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June 2020Vol. 21, No. 5Spotlight on National Reunification Month

This month's issue features National Reunification Month. Safe and timely reunification is the most desired outcome when children are placed in out-of-home care, and supportive partnerships between parents, caregivers, agencies, and other stakeholders are an integral part of strengthening the capacity of families and bringing children home. Read a message from Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner of the Children's Bureau, about how the child welfare system should proactively seek to strengthen, support, and celebrate families and promote safe reunification. We also feature a message from David Kelly, special assistant to the Associate Commissioner, that emphasizes the importance of recognizing the need for family, especially during trying times such as these. Also included in the issue are research, publications, and tools centering on reunification for professionals and families.

Issue Spotlight

  • A Reunification Month Message From Jerry Milner

    A Reunification Month Message From Jerry Milner

    During this most unusual June, I urge all of us to reflect on just how unusual it is for a child to be separated from his or her parents and placed in the home of a well-intentioned stranger. There are times when this is a necessary event in the life of a child and his or her parents due to an articulated danger and no known relative or kinship caretaker is available. However, even under the best of circumstances, separation to foster care can be a scary and traumatic experience for a child and his or her parents alike. The fact is foster care is not a normal situation for children or parents. It is an emergency stopgap, intended in nearly all circumstances as a vehicle for reunification. It should not be long term and should not serve as a barrier between parents and children in the absence of documented safety concerns. As we outlined in our recent Information Memorandum (IM-20-06), foster care can and should be a support to families as opposed to a substitute for parents.

    National Reunification Month signals an incredible opportunity for the child welfare system to commit to resource families and children's parents working together to provide children and youth with the critical love and support they need. It is an opportunity to use the compassion and skills of resource families across the country to encourage and promote safe reunification, where possible, and to remain engaged with children and parents postreunification as ongoing supports for reunified families.

    We also honor fathers this month and know fathers continue to be an undervalued and sometimes unconsidered resource in the lives of children. Let us renew our commitment to seeing fathers as the source of strength and resilience they can be and the roles they and paternal family members can play in helping families stay together or get back together sooner. 

    I have been in the field long enough and met with dedicated social workers, providers, and attorneys across the country several times over to know there is no shortage of passion and commitment to help. It is time to be resolute and united in our charge to strengthen families so that they may remain together safely. And yes, where separation has occurred, we should celebrate reunification. That celebrations of families are occurring across the country—from Unification Day in New Jersey to Reunification Day in a county court in Iowa—give me hope, and hope is a powerful thing.

    We can and should be a system that proactively seeks to strengthen, support, and celebrate families at all times.   


  • This Reunification Month, Let's Commit to Parents' Priorities for Child Welfare Reform

    This Reunification Month, Let's Commit to Parents' Priorities for Child Welfare Reform

    Written by Rise Staff

    This June, we are celebrating Reunification Month against the backdrop of COVID-19. Many in-person visits have been suspended, services have shuttered, and courts remain closed, creating additional barriers to reunification.

    It always requires extraordinary stamina, resilience, and hope for parents to believe that the system that separated their family will allow them to reunite. This year, parents face higher stress and uncertainty, losses, and pain.

    Now it's even more important to replace the current dynamics of child welfare interventions—threat, coercion, punishment, and lack of privacy and self-determination—with approaches that strengthen parents' power.

    Rise, a parent advocacy organization in New York City, sees four crucial investments to achieve that:

    1. Connect parents with a parent advocate to assist and support them from the start to the end of a case.

    The sudden loss of a child is an experience of grief, terror, disorientation, shame, and loss of identity. Parents say they feel alone—and that parent advocates are there for them. Parents need to be reassured that their children are safe, and their own psychological safety must be addressed before they can plan and nurture their children despite separation. Parent advocates with lived experience facing the system model that reunification is possible.

