by Sweetiele Moon
Annual data from the federal government reveals only 49% of foster children are reunited with their families.
As a former foster youth my family has experienced many difficulties post-reunification. Unfortunately, stories like mine are seldom heard because no one wants to talk about what happens after reunification. We often hear about the barriers to reunification and the failures, usually involving those never reunited with their families like me.
Oftentimes child welfare leaders believe there are two possible outcomes for youth who enter the foster care system and just one is successful. Adoption is considered the success, while aging out is the other option. We don’t hear reunification stories unless the child dies and then those stories are shared as examples of why reunification shouldn’t happen and instead argue the child should have been adopted.
But there are important challenges I believe caseworkers and foster parents should consider with respect to reunification.
- Transition to reunification. Transitions were very stressful. First, there were weekly supervised home visits, followed by strict weekend visits. The back and forth between my family and foster care was difficult, stressful and exhausting. There should be a shorter, clear cut transition period. Children should be told upon placement that reunification is the goal, with one or two home visits — at max — before officially returning home. Transitions can also be made easier by resource families if they form a relationship with the bio family by reaching out and introducing themselves. Caseworkers can make the transition easier by scheduling visits at the zoo, the library, McDonalds, or even at the first families’ house. Finally, supervised visits are extremely stressful. To make them less so, foster parents should talk more about reunification as the date nears.
- Returning home is hard. After almost four years spent in foster care, I was headed home. I had so many emotions living at home again and I wasn’t the same kid I was before removal. It was chaos both emotionally and physically for me because my relationships with my siblings and my family were no longer the same. Trust had been broken. Chaos and grief was everywhere. Was I glad to be home? Yes. I had things I was familiar with. I had my family back but we didn’t act like a family. Break a vase and you can never fully put it back together. If you look closely, you’ll still see the cracks. People are like that too when the bonds between parent and child and parent and siblings are broken. All these years later, the cracks in my family still show and may never heal; the consequences we endure of being ripped away from one another. Taking kids away from their families and putting them back together and believing everything is fine is wishful thinking because people don’t work like that. As a child, being removed from your family is a scary traumatic experience that can affect you the rest of your life. Some think because the child was removed from an awful situation, they should be grateful. No child is going to be grateful for losing their biological family. Kids adapt, accept and survive the circumstances they were born into. Some would willingly stay with their parents because they don’t see their situation as bad. But, kids shouldn’t be removed unless their lives are at risk. All these years later and I still remember feeling scared and powerless the day I was taken away and no one could stop those feelings because my sense of security was violated. I still don’t feel safe or secure. I don’t think there’s anything you can do to stop these feelings, except get a good therapist. Reunification forces you to rebuild from scratch what was lost. Sometimes, it can’t be done.
- Services disappear. When a child is reunited with their family, many of the services and supports foster care provides vanish, things like Medicaid, daycare, therapy, WIC, and clothing vouchers. In my case, because I was not at home, all the benefits my family received when I entered care disappeared, except for housing. It was still hard and when I returned home, my family had to reapply for and be approved for benefits all over again. For families, things like respite care don’t exist when they need a break or are having a hard time. There’s no one to call if they or their child is struggling. It is easier for resource families to have services for the child, like physical or occupational therapy, mental health services, WIC and daycare coordinated by the caseworker or agency but once reunification occurs, parents must do this on their own; something they may not qualify for or can’t commit to. Before reunification occurs, caseworkers should ensure parents can access whatever public benefits were lost when a child is removed. Lastly, in-home therapy should be available for parents unable to make therapy appointments or who may be uncomfortable in a doctor’s office.
- Reunification can bring up some hard feelings. Sometimes the child might not want to be reunited because they are scared of or are angry with their parents and blame them for the separation. A child may also resist reunification because they’re comfortable and can be a kid or have access to things like food, a safe environment or even a room of their own. These are normal and natural feelings and should be heard and validated. That’s why forming a relationship is important. Foster parents should not speak badly about a child’s family or about reunification. Children internalize ‘bad’ speak, whether or not it applies to them. Kids aren’t able to explain their feelings and may act out. That’s why adults need to listen and help them navigate their feelings. CPS classes should be updated or added to include sections on trauma, grief, and reunification, especially for foster parents, professionals and parents.
