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September/October 2001Vol. 2, No. 5Study Probes Outcomes of Reunification

A new study finds that children returned to their biological families after foster care fare less well than counterparts who do not return to their biological families.

The study, published in the July 2001 issue of Pediatrics, was conducted by the Kempe Children's Center at the University of Colorado and the School of Social Work at San Diego State University. The researchers compared children who have been reunified with their biological families after foster care with children who have not been reunified. The study represents the first attempt to systematically compare the behavioral and emotional functioning of the two groups, controlling for symptoms at entry to foster care.

The 6-year study involved a total of 149 children in San Diego, California. Researchers found less favorable outcomes for reunified children in a number of areas: self-destructive behavior, substance use, legal difficulties, school dropout rate, low grades, internalizing behaviors, and overall behavior problems. There were no statistically significant differences between the groups on delinquency, sexual behaviors, pregnancy, suspensions, or externalizing behaviors.

The results of the study raises questions about the benefits of reunification and the aftereffects of foster care. The authors do not refute the value of reunification but call for additional research. "The study's findings strongly caution us against presuming that children who return to live with their birth parents have achieved positive outcomes," write the researchers. "Although the current study has its limitations, the effects are consistent across different domains, and should give pause to those pressing for prompt reunification."

The researchers also urge child welfare professionals to listen to the "voice of youth" in determining what is in their best interest. Previous studies have reported that current and former foster children have reported positive feelings about being placed in foster care, even though many missed their biological families and had suggestions for improvement of the foster care system.

Access a copy of the Pediatrics article (Vol. 108, No. 1, July 2001) online at: