By Dr. Phil Bradfield

Remaining Trauma Informed - Reunification

Phil Bradfield

Coming out of May and into June, we are transitioning from a celebration of our foster care ministry into the month each year when we take time to recognize and celebrate the efforts that keep families together – reunification.

As a counselor and the WinShape Homes clinical director, I have the opportunity to work on both sides of WinShape Homes ministry. This is also the case for our entire clinical care team.

We provide counseling services to children both in our group homes and on the foster care side. Launching a counseling program that can benefit both sides of our ministry requires a variety of approaches. Although we have predominantly been focused on the Group Care side, we are actively growing into our role in foster care ministry.

Though reunification is a more frequent occurrence in our Foster Care ministry, children and families in both our Group Care and Foster Care ministries consistently walk through reunification situations. Let’s unpack some of the stressors that you might experience leading up to reunification—things like visitation, staff and case manager involvement, and attachment struggles that children in care may battle.

Reunification can be a beautiful and healthy event in the life of a child and their biological family, but it is also a hard, often trauma-inducing event for the foster family.

There will always be loss in the work we are doing.

The biological parents and family experience loss when their child enters the system.

The child experiences loss when they are no longer at home, even if that home life was toxic. The child re-experiences loss when they reunify with their biological family because they form attachments to their foster and group home parents .

Our parents experience loss when the child is reunified with their biological family.

Loss is inevitable in our work, but we can process that trauma in Christ, the One who knows ultimate pain and loss. We can also receive help through counseling.

We find in reunification that not only is there high potential for loss, but we’ll be called on to endure stress along the way. Prior to reunification, children in care have visits with their biological parents or family members, and often return to our homes with acting-out behaviors. Those behaviors often add pressure and stress to the foster parents and larger family.

One 2018 study found that visitations with biological parents or family did not significantly impact the child’s understanding of their main attachment figure. In other words, if you as a foster parent work to build a healthy attachment with the child, their visits will not break or shake their attachment to you, even if their behaviors upon returning seem to suggest just the opposite. People are always the hardest to love when they need love the most.

Other reunification studies suggest that your stress level matters — a lot.

Another 2018 study found that foster parents seemed not to influence their foster children when it came to regulating problem behaviors; however, those same problem behaviors in foster children did seem to cause higher foster parent stress levels. In summary, the foster parents’ stress levels did not seem to cause the foster child to internalize problems and externalize problem behaviors.

This is where is gets interesting.

A study from 2020 revealed a suggestion somewhat the opposite to what we’ve discussed thus far. It said that a foster parent’s high stress levels were the strongest predictor of the foster children’s mental health outcomes.

When I read these things in the 2020 study, I was somewhat perplexed. I had to pray and think through how these research teams could both be correct while they seemed to say the exact opposite. How can a foster parent’s stress level not cause the child to internalize and externalize problem behaviors and, simultaneously, a foster parent’s stress level be the best predictor of the child’s mental health?

Let me first say: there is a lot that we still do not know about the brain, mental health, trauma and how it all impacts behavior. But, perhaps, there is some separation in all of those abstract ideas. Perhaps in our efforts to be trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive to the child, they can find a measure of healing. Maybe any problem behaviors along the way are not the best indicators as to whether or not the child  is healing or learning to heal or learning to form healthy attachments.

Reunification can be a taxing, difficult event with stressors along the way.  But I want to encourage all of you with these recent research findings.

Visits do not threaten your attachment, and problem behaviors are not indicators that the child has not begun to heal.

Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace always in every way.  The Lord be with you all” (2 Thess. 3:16).