    Evaluations of the impact of parent advocates in New York City have found that outcomes improve for families assisted by parent advocates. A report (PDF - 1,850 KB) on the New York City Administration for Children's Services Parent Advocate Initiative stated, "Advocates were praised for comforting, encouraging, and empowering families and instilling hope. Their guidance and advice in navigating the child welfare system was invaluable."

    All child welfare and legal agencies should employ life-experienced parent advocates to make the road to reunification smoother and shorter. In addition, community organizations should employ parent advocates to provide confidential peer support to parents in crisis and connect parents to resources to prevent unnecessary system involvement.

    2. Support self-determination by offering parents information and choices.

    A constant theme at Rise is that parents want to be heard, not fixed. Parents want support in making decisions about what can help their families, not a system that makes decisions for them. Often, parents experience a total loss of control over their family lives when child welfare gets involved, undermining reunification. Trauma expert Judith Herman explains, "The first principle of recovery is empowerment of the survivor...No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest."

    Parents' powerlessness in child welfare is exacerbated by the lack of information about their rights, options, common challenges, and how other parents achieved success. If parents have more information about services, they can make choices about what service fits their families' needs. This will enhance the chance of the parent sticking with and benefiting from services—and ensure that parents are equipped to resolve family challenges in the future.

    3. Build parents' power in child welfare policymaking and decision-making.

    When child welfare systems are considering new policies and practices, it's important to ask for parents' perspectives and act on them. Parents and youth impacted by systems can provide important and counterintuitive insight into child welfare policy and practice design.

    At the same time, research shows that ideas outside of a groups' norms are not easily heard.  Constituents who felt powerless facing the system and may have little professional experience are even less likely to be heard. Creating solutions together is not about "voice;" systems must work with parents in a way that builds their knowledge, depth of involvement, and authority so parents have real power in policymaking and decision-making. Collaborating with parent-led organizations, including parent advocates in executive teams, and hiring parents in leadership positions will bring change.

    4. Reduce system involvement by targeting community conditions, not families.

    Children are harmed not only by abuse and neglect but also by racism and injustice. Foster care is part of America's long history of separating and punishing African-American, Native-American, immigrant, and poor families. The imprint of slavery and genocide is transparent; child welfare systems today operate primarily in low-income communities of color impacted by historical trauma and marked by disinvestment in public institutions, services, resources, and legal protections that support family stability. Intentionally or not, child welfare systems punish individuals for societal conditions.

    Everyone working in child welfare must reckon with this legacy. Immediately, we must train school personnel, doctors, and other mandated reporters to refer struggling families to community supports instead of making unnecessary hotline reports. More broadly, we must invest in meeting families' economic, social, and justice needs so that far fewer families ever face that knock on the door from child welfare.

    In New York City, Rise is working from this agenda. Rise advocates for parent advocates at the frontlines and in leadership. We support self-determination through our TIPS handouts on visits (PDF - 2,860) and service planning (PDF - 2,740 KB), which acknowledge trauma and stress, explain parents' legal rights, and share wisdom from parents who got their children home. Through our reunification collaborative, we work with six foster care agencies to implement parents' concepts for frontline practice improvement (PDF - 4,860). They have created one-on-one orientations, usually held by a parent advocate, to provide information and peer support to parents immediately after separation. With fewer than one-third of New York City families reunifying within a year, these investments are urgent.

    In the coming year, we'll hold community forums for parents to develop an agenda for community investment to strengthen families. As our country reckons with the unequal devastation of COVID-19, we recognize that inequity in health, economic stability, education access, and exposure to stress are rooted in slavery and reflect failing social structures. Child welfare is one of those social structures. Rather than spend money on therapeutic interventions to help families cope with oppressive conditions, we need to invest in creating conditions that allow families to thrive.

    We celebrate Reunification Month by honoring every parent seeking and achieving reunification. We see you. We're with you. Don't give up.

    We also celebrate parents and allies holding the courage to face history, the hope to imagine a different future, and the perseverance to transform our society. We hope you will be part of this urgently needed reckoning and will join with parents to build a more just and caring future for families.


