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June 2021Vol. 22, No. 6What Factors Support Family Reunification?

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

"My children were taken into foster care in 2015-it was very hard and scary. A lot of court visits and programs to complete. I didn't have a very good attitude at the beginning. I was really angry that my kids were in care. During this time, I thought I would never have my kids home again. My social worker really had a level head. He helped me get things in focus. The programs helped me to be a better parent to handle problems and work through them."-Kile, father of five children

"I felt hopeless and helpless when my son was removed from my home. I was angry at the worker at the time and myself because I could not help my son. Even though I knew he was with my sister, I was angry at her because I felt she was taking my son away from me. I was very confused and sad. Ms. Soraya became my worker. She helped me see my situation another way. She was kind and compassionate to me and showed me respect. She actually taught me how to control my anger."-Joselyn, mother of one child

These are the words of parents who, after hard and difficult work, were eventually reunited with their children (Capacity Building Center for States, 2019). How did they persevere to build the necessary protective capacities so their children could return to their homes? Foster care became an opportunity to provide the support they needed for reunification. They had family who stepped up to become kinship caregivers to their children and who supported frequent visits. Both had a team of child welfare professionals who believed in them, encouraged them, and worked patiently to build trusting relationships. Families who are supported by collaborative teams are more likely to be successful in reunification (Geiger et al., 2017). The trusting relationships between caseworkers, service providers, and families helped both families participate in developing a plan for reunification and engage in a variety of services meeting their individual needs.

Services to Support Successful Reunification

Many factors affect whether children in foster care are reunified with their families and do not need to reenter foster care. The following are examples of interventions and practices that support successful reunification (National Quality Improvement Center on Family-Centered Reunification, 2021):

  • Regular and quality visits with parents and siblings
  • Comprehensive family assessments
  • Meaningful inclusion of family and youth in planning and decision-making
  • Competent legal representation for parents
  • Services and support for parents
  • Permanency services after exit
  • Parent support partners and mentors

One example of these strategies in practice is Washington State's Parents for Parents Program (P4P), which is coordinated through the Children's Home Society of Washington. P4P connects parents new to the child welfare system with parent mentors who have successfully navigated the system. The parent mentors provide support and encouragement and help parents understand what they must do to reunite with their children. The parents can participate in a 2-hour educational class as well as ongoing support classes. Compared with nonparticipants, parents who participated in classes and mentoring were significantly more engaged in services, more successful reunifying with their children, and less likely to have their parental rights terminated (Child Welfare Capacity Building Center for Courts, 2020). For more information on designing and implementing similar programs, see the Parent Partner Program Navigator.

A Comprehensive Child and Family Well-Being System

Child welfare agencies are shifting focus as they recognize that, for families where maltreatment has occurred, tertiary services must be part of a larger, comprehensive child and family well-being system that supports and strengthens families across a three-tiered prevention continuum:

  • Primary or universal services available to all families
  • Secondary services targeted at families with one or more risk factors that make them more vulnerable to child maltreatment
  • Tertiary services for families where maltreatment has occurred, with the goal of preventing recurrence of maltreatment

Agencies are more likely to achieve positive outcomes for children and families when they partner with other agencies, private foundations, community organizations, courts, families, and youth to strengthen families, prevent maltreatment, and reduce the unnecessary removal of children from their families. Partners can rely on each other's expertise to identify and fill service gaps, maximize funding streams, and provide seamless service delivery for families. Working together, leaders and staff within these organizations can implement solutions across the continuum and move from a traditionally siloed system focused on crisis intervention to a more integrated and equitable system that empowers and strengthens all families (Capacity Building Center for States, 2021).

Additional Resources

The following Capacity Building Center for States resources provide additional reunification and prevention information and family stories:


Child Welfare Capacity Building Center for Courts. (2020). Outcome evaluation report for Washington state's Parents for Parents program. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau.

Capacity Building Center for States. (2019). Family mosaic discussion guide and video series. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau.

Capacity Building Center for States. (2021). Working across the prevention continuum to strengthen families. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau.

Geiger, J., Piel, M., & Julien-Chinn, F. (2017). Improving relationships in child welfare practice: Perspectives of foster care providers. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 34, 23-33.

National Quality Improvement Center on Family-Centered Reunification. (2021). Family-centered reunification in child welfare: A review of best practices. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau.