Reunifying Families Part 3: The reality of life in the child welfare system and how we address it

Mar 23 2017

Reunifying Families Part 3: The reality of life in the child welfare system and how we address it

By Steven Olender

In 2016, 53% of the children's cases that CASA of Travis County helped close ended in family reunification, up from 33% in 2007. In the final installation of this 3-part series, we explore the realities of the child welfare system and why reunifying families is our primary goal (Read Part 1: Realities of abuse and a belief in change and Part 2: Bias and disproportionality in the child welfare system).

One of the reasons people are comfortable with the idea of removing children from their families is the assumption that children would be better off being placed with families that can provide them a "better" life. This results from a fundamental misreading of the reality children face in the foster care system. “People envision that there is this wonderful, affluent, well-connected, fantastically harmonious family just waiting to adopt all of our kids,” says Michelle Nowlin, Child Advocacy Specialist & Team Leader. “For most of the children we serve, that simply is not the case.”

Instead, most children spend long periods in the foster care system, which can be far from the ideal people imagine it might be. The system is underfunded and under-supported, and, without the resources necessary to support children, it can cause them more emotional and psychological damage than they would have received without any government intervention.

Children who have been removed from the care of their parents rarely find one placement that will stick with them. Instead, they find themselves shuffled between foster homes and residential treatment centers, often with no warning, leaving behind the communities they have built. And while there are excellent foster homes and residential treatment centers, there are also ones where children are neglected, and where poor supervision means children may be physically or sexually abused by their peers.

Even in a healthy foster care environment, children suffer from secondary traumatic stress. “Children remaining in a system that is meant to be temporary, means that they are cared for by people who don’t have an attachment to them,” explains AJ Renold, Director of Family Engagement. “They don’t love those children like families do.” The psychological effect of this builds as children stay long-term in the child welfare system. The longer they remain in care, the more likely children are to self-harm. Their brains are unable to reconcile the hurt they feel, so they act out in confusing and often dangerous ways.

We know that children need caring adults, but the child welfare system does not exist to love children. It exists to protect them and it is only supposed to be temporary. Children who are reunified with family tend to spend less time in the system and, as such, see less long-term effects. To ensure the best outcomes for children in care we have to diligently explore every potential outcome, especially, if possible, reunification with family. 

Even for children who live the ideal, go to great foster homes and immediately find adoptive parents when their biological parents' rights are terminated, things are not easy. Most adoptive parents receive far less training than would be required of a CASA volunteer (CASA of Travis County volunteers receive 39 hours initially, plus 12 hours of Continuing Education per year), which is deeply problematic for children who have experienced both the trauma that brought them into the system and trauma from the system itself. Allowing children to heal is not as simple as just removing them from a difficult situation, and often adoptive parents are not prepared for the reality of what these children need, even in an ideal environment.

It’s also important to realize that the connection a child has to the family that raised them doesn’t just go away because of abuse or neglect. When parental rights are terminated, children are taken away from the only life they know. They are denied their identity and attachment to their community and forced to start over. Young children, especially, often don’t understand what is happening and why they can’t be with their families, so they feel a yearning for something they’ve lost.

This is one reason why some good adoptive placements may fail. Attachment and bonding don’t automatically follow an adoption. The trauma that children have experienced and the yearning they have for the families they have known can lead children to act out, either to test the attachment, because they are still trying to reconcile the pain they are experiencing, or because the secondary traumatic stress they’ve endured from being in the system has damaged their ability to form connections. This, coupled with the lack of standardized preparation and support adoptive parents receive—training for adoptive parents is decided by the licensing agency through which they adopt and varies widely between agencies—means that sometimes children who were presumed to be in safe permanent homes end up back in the foster care system. Certainly, this is not true of all adoptions and many kids flourish in adoptive placements, but the assumption that children automatically thrive when adopted by a stable family is incorrect.

Biological parents have a vested interest in doing the best for their children, so they have greater incentive to persevere through difficult times. Furthermore, reunification allows children the opportunity to maintain familial relationships and even to forge stronger bonds, as once-isolated extended families tend to be more present as a support after a crisis situation.

Parents, if given the support and confidence of the court system to do so, tend to make progress in their ability to care for their children. Once they have completed a service plan, tailored to their needs, they have more tools and coping strategies and greater awareness of their children's needs. This not only benefits kids who have entered the system, but also siblings who were not taken into the care of the state and any future children the parents might have. Given the realities of long-term foster care and adoption, if children have loving parents who simply were not prepared, or who were pushed to a breaking point, it is only rational to focus on supporting those parents and moving toward reunification.

Overall, in Travis County, we have seen major advances with regard to reunification. While only 33% of cases that CASA helped close in 2007 ended in family reunification, 53% of those that closed in 2016 did, with a further 26% being adopted by family members. This can be attributed to a number of factors, from Travis County’s establishment of the Office of Parental Representation to an increased focus on working directly with parents.

An important piece for CASA of Travis County's focus on reunification has been the creation of the Early Family Engagement program. Through this program, we are able to gather greater information, earlier in a case, to help build work plans that assist parents and we can find familial placements that keep children out of the care of strangers. However, as The Alliance for Children and Families notes, “empowerment is not simply about activating family as a response to fill a placement challenge but rather about respecting and empowering families to share responsibilities for the safety, permanency and well-being of children.” Early Family Engagement work to bring extended families and fictive kin into the process from the beginning to not only find placements, but to break the family’s isolation and build accountability.

It can be difficult to accept a child returning to a parent with a history of abuse or neglect. However, knowing the realities of abuse and trauma, accepting that parents can change and acknowledging the realities of the child welfare system makes it evident that striving for reunification as a default is in the best interest of children. Certainly there are factors in our communities that prevent parents from reaching reunification and children from finding optimal outcomes, such as poverty, resource gaps, lack of adequate mental health care and drug treatment, and repercussions of involvement in the criminal justice system. These, however, are not arguments against reunification but arguments for greater public support. By supporting both the child welfare system and public and private safety nets, we can not only help families heal but prevent them from entering the system in the first place. Then it's not the system taking children away from families, it's the system trying to support disadvantaged communities.

“We need to understand the reality of foster care and the complexity of adoption," explains Renold. "But we also need to understand that families need help.”

Read Part 1: Realities of abuse and a belief in change 

Read Part 2: Bias and disproportionality in the child welfare system