  • New Study Shows Providing Parents With Multidisciplinary Legal Representation in Child Welfare Cases

    New Study Shows Providing Parents With Multidisciplinary Legal Representation in Child Welfare Cases

    This article was originally featured in the July/ August 2019 (Vol. 20, No. 6) issue of CBX.

    Written by Martin Guggenheim, Fiorello LaGuardia Professor of Clinical Law and co-director, Family Defense Clinic, New York University School of Law

    The child welfare canon holds that children should only be placed in foster care when necessary. This reflects the universally recognized understanding that the needless separation of children from their families can profoundly harm them. Among the more contentious aspects of the child welfare system in the United States is whether, as some claim, too many children are needlessly placed in foster care or remain there longer than needed to protect them from harm.

    A major study (Gerber, Pang, Ross, Guggenheim, Pecora, & Miller, 2019) makes a compelling contribution to this inquiry. Although it did not address whether children are needlessly removed from their homes, it showed that children can be safely returned to their families significantly sooner than commonly happens by the simple device of employing the right kind of legal representation for their parents.

    Efforts to prevent the unnecessary separation of families are notoriously difficult to study because so many factors complicate the risk analysis. Researchers from New York University, Action Research, and Casey Family Programs took advantage of a unique opportunity to compare the outcomes of cases involving more than 18,000 children in which child abuse or neglect was alleged. The study examined what happened when, in 2007, New York City began contracting with holistic family defense offices to provide parents with representation in child welfare cases.

    Until that time, New York City, like most jurisdictions in the United States, exclusively appointed solo-practicing lawyers to represent parents from a rotating panel of lawyers. Panel lawyers in New York are highly experienced practitioners who must apply to be accepted to the panel and are reviewed annually to ensure they take their job seriously and perform it well. Since 2004, these lawyers receive $75 per hour for both in- and out-of-court work. In most cases, there is no cap on the total amount of compensation they can receive once the court is satisfied that the hours they billed were necessary to represent the parent effectively.

    The study focused on the outcomes of cases based on which kind of lawyer parents received by comparing the most popular form of representation used in the United States—solo-practicing panel lawyers—with a reimagined legal representation team that includes lawyers, social workers, and parent advocates. The idea behind multidisciplinary parent representation is that the solo practitioner model is poorly suited to the unique tasks of representing parents in child welfare cases. Because child welfare cases proceed simultaneously along two tracks—the courthouse and the agency—truly excellent parent representation requires that parent lawyers or other members of the parent representation team actively participate with their clients in all aspects of the case. When parents attend team meetings and conference with caseworkers and other agency personnel, parents deserve to be represented on those occasions.

    That, in any event, was the basis upon which New York City gave contracts beginning in 2007 to three parent representation offices. These offices—Brooklyn Defenders, Bronx Defenders, and the Center for Family Representation—began by representing about half of all cases filed in the New York City Family Courts. Today, a fourth office, the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, also has a contract to represent parents. Together, these four offices currently represent the vast majority of all parents in child welfare cases in New York City.

    What all New York City family defense offices have in common, besides employing staff attorneys whose salaries are not based on the number of cases they carry, is that the offices employ social workers and parent advocates who partner on teams with the lawyers to offer their clients a broad range of support well beyond the courthouse. The lawyer member of the team provides legal representation in court. The social worker helps the client access stabilizing services, such as housing, employment training, drug treatment, and domestic violence counseling. Parent advocates—trained professionals who have personally experienced the child welfare system and can empathize with vulnerable families—provide emotional support and help parents engage in services.

    The study's principal purpose was to determine whether the kind of representation provided to a parent makes a difference in terms of keeping families safely together and reducing the time children spend in foster care. The researchers took 3 years and developed a rigorous statistical design that effectively compared outcomes and screened out potential distortions. This meant carefully matching cases based on more than 20 variables, including age, race, number of children involved, county, judge, severity of allegations, and prior involvement with the child welfare system. It also meant that the researchers were able to say that differences in outcomes between the two kinds of representation were attributable to the representation the parents received.