- Things are tough at home after reunification. After returning home, things weren’t easy. My siblings and I fought. I ran away, was disrespectful and hated everything. How do parents deal with this? How do they ask for help? They don’t ask for help so they struggle. In my case, my family gave us whatever we wanted, didn’t have boundaries (I’d come home at 3 a.m.) and didn’t discipline us out of fear CPS would return. And CPS never offered to help my parents learn how to parent post-reunification. CPS doesn’t tell the parents their child isn’t the same child before foster care or that their family will never be the same. Case plans and parenting classes seem like a waste of time and an added burden on already stressed parents. Support groups with other parents who’ve had their children removed should be offered, as well as support systems for dealing with addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and mental health concerns.
- The shame of removal. Foster parents should be mindful that for some, there is shame attached to having your children removed, which is why many families don’t talk about it. Two years after I came home my mom threatened to kick me out if I ever spoke about foster care again. No one in my family talks about it; not the pain nor the trauma. It’s been well over 10 years and it’s never been acknowledged, we all just act as if it never happened. But not acknowledging it doesn’t help me deal with the painful feelings I have about foster care. Instead, I deal with my feelings on my own. I think it would ruin my family if they really knew what happened to me in foster care; it’s a secret I’ll take to the grave. We’ve already been through enough pain and trauma and I don’t need to add more. Even though I’m usually the only reunited youth, I’m grateful for connecting with other former foster youth because I know I’m not alone. Unfortunately, I still don’t know how to navigate these feelings and not hurt my family in the process.
- Time can’t be made up. The time I spent in foster care, I will never back. I’m glad I was reunited but sometimes I feel my experiences don’t matter because I was reunited and don’t recognize that I still struggled. I’m grateful I have a loving family who didn’t give up. However, I feel so out of place because people think reunification is this big, happy, wonderful ending. And it’s not. It is hard. It’s stressful. We had to learn how to be a family again. When CPS took us away, my sense of self and security were taken away and there was nothing my family could do to stop it. Later I worried CPS would come again and I didn’t trust my family to protect me. My family felt helpless and guilty too.
- Foster parents should understand they represent trauma. The parents didn’t choose you and neither did their children choose where they end up. If a parent chooses to maintain contact with you after reunification, it can be a great thing which is why building a relationship prior to reunification is crucial. However, if a family chooses not to stay in touch, remember what you represent and that many families just want to move on with their lives. They don’t trust the system that took away their kid so how can they trust you when you’re part of the system? Additionally, hearing your child call someone else mommy and daddy when a parent is at their lowest is hard. It’s important to give parents time to learn how to parent again after being told they were so terrible, they couldn’t even be trusted with their own kid and that their visits must be supervised. Finally, children must learn to trust again. It’s not an easy thing. The best thing foster parents can do is build a relationship, offer your contact information, and try to support the family during reunification.
Reunification is more successful and easier if foster parents and parents form a relationship. Kids aren’t dumb; they know. If parents don’t want to stay in touch, accept their decision. If you’re a good foster parent, you provided care during a difficult time. While one chapter has closed, there is a new one just ahead and another child will need the temporary care you can offer. Foster parents and caseworkers will never understand what it’s like to lose your child and have them removed. This is why CPS should hire former foster youth like myself to educate the “professionals.” It’s not impossible to find former foster youth who were reunified with their family. We are out there and we want our stories to be heard.
Here are a few tips to help foster parents maintain contact with their foster children post-reunification.
- If you feel CPS isn’t doing what they need to do for the parent, speak up. If a parent needs services and CPS is playing games, advocate on their behalf.
- Send pictures and videos at visits.
- Meet the parents at least once prior to reunification and tell CPS you would like to contact parents. Even if it’s just a hello or an update about their children.
- Respect the family’s privacy.
- Respect where the family is coming and the feelings they’re feeling.
Sweetiele Moon is a former foster youth who shares about her experiences at https://bit.ly/3vHUnfp.