Reunification and Re-entry

By Scott Timmerman , Vice President Planning & Organizational Excellence, and Andrea   Banton , LSW, MSW, Intern

Factors, Characteristics, and Promising Practices Related to Reunification and Re-entry

University of California – Davis, Center for Human Services Human Services, Northern California Training Academy, May 2009

Achieving timely permanent reunification is a primary goal for the child welfare system and is stated in relationship to safety, permanency, and well being. Reunification with the child’s family of origin is the most common permanency outcome with forty nine (49) percent of the children placed in foster care ultimately reunifying (U.S. Department of health and Human Services (HHS), 2008). Many of these families exists foster care following reunification.  However, in recent years there has been a trend towards lengthier reunification timelines (Well & Guo, 1999; Wulczyn, 2004).

Time to reunification is important; the Department of Health and Human Services (2003) reported that seventy-two (72) percent of the children who ultimately reunify do so within a year of entering foster care.  For those youth who do not reunify within 12 months, the probability of reunification decreases after that point. In addition, to influencing the possibility of reunification, time in foster care also puts children at risk for multiple placements, which has been linked to developmental and behavioral problems for children.

There are some factors which contribute to reunification being more likely for families. Research shows that youth who continue to live within the same neighborhood or community, where parents can maintain consistent and frequent visits, and when services are directed at enhancing and/or improving the parent child relationship (Kimberlin, Anthony, & Austin, 2009) increase the likelihood of reunification.

Reunification does not always result in long tern safety or stability for the child. Re-entry to foster care (recidivism) is also a perpetual challenge for child welfare and foster care services. It appears the main factors contributing to re-entry into foster care are parents’ lack of knowledge, confidence, and ability to appropriately interact and support their child through the many frustrations that are typical of parenting. For some children, they are again removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect and re-entered into the foster care system. Re-entry rates for individual states range from twenty one (21) percent to thirty-eight (38) percent (Wulczyn, Hislop, & George, 2000).  Such rates of reentry are problematic in part, because children who experience numerous placement changes are found to have greater mental and behavioral challenges, academic problems, and for males, a greater likelihood of entering the juvenile justice system (Lewis et al., 2007).

One strategy argued to assist in achieving timely reunification for youth involved with child welfare services is implementing family engagement strategies (Dawson & Barry 2002). Family engagement commonly refers to a strength-based approach that is family centered and involves team-based decision making with the overarching goal of sustaining the family-child relationship (Tippett, T., Child Protection Best Practice Bulletin, 2007).  Child Family Teams and Family Group Decision Making are examples utilized within NYAP services.

One influential factor for how families may either successfully or unsuccessfully reunify is the type of out-of-home setting in which children are placed. Typically, these out-of-home placements include kinship care, residential treatment centers, group homes, and traditional foster care home (USDHHS, 2006). This is a challenging issue to test as children cannot randomly be assigned to different categories of placements which makes it difficult to detect causal relationships between placement type and permanency outcomes.

Though efforts are often made to place children with family members outside of the parental home, evidence suggests that this is not necessarily predictive of more probable or faster reunification. Courtney (1994) found that kinship care led to slower reunification and speculated that this may be because group home or non-kin foster placements may cause social workers to feel that reunification is more urgent so as to minimize the negative effects of placement.  Other research confirms that kinship providers make stronger commitments to youth they provide care to, are able to manage more challenging issues, and meet permanency objective more often that other placement options.

Similarly, Connell and colleagues (2006) found that children placed in a non-relative foster care home experienced significantly higher rates of reunification than children in relative foster homes. Thus, the type of out-of-home placement that children experience may be indirectly related to increasing permanency as healthier developmental outcomes are directly related to both achieving permanency and being placed in kinship care.

For copies of this research article, please contact Scott Timmerman  or Andrea Banton .