    The results are staggering. The family defense offices were able to secure the safe return of children to their families approximately 43-percent more often in the first year and 25-percent more often in the second year than the solo lawyers. The effects were felt from the very beginning of a child's placement. The researchers found that 17-percent more children would be reunified within a month and 27-percent more children would be reunified with their families within 6 months if their parents had multidisciplinary representation rather than assigned panel attorneys.

    Providing parents with family defense teams allowed children to be permanently released to relatives more than twice as often in the first year of a case and 67-percent more often in the second year. Of those children who could not be returned to their families, 40-percent more children ended up with permanent dispositions of guardianship when their parents had multidisciplinary representation compared with children whose parents were represented by panel lawyers.

    This study makes clear that many children are kept in foster care simply because their parents were not provided with the right kind of representation and key support services. The study's ultimate finding is that even while the family defense offices helped parents regain the custody of their children months or years sooner, children were at no greater risk of any type of abuse or neglect than their counterparts whose parents were represented by solo attorneys. This means that providing the parents an interdisciplinary legal team dramatically reduces the trauma of family separation without any increased risk to child safety.

    New York City is a national leader in employing interdisciplinary family defense as the preferred method of providing legal representation for parents. It has helped reduce trauma experienced by families and children. It has also saved an enormous amount of money that would otherwise have been spent on children remaining in foster care. The study found that full implementation of a multidisciplinary representation model would reduce the foster care population by 12 percent and annually reduce foster care costs by $40 million as compared with exclusive reliance on solo practitioners.

    The finding that family defense offices achieved a significant reduction in foster care is all the more striking because New York City places children in foster care at one of the lowest rates in the country. In much of the rest of the country, foster care is significantly overused.

    The study was announced at a particularly auspicious time because the federal government recently issued new guidance that will allow reimbursement to states and localities for half the cost of lawyers for children and parents in eligible cases. We now have clear evidence of how to prevent unnecessary family separation in child welfare. Based upon the 12-percent reduction in out-of-home care shown in the study, providing parents with this new kind of legal representation throughout the country suggests we can safely reduce the national foster care population of 440,000 by more than 50,000 children.


    "Effects of an Interdisciplinary Approach to Parental Representation in Child Welfare," by Lucas A. Gerber, Yuk C.Pang, Timothy Ross, Martin Guggenheim, Peter J. Pecora, and Joel Miller (Children and Youth Services Review, 102).

  • Celebrating Reunification Starts With Understanding What Keeps Families Together

    Celebrating 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.


  • Family Is Essential

    Family Is Essential

    Written by David Kelly

    If we learn only one lesson from the pandemic, it must be that family is essential. Not just our own family or families that look like ours do, but all families.

    We should not need a public health crisis to remind us of this simple and very human truth. Most of us realize, although perhaps may not always fully appreciate, just how vital family is in our lives.  Relationships can be complicated, and we might not always get along with all our family members, but at the end of the day family is a source of strength that helps us become and remain resilient. When we look with intention at our own families, as imperfect as they may be, they are most typically a source of strength.

    This pandemic has been a powerful reminder of the essentiality of family. Many families are spending more time together than perhaps has ever been possible as schools have closed and many are unable to go to their jobs and are working from home or out of work. If we are honest, for most of us it is a balancing act. With the uncertainty and the newness, there are highs and lows and likely alternating appreciation and challenge, stress or anxiety.

    Families that may not ordinarily have financial concerns are experiencing them now. Parents that may be accustomed to child care and other supports to help them balance their responsibilities may now be without that help. Many parents are dealing with significantly more concerns and higher levels of stress.

