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June 2022Vol. 23, No. 5Relationships as a Support for Reunification

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

When the difficult decision is made that removal is necessary to ensure a child's safety, reunification—as quickly and safely as possible—is the primary goal. Family reunification is more likely and more successful when child welfare supports are rooted in authentic relationships and focused on building family strengths. As agencies continue striving to improve their services, it is necessary to keep this question in mind: How can agencies better support families during reunification? 

The relationship between a family and a caseworker, as well as the relationship between child welfare and other social service providers, are key components in successful reunification. Investing in these relationships can build a strong and resourced team dedicated to a family's success. The team's ability to build strong relationships based on mutual trust depends on support from agency leaders. Child welfare professionals who are trained to first focus on a family's strengths can better serve and more authentically engage families when they are rooted in a belief that, with the right support, families can grow stronger together and have better reunification outcomes. 

How Can Agencies Better Support Caseworkers and Families During Reunification?

Child welfare leaders and agencies share responsibility with the caseworker for improving a family's reunification experience. Strong relationships and mutual trust are the main pillars of successful reunification. Something as simple as returning a phone call can be the first step in a relationship based on mutual respect. Consider the following actions to help better support both caseworkers and the families they serve:

Prioritize Families and Relationship Building   

Authentic relationships between caseworkers and families take time and trust. Building rapport and leveraging family expertise require agency leadership that prioritizes families and makes it possible for caseworkers to partner with families. Consider the following questions as you work to create space for trusting relationships:
  • How would caseworkers and families describe the agency's priorities? What would need to happen for them to describe the agency culture as family focused?
  • Do caseworkers spend more time with families or on paperwork? Are there opportunities to eliminate duplication or streamline the administrative burden on caseworkers?
  • How could data sharing with other organizations ease administrative loads and help create a continuum of care for families? 
For more information about data sharing between systems to improve outcomes, refer to Facilitating Cross-System Collaboration: A Primer on Child Welfare, Alcohol and Other Drug Services, and Courts.

Dedicate Resources for Strength-Based Training and Supervision

There is an inherently uneven power dynamic between child welfare professionals and parents. Striving to mitigate that power dynamic and work in partnership can support reunification efforts. Consider the following questions as you work to bolster strength-based practice:
  • Are the majority of in-service trainings focused on information sharing or skill building? Where are opportunities to build caseworker competencies in family engagement, strength-based practice, and cultural humility? How are skills reinforced to sustain practice?
  • What skills and competencies do families identify as most needed? How are training, coaching, and supervision nurturing those skills?
  • How does the agency model strength-based practice? How are lived experts engaged as partners and decision-makers at the agency and system levels?
Agencies and Courts: Putting Families Front and Center Activity and Discussion Guide includes strategies to incorporate a family-focused, strengths-based approach to reunification training and practice. 

Maximize Community Connections

Leveraging community resources and forming partnerships with community-based organizations can ease budgetary constraints to provide extra concrete supports while providing families with more holistic support for faster and more successful reunification. Consider the following questions as you work to build out a continuum of care with community partners:
  • How are caseworkers able to connect families to the services they have identified they need? How are barriers to reunification explored with families and addressed?
  • How are children and youth connected to trauma-informed therapists, counselors, or afterschool programs?
  • What kinds of supports are in place after reunification? How can community-based organizations help ensure families thrive after child welfare intervention has ended?
Watch "National Foster Care Month: Post-Reunification Supports and Prevention of Reentry Into Out-of-Home Care" for strategies, examples, and lessons learned to promote reunification and prevent reentry.