Reunification is the bringing forth of restoration to what has been divided. In our professional context, as social workers, this reunification is that of the family, when children return to live with their parents after a period in care.
This is a realistic plan for some, but we recognise that the care system works on an ongoing basis for those for whom such a reunion is impossible. The best bit about social work is that there isn’t one clear rule to follow. We want to hold in mind the ideas of recovery, acceptance and forgiveness working towards relational and reparative social work.
When children come into care, a judge must be satisfied that, on balance, it is not in the child’s best interests to live with his or her parents. Such decisions are clearly not taken lightly – it is the greatest intrusion to involve the courts in family life. A Care Order means that local authority will share parental responsibility with parents, with the authority becoming Corporate Parents (or co-parents, if you will). For the child, this should look like adults are working together on a common path of care, love, ambition and inspiration.
A child is then part of the care system. The Care Order dictates that a child is in the care of the local authority until their 18th birthday. Being in care for many children can be a positive experience that provides opportunities and possibilities. They may become integrated into another family and even stay with them beyond their 18th birthday. Others choose to return home to try and navigate what might be complicated and tricky relationships with their families. And a third group may have already returned to their families before turning 18.
The responsibility of everyone involved with a child in care is to support the child in gaining clarity about who they are and where they find themselves. There is also a responsibility to promote quality time between a child and family members from whom they are separated. These relationships can be complicated for the child and practitioners to make sense of, and the idea of reunification adds to the complexity. For practitioners, it may feel like they are betraying the child’s experiences by encouraging reconnection with a once-traumatic time or person. What has been lived is true and real and cannot be erased or redacted, so it needs to be confronted.
We believe people can change – social work is all about change. We know and have seen that birth parents can be motivated to change when offered the possibility of reunification. Reunification acknowledges this hard voyage. Reunification is a declaration that parents should be caring for their child again.
We, as social workers, may have missed what the children we work with are telling us. We know this from the children who ‘vote with their feet’ and return home of their own accord. Such experiences have been our wake-up call to deal with this issue differently.
We consider reunification as a chance that should never be overlooked. Risk is fluid and it changes on a daily basis. We have to be brave and sometimes sit with uncertainty, but this becomes a more comfortable place when relationship-based practice underpins every interaction.
Reunification is hard. It’s hard for parents to explore the reasons their children went into care. They need to enter the space of taking responsibility for what went wrong. It’s hard for children who often love their parents but may feel voiceless and confused. It’s hard for professionals to work with such trauma and sadness. We have to be daring; we have to be prepared to take risks. And a ‘successful’ reunification should bring pride. Reunification is important because children in care deserve a system that is willing to both see the change and be the change.
In our experience, there are many examples of successes for children in care returning home, but their stories are not without struggles. We have a role in supporting everyone involved in a child’s homecoming. Family life for everyone can be a challenge, but for parents and children who need to reconnect after trauma or a long separation period , the challenge is even greater and is one that must be respected and properly supported. To reunify is to nurture loving, reparative relationships. Never say never is the very least we owe.
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