    There have been countless op eds, blogs, columns, and social media postings speaking to the challenges even parents of upper income levels are facing. There are daily accounts providing parental advice or sharing stories on how to deal with our current conditions. Some of them turn to humor, which can be healing and helpful in tough times, although there can be a fine line between the humorous and disturbing. Several commentators have pointed to the prevalence of parents joking about losing patience with children and restraining them or parents calming their nerves with adult beverages or substances—or even allowing kids to use them. These are deeply troubling images that mock lack of parental supports, resiliency, and protective capacity in times of deep stress, regardless of one's income level.

    While there is value in discussing shared experiences and challenges, there is also a stark double standard on display. As parents with lived experience have told us in recent conversations, these are not jokes that poor parents and parents of color would ever feel safe making in public. They are statements that, even if made light heartedly, heighten scrutiny and the risk of separation in very real ways.

    Unfortunately, our views of families involved with child welfare are often far less than generous. There remains a deep-seeded distrust and lack of faith in the poor families and families of color that disproportionality populate the child welfare system. It may not be as blatantly visible in all places and all times as it has been historically and can be quite implicit, but it is there just below the surface, insidious.

    We need look no further than the daily features in newspapers across the country in recent weeks forecasting spikes in child maltreatment. Words typically used to describe natural disasters and war, such as surge and tsunami, describe what we should expect. Concerns about declines in reporting and leaps to grim conclusions abound. The claim is that more children will be in more danger because fewer people are watching families and making reports and that this will foretell or enable widespread abuse to go unseen and undetected. That the inevitability of imminent harm is a forgone conclusion by so many is disturbing. It is important to take a step back, consider what we know and do not know and the role that implicit and even explicit biases play in driving this narrative.

    If we take a rational look at what we know, there is good cause to question the legitimacy of the alarmism. We know that risk factors are high and that we must take them very seriously. We know that families will need support to deal with growing food insecurity, lack of housing stability, inadequate income, and social isolation. We know that child care, if it was even available for lower-income workers, is likely not consistently available now. We know that many families will not receive all the support they need and deserve. We know poor families are becoming more deeply impoverished, and we know families and communities of color are suffering disproportionally in multiple ways during the pandemic.  

    We know in normal times most calls to hotlines do not reach the threshold of warranting an investigation. We know that the majority of findings of child maltreatment are for neglect, not physical abuse or exploitation, and we know that there are strong associations between neglect and challenges associated with poverty.

    The weight of the evidence points to the importance of supporting families and mobilizing around their needs. It is important to be mindful of the unfair pictures that foreboding narratives paint of poor families experiencing challenges. Such pictures and narratives may shape society's willingness to offer help. If we take a closer look through a less judgmental and reactionary lens, we might be able to see the depth of resiliency that is present and the remarkable efforts poor parents make to get by on the smallest fraction of what many of us have. If confined to telling binary stories of heroes and villains, an objective view may reverse the roles. Who is the hero, the parent doing the best they can under circumstances more difficult than most of us will ever know or experience, or the folks writing about the likelihood they will fail or actually seek to harm their children?

    If we are truly a field and a society that looks to data and facts to help us understand the world, it is time to put to rest the preconceived notion and prejudiced narrative that parents are a danger to their children, because in the overwhelming majority of families involved with child welfare that is simply not the case. It is true that some children may be exposed to increased risk and danger during this time, and we should not ignore or dismiss the signs of abuse, but we do not have data to suggest that is the most typical scenario. Still, it is an incredible opportunity for the child welfare system to come together with communities to offer needed support, to ease social isolation, to link families and children with needed resources, and to help mitigate what is surely a stressful situation for untold numbers of families.

    We can emerge from this crisis understanding just how important family is to everyone and with deeper compassion for those who may be struggling or going through hard times, no matter when those hard times or challenges may occur. We have a chance to see families—all families—as resources of resiliency and strength worthy of investment and care.

