This Reunification Month, Let’s Commit to Parents’ Priorities for Reuniting Families

Originally published by Rise in the Children’s Bureau Express

This June, we are celebrating Reunification Month against the backdrop of COVID-19. Many in-person visits have been suspended, services have shuttered and courts remain closed, creating additional barriers to reunification. 

It always requires extraordinary stamina, resilience and hope for parents to believe that the system that separated their family will allow them to reunite. This year, parents face higher stress and uncertainty, losses and pain. 

Now it’s even more important to replace the current dynamics of child welfare interventions—threat, coercion, punishment, and lack of privacy and self-determination—with approaches that strengthen parents’ power. 

Rise sees four crucial investments to achieve that:

1. Connect parents with a parent advocate to assist and support them from the start to the end of a case. 

The sudden loss of a child is an experience of grief, terror, disorientation, shame and loss of identity. Parents say they feel alone—and that parent advocates are there for them. Parents need to be reassured that their children are safe and their own psychological safety must be addressed before they can plan and nurture their children despite separation. Parent advocates with lived experience facing the system model that reunification is possible. 

Evaluations of the impact of parent advocates in New York City have found that outcomes improve for families assisted by parent advocates. A report on the NYC Administration for Children’s Services Parent Advocate Initiative stated: “Advocates were praised for comforting, encouraging, and empowering families and instilling hope. Their guidance and advice in navigating the child welfare system was invaluable.” 

All child welfare and legal agencies should employ life-experienced parent advocates to make the road to reunification smoother and shorter. In addition, community organizations should employ parent advocates to provide confidential peer support to parents in crisis and connect parents to resources to prevent unnecessary system involvement. 

2. Support self-determination by offering parents information and choices. 

A constant theme at Rise is that parents want to be heard, not fixed. Parents want support in making decisions about what can help their families, not a system that makes decisions for them. Often, parents experience a total loss of control over their family lives when child welfare gets involved, undermining reunification. Trauma expert Judith Herman explains, “The first principle of recovery is empowerment of the survivor…No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.” 

Parents’ powerlessness in child welfare is exacerbated by the lack of information about their rights, options, common challenges, and how other parents achieved success. If parents have more information about services, they can make choices about what service fits their families’ needs. This will enhance the chance of the parent sticking with and benefiting from services—and ensure that parents are equipped to resolve family challenges in the future.

3. Build parents’ power in child welfare policymaking and decision-making.

When child welfare systems are considering new policies and practices, it’s important to ask for parents’ perspectives and act on them. Parents and youth impacted by systems can provide important and counterintuitive insight into child welfare policy and practice design. 

At the same time, research shows that ideas outside of a groups’ norms are not easily heard.  Constituents who felt powerless facing the system and may have little professional experience are even less likely to be heard. Creating solutions together is not about “voice;” systems must work with parents in a way that builds their knowledge, depth of involvement and authority so parents have real power in policymaking and decision-making. Collaborating with parent-led organizations, including parent advocates in executive teams and hiring parents in leadership positions will bring change.

4. Reduce system involvement by targeting community conditions, not families. 

Children are harmed not only by abuse and neglect but also by racism and injustice. Foster care is part of America’s long history of separating and punishing African-American, Native-American, immigrant and poor families. The imprint of slavery and genocide is transparent; child welfare systems today operate primarily in low-income communities of color impacted by historical trauma and marked by disinvestment in public institutions, services, resources and legal protections that support family stability. Intentionally or not, child welfare systems punish individuals for societal conditions. 

Everyone working in child welfare must reckon with this legacy. Immediately, we must train school personnel, doctors and other mandated reporters to refer struggling families to community supports instead of making unnecessary hotline reports. More broadly, we must invest in meeting families’ economic, social and justice needs so that far fewer families ever face that knock on the door from child welfare.

In New York City, Rise is working from this agenda. Rise advocates for parent advocates at the frontlines and in leadership. We support self-determination through our TIPS handouts on visits and service planning, which acknowledge trauma and stress, explain parents’ legal rights, and share wisdom from parents who got their children home. Through our reunification collaborative, we work with six foster care agencies to implement parents’ concepts for frontline practice improvement. They have created one-on-one orientations, usually held by a parent advocate, to provide information and peer support to parents immediately after separation. With fewer than one-third of New York City families reunifying within a year, these investments are urgent.

In the coming year, we’ll hold community forums for parents to develop an agenda for community investment to strengthen families. As our country reckons with the unequal devastation of COVID-19, we recognize that inequity in health, economic stability, education access and exposure to stress are rooted in slavery and reflect failing social structures. Child welfare is one of those social structures. Rather than spend money on therapeutic interventions to help families cope with oppressive conditions, we need to invest in creating conditions that allow families to thrive.

We celebrate Reunification Month by honoring every parent seeking and achieving reunification. We see you. We’re with you. Don’t give up. 

We also celebrate parents and allies holding the courage to face history, the hope to imagine a different future and the perseverance to transform our society. We hope you will be part of this urgently-needed reckoning and will join with parents to build a more just and caring future for families. 

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