Reunifying Families, Part 1: Realities of abuse and a belief in change

Mar 21 2017

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 first of a 3-part series, we explore the realities of the child welfare system and why reunifying families is our primary goal.

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

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

At the start of most Child Protective Services (CPS) cases, the judge signs an order taking temporary custody of the children in question. A CASA volunteer is assigned to the case and a plan is put into place with supports for both parents and children in hopes that, at the end of the year-long case, if not sooner, the children will be able to safely return to their parents. While every case is unique and CASA works diligently to ensure that outcomes are in each individual child's best interest, in most cases, the goal is to help the family heal and reunify.

For many outside the child welfare system, it may be surprising to hear that family reunification is the first goal in CPS cases and that we accept other outcomes only when it is clear that reunification would be directly counter to a child's interest and safety. After all, if parents were deemed abusive or neglectful, why would we strive to send children back to them?

Understanding why it is vital to strive for reunification requires an understanding of what abuse and neglect look like in our society and a willingness to set aside biases and see parents as they are. With sensationalized news stories of extreme long-term physical abuse, it is easy to believe that every CPS case is horrific, but that is simply not the case. In reality, cases of physical and sexual abuse make up fewer than 20% of all the cases that enter CPS in our community and long-term abuse is exceedingly rare. The vast majority of parents we see on cases are not bad people, but people with limited capacity, support or resources who have made some poor decisions and failed to keep their children safe.

It is important to realize that the child welfare system exists to keep children safe, not as a punitive system for adjudicating the failures of parents. Instead of punishment, it offers temporary assistance for families to keep children safe and, as such, it is predicated on the belief that parents can change. “The whole reason they are given this year and the court  orders them to complete services is that we believe in the principle that they may have acted in a way that is not in the best interest of their children, but they can change,” says Michelle Nowlin, Child Advocacy Specialist & Team Leader. “What you see isn’t necessarily what has to be.”

Furthermore, most parents really want to change. Parents, even if they have not always acted in their best interest, love their children. Many times, they show remorse and want to be better.

The vast majority of children enter the system because of neglect, whether through neglectful supervision or medical and physical neglect. Neglect is almost never malicious but, rather, situational. “It is because of cycles of disparity that parents get into situations where they either don’t have the means to care for their kids properly or don’t have access to mental health care,” explained AJ Renold, Director of Family Engagement. “That causes them to turn to drug use, or they have to depend on unsafe people to take care of their children because the cost of childcare is too expensive, or they remain in domestic violence situations because of a confluence of factors.” As stress mounts, parents often find themselves isolated from their communities which compounds challenging issues.

When we do see physical abuse as a precipitating factor for involvement in the system, it is rarely a prolonged pattern of malicious behavior. Many abuse cases are the result of parents’ inability to successfully cope with crisis situations. That does not diminish the importance of intervention to keep children safe, but the fact that a parent might lose control in a stressful situation does not mean things have been bad for years and it doesn't mean they will be bad going forward. That parent has made a grave mistake but needs to be given the opportunity to learn and improve their behavior.

Not all families will rise to the occasion and change. Some will attempt and fall short because even if they put in the effort and they receive appropriate social supports, they are not able to overcome the circumstances that brought them into the system in the first place. Others will not reunify with their children because they don’t put in the effort. Still, in order for the court to remove a child permanently from the care of family, it must be clear that not only were parents neglectful or abusive, but that they are incapable of parenting safely in the future.

When neglect was precipitated by isolation, poverty, domestic violence or drug abuse or because they simply do not know better – not malice or an inherent inability to parent -- we cannot simply extrapolate that they could never parent safely. These are serious factors but they are also largely circumstantial factors that do not determine whether parents are capable of getting help to care for their child. To declare someone permanently unfit to parent based on these factors would be to make a drastic lifelong decision based on temporary and fixable factors. Ensuring that these decisions are not made lightly requires keeping an open mind to reunification as we work through the case, up until the point it is demonstrated that children cannot be kept safe in the future. 

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

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