  • Reflections on 10 Years of National Reunification Month

    Reflections 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


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    Spotlight on National Foster Care Month

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    Spotlight on National Child Abuse Prevention Month

    Spotlight on National Child Abuse Prevention Month

News From the Children's Bureau

We highlight a webpage about the Children's Bureau's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including guidance on how to continue to support families during a time of social distancing and the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We also feature a suite of reunification materials that focus on partnerships between parents, caregivers, and caseworkers; a podcast series highlighting two community-based programs in New York and California; a brief list of what's new on the Children's Bureau website; and more.

Child Welfare Research

Read an article about the importance of family supports in ensuring successful reunification and avoiding reentry.

  • Agencies Should Prioritize Family Supports During Reunification to Prevent Reentry

    Agencies Should Prioritize Family Supports During Reunification to Prevent Reentry

    The article "The Road to Reunification: Family- and State System-Factors Associated With Successful Reunification for Children Ages Zero-to-Five" explores predictors of successful family reunifications and suggests agencies and practitioners should prioritize family-focused measures to support families during the reunification process and prevent children from reentering care. Drawing on 2012 data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, the study tracked children ages 0 to 5 for 3 years postreunification to compare family and state child welfare system factors affecting successful and unsuccessful reunifications. Reunification was considered successful if children who were reunified in fiscal year (FY) 2012 did not reenter care by the end of FY 2015.

    Family-level variables analyzed in the study include race/ethnicity, children's ages, parental substance use, parental criminal background, family stress levels, and the continued presence of parental risk levels at reunification. State system-level variables included the type of child welfare administration (i.e., state centralized, county-level, or hybrid), the scale of privatization, statewide crime and poverty rates, the proportion of a state's child welfare budget allocated to reunification services, the proportion of drug overdose deaths, and the average time to reunify.

    The following are some of the findings from the study:

    • More than four-fifths (83 percent) of the families experienced successful reunifications.
    • Family-level factors, such as parental drug use and prior child welfare experience, were stronger predictors of reunification outcomes than state-level factors.
    • The study also found that the odds of achieving successful reunification for Black and Latino families differed significantly across state systems.

    The authors conclude that agencies and practitioners should prioritize family-centered interventions and suggest future research could focus on which state systems have improved outcomes for families of color and for families with histories of substance use.

Strategies and Tools for Practice

This section of CBX offers publications, articles, reports, toolkits, and other resources that provide either evidence-based strategies or other concrete help to child welfare and related professionals.

  • Lifting Up Youth Voices: Storytelling as a Conversation Starter for Systemic Change

    Lifting Up Youth Voices: Storytelling as a Conversation Starter for Systemic Change

    Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

    "Stories make, prop up, and bring down systems. Stories shape how we understand the world, our place in it, and our ability to change it."—Ella Saltmarshe, 2018

    June is National Reunification Month. The 2020 theme is lifting up youth voices and recognizing the people that help families stay together. By lifting up the voices of youth currently and formerly in foster care and by encouraging them to share their stories and expertise, agencies can help keep families together.

    Research shows that storytelling (when paired with data) is a powerful tool for changing beliefs and behavior, because a compelling story engages the viewer through imagery, engages audience emotions, and brings the theme into focus (Braddock & Dillard, 2016; Green & Brock, 2000; Neimand, 2018). Hearing someone's story doesn't create change by itself, but it is part of the perspective that informs the expertise of young people working to change policy and practice in child welfare.

    These insights are foundational to the work of organizations like Voices of the Commonwealth (VOC), a Kentucky youth leadership council comprising current and former youth in foster care who share their experiences with agency staff, court personnel, state officials, educators, caseworkers, foster parents, and other child welfare system stakeholders.

    VOC members work to share their experiences in the foster care system with caseworkers, foster parents, and others, which can lead to better understanding the challenges faced by foster children and youth. Joshua Degnan, president of VOC and a foster youth alum, observes that for caseworkers, it's sometimes "easier to make that decision to remove a child from a situation, because you think that's going to be the safest thing...[but] you don't really think about the impact it's having on that child who's being removed from his family. Bringing your voice to the table, it makes that real for people" (personal communication, May 17, 2019). By sharing the perspectives of young people currently and formerly in foster care, VOC members help caseworkers understand that, if at all possible, it is better to keep children at home and offer the family support through services rather than remove the child from the home.

