their child, which is enormous, but that often also were up against addiction and poverty and mental health issues and other potentially insurmountable things.” – Megan
3. Don’t assume the way you do things will work for the child’s family; ask questions and try your best to meet them where they are at.
Meet the parents [when possible]. First of all, talk with the kids to see what home was like – what do holidays look like? What was a normal weekend like? Get a feel of that so that when you talk to the parent for the very first time you would have an idea of some things to talk about.” – Barbara
“I assumed that the best way to support parents would be to make space for them and invite them in to what we are doing – and I still think that is useful – but I learned a lot about how important it is to meet them where they are - to communicate in the way they want to communicate – and, when I can, to fit myself to their needs and desires and capacities rather than expecting them to follow my lead or my expectations.” - Megan
4. Advocate for family connection with the child’s team wherever you can.
“I don’t think there’s ever too much that you can do during a placement to build connections with a child’s biological family, including extended family. Starting from advocating very early in the case to reach out to potential kinship placements, and then from that pushing the Social Worker to allow you to connect with family as much as possible has felt important to me. Even thinking about vacations, can we go on vacation near where extended family lives? How can we use this time to build family connection? It’s not just about thinking about what does mom need to feel that bond with the kid, but what does the kid need from everyone in their family and how can I actively help build those connections. And, thinking about how can this time not be lost time for the family. I have all of these important memories and it’s my job not to hoard them.” - Megan
5. Support their return home by centering the child and speaking positively about the reunification.
“I've had several kiddos go on to reunification and others have aged out to go onto college or trade school. That makes me feel good and happy for the child.” - Sidney
“Because we love the kids who join our family, reunification is going to feel hard and sad for the foster parent. Holding that aside and turning outside for comfort and support is important – being thoughtful and careful in how you communicate that with the kid so that they don’t feel torn. It’s so important that our attachment to a child never become an obstacle to their bond with their family.” - Megan
When foster parents are able to successfully partner with the child’s family, the rewards can last a lifetime. Barbara, who has been fostering for over 30 years, still has birth parents reach out to her for guidance and support even years after the reunification. Even some of the children, who are now grown adults, will still reach out to her and consider her an extension of their family.
A Reunification Story
Many years ago Barbara fostered a young girl that was struggling to maintain placement because she would run away from her foster home. Barbara understood that the reason why she was running was important. She learned that the youth was running away to try and find her mom at various encampments. When Barbara took in this youth, she had the opportunity to meet the youth’s mom who was starting a treatment program. Barbara let the youth’s mom know why her daughter was running and said, “I promise you I will take care of your daughter and every Sunday I will have her call you.” She then asked the mother to talk with her daughter alone and tell her that she can trust Barbara and to not run from her house. Barbara shared that whatever the mother said to her daughter worked! The youth never ran from Barbara’s home and she is still close with that family today. The youth is an adult now, married with three kids of her own, and even got married in Barbara’s backyard! Barbara shared, “If the parent hadn’t worked with me, I don’t know that I could have kept her. I love working with the parents. I just want to be an extension to support them.”
Want to learn more about Reunification? Check out this resource guide from our partners at Washington Fosters or learn more about Foster Parenting at the Y.