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June 2020Vol. 21, No. 5Celebrating Reunification Starts With Understanding What Keeps Families Together

Written by Written by Jey Rajaraman, chief counsel, Legal Services of New Jersey, Edison, NJ  

Nationally, 437,283 children entered foster care in 2018. The case plan goal was reunification for 56 percent of the cases opened. In New Jersey, approximately 50 percent of children that enter foster care will be reunified with their parents. Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ) has a vision that more families will be reunified and even avoid removal in the first place, if underlying causes of removal are aggressively addressed by a child welfare system that is unified in that purpose.

More than 10 years ago, before the American Bar Association's National Reunification Month was created, family reunifications were rarely discussed in conferences, nor were they celebrated by the child welfare community. There was an air of hopelessness and pessimism about the ability of families to successfully reunify. When LSNJ started celebrating reunifications of families at Family Reunification Day a decade ago, we learned that the majority of parents can ably parent their children both in the short and long term and children thrive when they are with their parents if families have strong agency support and access to resources. As a result of that realization, we started to focus on what was needed to expedite and increase reunifications for children and parents. We started to dig deeper and ask, "What took so long to reunify this family?", "Why were family visits supervised?", and "Why was the lack of stable housing a reason to delay the return of a child to his mother?" We attempted to answer these questions and confront these barriers at Reunification Day events while celebrating incredible parents and their stories. Since then, we have honored close to 100 reunited families, and there have been no subsequent removals in those families.

At our annual celebratory event, parents are given the opportunity to speak to a large audience—over 200 attendees—representing a cross-section of the state's child welfare community. Parents have spoken about how they never thought their children would be returned to them until there was that one caseworker or lawyer or judge who changed their lives and made all the difference in their case because they listened to them and believed reunification was possible; They spoke about how that one caseworker said to them, "You're going to get your child back." We strived and challenged ourselves to learn how to convince more people to believe that reunified parents would succeed in raising their children.

Our first year, we honored a mother who was incarcerated for almost 2 years before prevailing at her termination trial. She now owns her own business, and her two daughters are attending college. We honored another mother who had her rights terminated to five children prior to having her youngest son removed and then returned to her after 2 years of separation. The only reason she was given for those years apart from her son was the previous terminations. Her son is now in high school and is on the chess team. We have honored fathers who were notified of their child's removal 6 months into the case. It has been widely believed that a single father cannot handle raising a child on their own, but we learned that indeed they can and that children thrive while living with their single fathers.

Equally tragic, when we reviewed successful reunifications, we soon learned that most removals and agency-involved interventions arise not as a result of abuse or neglect of the children. Rather, they occur because of poverty, particularly the inability to access stable housing. We therefore turned our attention to stabilizing the large number of families involved with the agency who were at risk of removal in order to prevent them from getting to the stage of removal. We soon realized that the same agency responses could be used to keep families together and to successfully reunite families. Those responses include assisting families with access to stable housing and providing substance use and mental treatment programs. 

We turned our focus toward trying to answer the question: "How do we support families to help them remain together, notwithstanding their poverty?" After 8 years of celebrating the reunification of parents and their children on Family Reunification Day, LSNJ renamed the event Family Unification Day, in order to emphasize the overriding imperative of preventing poverty-driven removals, with their attendant trauma to children and parents, alike, and to acknowledge the great work that parents do to keep their families intact while continuing to recognize the parents who rebuild their lives to bring their children back home. In the spirit of supporting family unification, the celebration was centered on the theme of prioritizing families and focusing on primary prevention. We honored 11 mothers who recounted their lifelong struggles with housing insecurity, poverty, mental health issues, domestic violence, and substance use but also how their children motivated them to overcome these seemingly insurmountable problems. One mother, Jessica, said that she "cried a river and a half" during the termination litigation but felt motivated by her children and her attorney to better herself and win her case. Another mother, Xiomara, who was poignantly reunited with her children shortly before Christmas 2017, thanked God for allowing her to receive the gift of reunification. And yet another mother, Kisha, deemed Family Unification Day a commemoration of growth, joy, and new beginnings for herself and for her family. These mothers were able to successfully reunite with their children because they were supported by their caseworkers, had access to housing, and received immediate therapeutic services for both themselves and their children.

The most recent phase of our campaign to prevent family removals involves collaborating with the child welfare agency beginning in 2018. LSNJ started receiving direct referrals from agency caseworkers and attorneys on behalf of families needing legal assistance and advice in the prepetition stage. Issues vary by case, but some of the most common concerns for families include access to public benefits, affordable housing, and special education. LSNJ uses a multidisciplinary model to provide strengths-based and holistic support of family needs. Since August 2018, the child welfare agency referred more than 130 parents for assistance. Over 200 children have remained with their families.  During that time, no removals occurred for LSNJ clients.

As New Jersey and the rest of the country look to celebrate families this upcoming June during Reunification Month under the shroud of  COVID-19, we must be mindful that families are  facing increased challenges in staying together due to loss of employment and ability to pay rent. Postremoval, parents are being denied essential physical contact with their children through visitation and are struggling with accessing resources and services because welfare offices are closed and therapeutic providers do no provide teletherapy. As we celebrate families this June, both unified and reunified, we must resolve to take bold new steps to avoid separating poverty-affected families in the first place. Especially during this extraordinary time, agencies must develop a rapid-response plan to meet the needs of families. Social-distancing protocols must neither inhibit nor delay reunification. Instead, to minimize trauma during a difficult time and to ensure family stability, the child welfare community must make every effort to facilitate family reunification. We must stabilize families, celebrate fewer removals, and believe as a community that these parents can provide safe homes for their children and that being home with their parents is the best possible result for children.