    According to Degnan, hearing the perspectives of young people in foster care can help child welfare stakeholders gain a better understanding of the experiences of child welfare recipients, learn about effective practice and areas that need improvement, and get recommendations for change that are informed by experience. The perspectives that VOC participants provide serve as the foundation for youth-adult partnerships that create opportunities and spaces for youth to be heard and their ideas to be considered.

    One of these partnerships is with the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services (DCBS). VOC members often participate in DCBS meetings concerned with child welfare policy, where they use their unique perspectives to provide input into policy change. In Degnan's own words (personal communication, May 17, 2019), at policy meetings:

    "I've heard [the Commissioner] just pause the entire meeting...and ask the [VOC member] who's been...there [for their input], because he genuinely wants to know, from their experience and what they've seen happen in the past, what would be the best option in their opinion to be able to make a positive change."

    In early 2019, Joshua Degnan was invited to share his story and policy recommendations with members of the Kentucky Legislature as they were debating House Bill 158, which includes the Foster Child Bill of Rights. He and other VOC members had one-on-one meetings with Kentucky legislators where they shared policy recommendations for the Foster Child Bill of Rights based on their experiences and expertise. The Foster Child Bill of Rights, which recognizes foster youth as part of a professional decision-making team, was signed into law in June 2019.

    An important goal of VOC work is increasing the diversity of the foster care youth and alumni with whom officials come into contact so that their input and perspectives can inform the policymaking process. As Degnan notes, VOC aims ultimately to "have one member of the VOC, at a minimum, in every committee or in every region across the state. So, by having one member from every region across the state, we get a very diverse background," including racial and cultural diversity (personal communication, May 17, 2019). He also observes that youth in foster care have had a range of experiences and that it is important to share a variety of stories from different perspectives, not just one representative narrative.

    To learn more about using storytelling in child welfare, see the following resources:


    Braddock, K., & Dillard, J. P. (2016). Meta-analytic evidence for the persuasive effect of narratives on beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. Communication Monographs, 83(4), 446-467.

    Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 701-721.

    Neimand, A. (2018, May). How to tell stories about complex issues. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

    Saltmarshe, E. (2018, February). Using story to change systems. Stanford Social Innovation Review.


  • Helping Families Support Reunification

    Helping Families Support Reunification

    Reunification is the most common—and preferred—goal for children and youth in out-of-home care. Having foster families who support reunification when it is the best permanency option requires child welfare systems that recruit, develop, and support them. The National Resource Center for Diligent Recruitment (NRCDR) compiled a list of nine ideas and strategies that will help child welfare systems in their efforts to do so:

    • Use clear messaging about the importance of reunification.
    • Use data to increase foster parents' knowledge about their role.
    • Incorporate concurrent planning concepts into foster parent training.
    • Encourage birth parents who have reunified to be cotrainers for potential foster parents.
    • Provide peer support for foster parents.
    • Provide foster parents with resources to help them connect.
    • Establish practices that encourage relationship building.
    • Provide foster families with grief and loss support.
    • Explore maintaining contact after reunification.

    This resource includes links to videos, tip sheets, and other resources to expand on these strategies. Child welfare and related professionals can use this resource to learn about practices they can incorporate into their own practice to help recruit foster parents and support both them and birth parents as they work toward reunification. The NRCDR also links to the American Bar Association National Reunification Month project for more resources.


  • Parent Partner Programs Instill Hope and Support Prevention and Reunification

    Parent Partner Programs Instill Hope and Support Prevention and Reunification

    Parent partner programs can be a valuable resource to parents who become involved with child welfare services or who have recently lost custody of their children. A brief by Casey Family Programs, How Do Parent Partner Programs Instill Hope and Support Prevention and Reunification?, explains the benefits of parent partner programs, potential structures and funding sources, and implementation considerations.

