Making Reunification Possible for Older Youth

Jennifer Pokempner, Child Welfare Policy Director, Juvenile Law Center; Dominique Mikell, Stoneleigh Fellow, Juvenile Law Center; Jennifer Rodriguez, Executive Director, Youth Law Center,
5 people hugging, facing away from camera, during sunrise.

This month is Reunification Month—a good time to celebrate family and redouble our efforts to make it possible for more families to be supported in achieving permanency through reunification. As an organization that focuses on older youth, Juvenile Law Center is interested in supporting and expanding ways that safe and sustainable reunification can occur for older youth, including youth who are just entering or at risk of entering the foster care system and young people who have been in care for some period of time, even years. This is the right thing to do because we know achieving permanency will improve transition outcomes, but it is also urgent given the demographics of the child welfare system: in 2016, for example, 22% of youth who entered foster care were age 13 or older.   

We use the term "reunification" in child welfare so regularly, we often forget the significance and meaning. The core work of reunification is honoring, nurturing, maintaining, and rebuilding the connections and relationships youth have with their family and community. Skilled reunification work allows youth access to understanding their own history, identity, and experiences and to know they are wanted and valued by their birth family. For so many youth involved in foster care, this framework is critical to navigating the challenges of young adulthood and to future decision making. Reunification work orients child welfare’s role to prioritizing and growing youth’s relationships rather than severing and eliminating ties.

In addition to the compelling human reasons to focus on reunification for older youth, recent and emerging science has established that there is no more important intervention for supporting the resiliency of youth than ensuring loving and nurturing relationships. In fact, research suggests that improving relationships for youth in foster care can literally mitigate the impacts of early adversity and trauma. While many efforts to cultivate relationships for youth in foster care focus on mentoring or recruiting strangers, it is only logical to focus efforts on the constellation of adults they are already connected to through reunification efforts. From the opposite perspective, it is well established that many of the challenges youth exiting foster care currently face—homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, etc.—are exacerbated or caused by a scarcity of positive relationships and the support net those provide.

Anecdotal experience tells us that large numbers of older youth are in contact with and connected to their parents and families, although often without the support of the child welfare system to nurture and support the relationship. Research seems to support this as well: results from the Midwest Study of youth preparing to leave care show that almost two-thirds of responding youth approaching age 18 reported feeling very close or somewhat close to their biological mothers, over two-fifths of youth reported feeling very close to grandparents, and two-thirds reported feeling very close to siblings. In addition, respondents reported a median of 15 visits in the previous year with their birth mothers and 12 visits with their grandparent(s).

Despite this information about connection with parents that is supported by our experience and research, large numbers of youth are aging out without achieving permanency, including reunification. In 2015, about 20,000 youth aged out of care without reaching permanency. Data also shows that the goal of reunification is used a lot less for youth as they age and dramatically less once they reach age 18. For example, according to AFCARS data in 2015, the goal of reunification was reported for youth in the following way:

  • 54% for youth 0-12, 
  • 53% for youth 13-15,
  • 46% for youth 16 -17, and
  • 21% for youth 18-22.

What must happen for us to prioritize family relationships and give youth the best chance of navigating adulthood  and achieving sustainable permanency through reunification? Below are some initial thoughts on actions we can take.

Be Flexible, Creative, and Honest About What Practices to Support Relationships with Parents May Mean

We should recognize that many older youth are connected with their parents, and those relationships are always meaningful and significant. Thus, we should have a clearer approach in how to support those relationships.  Supporting those relationships can mean many things. In some situations, support could result in a sustainable permanency arrangement that includes returning home. For others, supporting these relationships may result in bringing the parent into the youth’s support network and making the parental relationship as strong as possible.  In other situations, it may mean supporting the youth in coming to terms with the limitations of a relationship that may not be healthy at this time. Too often, we have thought about reunification only in a legal context (i.e. where the child will live), rather than focusing on how parents can be involved in daily activities, milestones, and celebrations in a youth’s life. In any case, it is harmful and does the youth a disservice to ignore, discourage, or punish their efforts to maintain relationships or to act as if those connections don’t exist.

Many youth tell us that they age out of the system without getting the support needed to come to terms with their relationship with their parents. In these situations, youth are left to deal with complex, often difficult feelings and experiences on their own. This could be a time that we model and teach youth an approach to restoration, forgiveness, self-care, and empathy that they can carry into their adult life and future relationships. We owe it to youth to recognize the gravity and primary importance of this bond, to do all we can to strengthen and (re)build it, and to provide counseling and other support to address feelings of hurt and loss.

Youth have reported that, in some cases, caseworkers will not support a youth in reconnecting with a parent because of the parent's past behavior or even current concerns. As youth get older and can make contact with a parent regardless of what the system says, those working with the youth should grapple with what is gained if we prohibit contact or refuse to take part. A realistic approach focused on supporting the youth in developmentally appropriate actions, such as independent decision making about contact, is critical. Child welfare policy makers and professionals should directly address any fears or assumptions that get in the way of helping youth deal with aspects of potentially painful relationships. This requires prioritizing allowing youth to take supported risks, rather than an approach that avoids risk or potential liability.

