Reunification and the role of the Foster Carer

  • FosterWiki
  • Author:FosterWiki
  • Published:January 2023
  • Country: United Kingdom


Reunification is the reunion of children and young people with their parents or birth family when they return to live with them

The importance of reunification and the role of the foster carer

Introduction to reunification and the role of the foster carer

Reunification is the reunion of children and young people with their parents or birth family when they return to live with them.

Foster carers care for other people’s children when their own parents, for whatever reason, are unable to. Reunification, where appropriate and possible, should be the primary end goal for children in care.

It is essential that foster carers understand this from the first day, otherwise, it can lead to difficulties down the line. Inevitably children and young people become part of the fostering family and foster carers become fond of them, hence when the time comes for them to return home it can be difficult.

This is why it is essential to foster carers fully understand their role and manage their expectations, as however hard or difficult it is when a child returns home remember you have made an indelible and lasting positive impact on a child’s life.

How does it work?

The Care Plan and social workers will have a ‘reunification framework’, this will be where the child or young person in your care has been identified as it is being appropriate for them, or possibly appropriate for them to return home.

There will be work with social workers and all those involved with the child, they will use a reunification framework, all the other professionals and practitioners involved in the child’s life will be involved at some stage of the process and there will be a policy or practice guidance to help them assess the possible reunification.

There are several stages in a reunification framework:

  • Assessment of risk and protective factors and parental capacity to change.
  • Risk classification and decision on potential for reunification.
  • Parental agreements, goal setting, support and services.
  • Reclassification of risk, decision making and planning for reunification.
  • Return Home.

Fostering providers have a duty to ensure the following:

  • The child remains at the centre of the work and their wishes, feelings and best interests must be at the heart of decision-making.
  • Social services must work respectfully and collaboratively with birth parents, and assist fully in helping them to make the changes they need to in order for their children to return home.
  • They must ensure the timescales are led by the child’s needs and work around things such as school terms, exams and other important events.
  • All work in supporting and assessing families must be sensitive to religion, culture, disability, sexuality and gender.

The role of the foster carer in supporting reunification

Supporting reunification right from the start of the fostering placement (where appropriate) will ensure it is embedded into your practice as a foster carer, and you will understand that part of your role is helping a child to be reunified home to their parents or birth family.

As with all things fostering, each fostering family setting and each looked-after child and young person’s circumstances are unique. It is imperative to follow care plans and directives from services when supporting reunification, so not all of these guides will be applicable or appropriate in every case.

Support the child or young person in how they are feeling

It is very hard sometimes when we know the circumstances, the neglect or abuse that bought our foster children into our care, to be positive about their parents. However think of it from the child’s perspective, this is their mum or dad or birth family, despite anything that has happened they more often than not have deep bonds with them.

It’s good to speak positively about the birth family but that’s a rather simplistic view, as sometimes the child or young person will love and hate them in different moments, so if you then wade in with lots of positivity saying how great their parents are at a time they are angry with them then it may cause them confusion, conflict or guilt.

Working with our looked-after children and their relationships with their families is as nuanced as the relationship itself. A child might be old enough to recognise the abuse or neglect, they will feel many conflicting emotions such as rejection, loss, grief, anger, sadness, and guilt and in those moments hate or love their parents, sometimes simultaneously.

Supporting the child in that relationship however is paramount, however hard it might feel, as not only is it crucial for the child’s identity, development and outcomes, but it also supports your own relationship with them.

Listen and hear with empathy and no judgement

The most important thing is to be ‘alongside’ the child in their feelings and journey regarding their parents and birth family is to listen and hear them, to be empathic, genuine and without judgment, encouraging them to talk about it and identify their feelings without having an opinion or trying to ‘fix’ things.

Show your children and young people they can express how they are feeling about their mum, dad or family in any way they wish, and that you are listening to them.

If they are positive about their families encourage them, and reunification is always the first goal when a child is placed in foster care, think of good things about their family that you can speak about too.

If they are angry at birth parents listen and reflect back their words to them rather than offering your own opinions.

Choosing, betrayal and guilt

This is often a big one for our children and young people and can lead to them breaking down or sabotaging their relationships with their foster carers and the placement.

Children can feel guilty expressing love or affection for their carers, in front of their mums or dads or even when they are not present, they can feel they are betraying their birth family or they are rejecting them or choosing the carer over the parent or vice versa.

