When we hear the word adoption, joy, excitement and love usually spring into our hearts and minds.
When you hear the word reunification, what comes to mind? What emotions do you instantly feel?
If you’re like many of us, you may not experience the same happiness or warm fuzzies.
Right? Why is that?
I’d like to suggest we’ve given the idea of reunification a bad rap.
Let’s flip the narrative and talk about the tangible realities of reunification and how we, our churches and our communities can come alongside parents, children and families to give them a second chance at forever together and help mend broken homes.
In foster care, our goal is always reunification. Reunification is all about healing hearts — of both children and adults — and bringing families back together.
As a foster care case manager for WinShape Homes, I have the privilege of being a liaison between the Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS), foster parents and biological families. In my six years in the field, I have seen many reunifications. They are exciting, and they deserve to be celebrated!
So what exactly is reunification? And how does it practically play out?
As the name says, reunification is working to reunite a child with their parent or guardian in a safe, healthy and stable environment.
In 2019 the Administration for Children and Families conducted a study (using information from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS)) to assess the outcomes of foster care cases in Georgia. That year, 12,867 children were in care in Georgia. By the end of the year, only 3,963 of those children had been reunified with their parents or primary caretakers. The rest of those children either remained in care, were adopted, or aged out of the system. (https://cwoutcomes.acf.hhs.gov/cwodatasite/pdf/georgia.html)
Why were so few children reunited with their families?
While many factors contribute to the challenge of reunification, we often lose sight of the difficult road parents and primary caretakers must travel to regain custody of their children. Here’s a brief snapshot of what a parent might experience.
When a child is removed from a caretaker’s custody, that guardian is given a list of tasks to complete in order to regain custody of the child. The State refers to this list of tasks as a Case Plan.
Each case plan is catered to the specific needs of the family and varies from one situation to the next. But, in general, case plans consist of the following elements:
- Engagement in individual therapy;
- A requirement to obtain and maintain employment for a minimum of 6 months;
- A requirement to obtain and maintain appropriate housing for a minimum of 6 months;
- Obligatory participation in random, weekly drug screens;
- Evidence of 6 consecutive months of clean drug screens;
- Attendance at weekly supervised visits with their children.
Parents are given this list of goals and expected to achieve them on their own. This all seems pretty straightforward, right?
But imagine going through the trauma of having your children taken from you only to be told that in order to get them back, you’d need to change every aspect of your life with little to no help. Not to mention, when you make these changes, you’ll need to prove to a judge and DFCS that you have completed these tasks to their specific standards.
Parents are expected to juggle all these tasks and relationships in addition to constant contact with the parties involved in their case, sometimes more than seven people.
So parents, who are likely still reeling from the trauma of separation from their children, are asked to accomplish the tasks in their case plans, keep up with new court contacts and maintain a job, while only being allowed to see their children for two hours each week. And even when they do get to be with their children, they’re being watched by a stranger who is studying everything they do with scrutiny. It’s a lot to balance, to say the least.
Parents are trying to navigate this imperfect system. And many families do complete their case plans through hard work and care over time.
But even as they are working to welcome their children back home, as followers of Christ we are positioned to be a help to these families in a multitude of ways.
Foster families, you have the unique opportunity to not only care for these children with grace and compassion but to also be a listening ear and a cheerleader for the birth parents. A simple encouraging email and a picture of their child can make a huge difference in the life of parents working to complete their case plan. Some of these parents have very little family support and few positive relationships. Letting them know that you as a foster parent are in their corner and want them to get their children back might just be the push that keeps them fighting toward the goal of reunification.
Those of us who are not called to be foster parents can still be involved in many ways. If you know a struggling family, offer your friendship. Let them know that you have their backs. If they do not have transportation, offer to carpool to the grocery store together. Take them a meal.
Some parents need help, but they may not know how to ask for it or are too ashamed to do so. Extend an olive branch to them so they do not have to ask for help or share their situation. These things seem simple, but they can make a big difference in a family’s story.
It’s amazing to watch a birth mom or dad overcome all the hurdles thrown at them to bring their family back together. I’ve been blessed to see God work in so many lives to heal hurting hearts in adults and children. And He’s still at work in our homes, communities and churches. I truly believe that if the Christian community came together and surrounded these families with compassion, love and support, many children in care would be able to be reunified with their families. It just takes caring and empathetic people who are willing to foster or offer a helping hand to those moms and dads in need.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we all came alongside these parents and offered our support? We could help bring many families back together and set them on a path toward healing and wholeness.
I can’t think of better way to show God’s love than to help a family when they need it most. Together we can change a family’s future for the better.