Inventory the Array of Reunification Services Available and Explore if Specialization is Needed for Reunification with Older Youth

Few specialized programs have been developed to provide reunification services when the youth is a teen or young adult. There is a wealth of information around practice and policy we can learn, replicate, and scale from past and existing promising practices to reunify older youth and families, such as Family Finding and the California Permanency for Youth Emancipated Youth Connections Project. We have learned from this work about the importance of youth and parent engagement and leadership; the required skill sets, knowledge, and attitudes of the child welfare professionals; the role of the court and lawyers; needed practice, policy and culture changes; and of investing in post-reunification supports.

For example, specialization or additional skill sets can be beneficial. All child welfare services must be informed by what we know about adolescent brain development and the processes youth need to go through as they enter adulthood. Reunification services must be informed by this, as well. Communications with youth about reunification and with professionals and parents about constructive ways to respond to adolescents, given what they experience while establishing their own identity and building relationships, are improved by understanding adolescent brain development. Additionally, work in this area has identified that when we have not prioritized relationships and, as a result, youth remain in care for many years and have done a good deal of growing up apart from a parent, child welfare staff must be prepared to help youth and families to successfully work through the impacts and consequences. This requires patience, commitment, and most importantly, hope.

  Other considerations we have learned are important are:

  • Supporting youth and parent in being leaders in the process, and providing honest and realistic information to support decision making.
  • Developing agency practices, policies, and a culture that prioritizes, celebrates, and supports reunification.
  • Implementing agency practice that recruits, trains, supports and facilitates foster parents to co-parent with birth parents and actively involves birth parents in the youth’s life to prepare for reunification and eliminate barriers to contact and relationship.
  • Offering counseling and support for the youth and parent (individually and jointly) to address anger, confusion, loss, and sadness about the past.
  • Providing counseling and practical interventions when conflicts arise.
  • Ensuring frequent and ongoing support to youth and parent to respond to successes and challenges.
  • Supporting parents in how best to manage adolescent behavior and behavior that may be related to trauma and the experience of removal and being in foster care.  
  • Supporting youth in re-integrating into a family, particularly if they have been in congregate care or in situations where they have not been receiving parenting or have been very independent.
  • Actively engaging all members of the family (siblings, extended family) in navigating and supporting the reunification process.

Make the Goal Lifelong, Unconditional, Stable Relationships Not Case Closure

Child welfare practice has moved in the direction of valuing sustainable permanency as the goal rather than the closure of a case. This approach is especially needed in the case of older youth. Again, while practice is changing, we still encounter the belief that when youth leave the system at 18 or 21, they—unlike younger children—can handle things on their own. In fact, in young adulthood youth must navigate new challenges and experiences to a degree only equal to early childhood. Youth need all of the relationships and supports we can offer. If their permanency arrangement disrupts, there usually would not be a re-entry into the system, and the young adult would be on their own. We need to support reunification at age 18, 19, or 20 with the same level of service and care as we would for a younger child, even if the types of support and skills we bring to the table are different. Some actions we could take include:

  • Increase visitation gradually over time and provide support for conflict resolution and trouble-shooting during visits. Research shows that frequent visitation is a strong predictor of successful reunification.
  • Support foster and birth parents in working together on reunification. Examples of effective practice in this can be found in agencies participating in the Quality Parenting Initiative.
  • Provide more hands-on interventions to help youth and their parents strengthen their relationship, identify weakness or trouble spots, and be responsive and proactive to avoid crises.
  • Provide more support that is slowly tapered off over longer periods of time. This could include the use of trial home visits and providing structured post-permanency services for longer periods of time.  

Many young people have told us that reunification was not explored with them until a few months before they were aging out. They were not provided any reunification services; reunification merely meant checking the home to make sure it was safe. For many of those youth, the arrangement was not sustainable and, as a result, they experienced homelessness or housing instability. Clearly, in these cases the goal was not to support lifelong relationships, but to achieve a case goal on paper. Relationships require work but provide an unparalleled, positive intervention for youth. If loving relationships are the only real evidence-based intervention for youth in foster care, we must invest in reunification and provide the support to increase the odds that they will be lasting.  This means considering reunification as early as possible, revisiting regularly, and providing necessary long-term, concrete supports. That is what is required to meet our transition and permanency planning obligations and the most important responsibility we owe the youth in our care.    

The Family First Prevention Services Act provides states the opportunity to use federal funds to expand and enhance prevention services. This can include a renewed focus on developing the capacity to prevent entry into foster care for older youth in the first place. There is also a need to develop reunification services for older youth who enter the system but may be able to be reunified or for whom resolving the parental relationship is key to achieving permanency with anyone. It is time our system acknowledges what youth have been clearly expressing in both words and actions: nothing is more important than relationships and families matter, even when they are messy, complicated, and require work.

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