    Parent partner programs can help agencies meaningfully engage parents and provide them with an extra layer of support from someone who has been involved with child welfare themselves. Parent partners give birth parents direct support to help them overcome barriers and reunite with their children. They also teach parents the essential skill of self-advocacy, help them navigate an often-complex system, and connect them to the information and services they need.

    The brief provides examples of different parent partner programs, such as Parents Anonymous and Iowa's Parent Partner Program. Explore appendix A for a look at additional parent partner programs and the research behind them.


This section of CBX provides a quick list of interesting resources, such as websites, videos, journals, funding or scholarship opportunities, or other materials that can be used in the field or with families.

  • Resource Family Tip Sheet for Supporting Reunification

    Resource Family Tip Sheet for Supporting Reunification

    Resource Family Tip Sheet for Supporting Reunification (PDF - 243 KB), by the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, offers insights and tips from resource families on the importance of respecting birth parents and being compassionate to their situations, encouraging visitation and regular contact between birth parents and their children, communicating with the family regularly, and remembering that safe reunification is the best and most sought-after outcome to foster care.

    The tip sheet encourages resource parents to do the following:

    • Let families know they support their goal of reunification
    • Advocate for increased visitation between children and their families by helping with transportation, assisting children with phone calls and video chats, and inviting parents to community events where they can visit with their children in an environment that allows them to act like a family and do family activities
    • Learn more about parents by asking them about their lives
    • Involve parents in school meetings and functions
  • Tips on Foster Parent-Birth Parent Coparenting to Promote Reunifications

    Tips on Foster Parent-Birth Parent Coparenting to Promote Reunifications

    The article Co-Parenting Gets Children Home From Foster Care Safer and Faster discusses key elements of coparenting programs designed to promote reunification for children in foster care. The article shares tips for foster parents and emphasizes that successful coparenting can expedite family reunification and help children and families heal.

    Foster parents can serve a pivotal role in promoting reunification by acting as mentors and relationship builders for the birth parents they are working with. The article explains how communication is the most important ingredient for success, and mutual respect is at the heart of successful communication. The article also emphasizes the importance of leaning on professional and personal support systems for outside help. Several recommendations for foster parents are shared related to building relationships with birth parents, including the following:

    • Sharing information about family background, traditions, etc.
    • Assuring birth parents they are not there to replace them
    • Facilitating visits and preparing children for them
    • Brainstorming with birth parents about ideas for visits
    • Encouraging communication between visits (video chats, etc.)
    • Talking positively about birth parents with children
    • Demonstrating compassion
    • Seeking input and opinions from birth parents on the child's likes and dislikes, outfits for school photos, etc.
    • Making birth parents an active part of the team by including them in doctor appointments and school and sporting events

    The article also emphasizes the mentoring role that foster parents can assume to help birth parents feel supported and encouraged in their efforts to promote reunification; children benefit when birth parents trust that caregivers are there in a support role (rather than there to take their children). Several ways that foster parents can be mentors include the following:

    • Modeling positive parenting techniques and sharing successful discipline techniques
    • Helping to foster a greater understanding of key developmental tasks and how to help children achieve those milestones
    • Helping parents understand the importance of setting priorities and adhering to a routine
    • Collaborating with school officials and mental health professionals on meeting a child's needs
    • Helping parents learn how to access community supports and ask for help in times of crisis
    • Brainstorming ideas to help make visitations successful relationship-building sessions

    Positive communication and relationships benefit children, birth parents, and foster parents—they help reduce child, family, and caregiver stress and support the achievement of positive outcomes.  

Training and Conferences

Find trainings, workshops, webinars, and other opportunities for professionals and families to learn about how to improve the lives of children and youth as well as a listing of upcoming events and conferences.