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June 2020Vol. 21, No. 5Reflections on 10 Years of National Reunification Month

Written by Mimi Laver, J.D., director of legal representation, American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law

Children should be raised by their parents. Children wish to be raised by their parents, and parents want to raise them. Reunification is the legally required primary permanency option. Some families need some support, but families belong together.

These truths guided the American Bar Association (ABA) Center on Children and the Law and other national partners to create National Reunification Month 10 years ago, and they are now truer than ever. In this current global health and economic crisis, many families require community support to remain intact, but without that support far too many children will suffer the trauma of separation. We must take the opportunity National Reunification Month provides to focus on returning children to their homes, celebrating those families and the people who supported them throughout the year, and working like crazy to prevent removals in the year ahead.

In 2010, the ABA knew of three places in the country that celebrated reunification: Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, one court in Iowa and one court in California. In the last 10 years, at least 29 states have celebrated. As I reflect on the lessons I've learned from overseeing National Reunification Month throughout the last decade, three themes emerge. I would like to share those and urge you to get involved.

First, the celebrations in each state are different but are all wonderful because they affirm the importance of family. In many states, governors and mayors issue proclamations declaring June as Reunification Month. This is a great way to focus attention on the importance of supporting families. Other states plan picnics and parties. Judges and other leaders give children and their families gifts at the parties and talk about the hard work the parents did to reunify. States engage all three branches of government by holding events on the state capitol grounds, having judges organize events in their courthouses and honoring staff at the child welfare agency. Some states share reunification stories with the media. In New Jersey, a committee plans a substantive program focused on areas important to reunification efforts, like housing and education. They make videos about the issues and celebrate their families. One year, Oklahoma City lit up a bridge in honor of Reunification Month. A Mississippi parents' attorney worked with the ABA and had an event to raise awareness about families involved in the child welfare system. The list goes on and on with examples of states and local communities that honor the work that is needed for families to reunify. For information about state events, and tools like sample proclamations, visit the National Reunification website.

Another lesson is that to have a culture of reunification, all stakeholders must be engaged. If a child welfare agency wants to return children to their families but other relevant decision-makers like lawyers, court-appointed special advocates, and judges don't understand the urgency and trauma associated with family separation, it will be difficult for the agency to do its work. All members of the child welfare community need to be family centered and operate from a strengths-based perspective. In jurisdictions that employ peer mentors (parents and youth alumni who have lived experience in the child welfare system), I've seen incredible strides in building a reunification-first model. These peer mentors develop authentic relationships with all the stakeholders and guide their clients through the system in a trusting way. They are valued members of the system and, in some states, key members of the legal teams representing parents and children. Another very important role in a reunification-first community is the resource parents. There are jurisdictions that have trained their foster parents to be a resource for the whole family. They view their role as integral to decreasing the trauma and stress the child and parent experience because of separation. They encourage frequent family time. They facilitate that family time.  They participate in comfort calls and icebreaker meetings. They stay involved with the family even after the child returns to the parent. The emerging practices of interdisciplinary legal representation and involving peer mentors and resource parents has grown in the last 10 years and have a true impact on reunification. There is a great deal of information about these practices on the ABA Reunification Month and Birth Parent National Network websites. 

Every year since 2015, I have had the opportunity to oversee the ABA's process of recruiting and honoring Reunification Heroes. These are people who have been nominated by their peers because of the extraordinary work they have done on reunifying parents and children. The heroes are parents and parent mentors, alumni of the system, caseworkers, child welfare agency directors, resource parents, judges, lawyers, a minister, and court-appointed special advocates. These individuals go above and beyond on behalf of families in their communities, and reading their stories is a reminder that children thrive when all members of the child welfare system believe in and act in furtherance of strengthening families.

My last, and perhaps most important lesson, is that while National Reunification Month lasts for 1 month, the hard work that families and the people who support them do happens every day, all year long. Our Reunification Heroes model this idea for us. No matter what role they play, they work tirelessly. During the current crisis, I've heard many stories of what I think of as "creative lawyering" and outside-the-box actions by parent mentors and caseworkers to get children who are out of their parents' care home. During National Reunification Month 2020, the ABA will be publishing an article written by young people who returned home. It will be called We Were the Lucky Ones. My hope is that all stakeholders, in every jurisdiction, continue to think creatively about the resources available in their communities so that children can be raised by the people who love them most and can be counted among the lucky ones.

Additional Resources

National Reunification Month website for Reunification Heroes, State Events, Tools and Resources

Family Justice Initiative for information about high-quality, interdisciplinary legal representation

Birth Parent National Network and Birth and Foster Parent Partnership