It can be psychologically confusing for a child, even if they are unaware of it, as a result of attachment issues and trauma. They are often too young to understand that they can do both, love or be fond of and attached to a carer and a parent at the same time.

They might feel if they display too much affection or get too close to their carers that they look like they are abandoning their parents and may never get to go home.

This can be difficult for them in reunification as they transition from the fostering family to their birth family.

Again listen and hear the children, and reassure them that they don’t have to choose and that they have many people who care for them, just differently and that’s ok.

Teenage years

Things can change when children in care reach adolescence, and sometimes it won’t make any difference if they have been ‘settled’ for years. This is often a time when looked-after children reach out for more contact with parents and start to explore what it might be like to live with their parents again.

Adolescence is a massive melting pot of developmental challenges, biological, cognitive, psychological, social, moral and spiritual, and although a teenager’s behaviour can be difficult to comprehend at this time, and sometimes hurtful, stressful and worrying, it is a natural process of becoming an adult.

Feelings of hurt can arise in a foster carer, that after all these years the child or young person doesn’t want to live with them anymore and wants to go home to their parents or family who didn’t care for them very well, it can feel baffling after they have been settled and been given all they need and loved and nurtured.

However, with surges of hormones, combined with struggling to find an identity, changes in their bodies and pressures with friendship groups, sexual exploration and trying to develop a sense of independence, it can be a really difficult and confusing time for the child or young person and a time of exploration.

The search for meaning and identity continues throughout our lives but begins in adolescence. The young person also starts to become a ‘separate’ individual person at this time, they start to question all around them and develop their own ideas, something that can so often cause friction. It is however a natural part of the adolescent process and not a slight on their foster carers, a misconception that can often arise.

If you can address these issues of reunification with teenagers with the same listening, hearing, empathy and non judgementally, it will have a more positive impact than being disapproving or critical, which of course if we feel the parents are having a negative impact on the child can be difficult.

However, anyone who knows teenagers will know they are more likely to do the complete opposite of what an adult wants, so trying to deter them from this contact and reunification often has the opposite of the desired effect.

Supporting family time/contact time

Supporting and promoting contact is integral to the role of the foster carer as set out in the National Minimum Standards.

There is a FosterWiki page on family time/contact time and the carer supporting role here.

Each reunification is unique, and how contact is carried out and supervised will be informed by the needs of the child.

Building relationships with birth parents

Building good professional working relationships with birth parents is part of the foster carer’s role (where appropriate).

When reunification is the primary goal being explored then building a relationship with birth parents can be instrumental in a good transition and ongoing support.

The key is ‘professional’ as opposed to ‘friends’, as when the line becomes blurred it can often lead to difficulties, and although things may start out ok they can soon change in such a highly charged emotional context.

You may have parents’ phone numbers, but equally, you may go through social workers and only meet up at meetings and family time/contact. Plans for these relationships will always be agreed upon with the fostering service and care plans and will depend on the exact unique circumstances of the child in your care.

However creating and maintaining a good relationship with birth parents and family can be an excellent way to show you support the reunification, and this can include updates about the children, sharing achievements or events and what they have been doing. These things can mean a lot to a birth parent and keep them connected whilst they are preparing for reunification.

Why can reunification be hard for foster carers?

Foster carers understandably can find reunification difficult. It is only natural that foster carers and foster families build bonds with the children and young people in their care, so being prepared is paramount.

It can also be extremely difficult for foster carers when they work with the children on a daily basis and may have a different view on reunification and the impact it is or will have on the children in their care. They may also worry about the ability of the birth parent to care for the children and manage the reunification. It can be doubly frustrating when we feel we are not being heard.

If reunification is planned for (often alongside other permanence plans should reunification not work) the foster carers can be prepared for reunification to be a possible outcome and can be ready and equipped to address it and deal with it emotionally.

Supporting reunification right from the start of the fostering placement will ensure it is embedded into your practice as a foster carer, and you will understand that part of your role is helping a child to be reunified home to their parents or birth family.

Also, understanding Parental Responsibility (PR) from the outset of your fostering career is important, you can read about PR here.

Sometimes as foster carers, it’s hard to understand why a child or young person would want to return to a parent who may have neglected or abused them, we know that our house is a loving safe space, where they are nurtured and cared for. However this is not always how the child will see it, our ties with our birth family are mostly deeper than any, including our looked-after children.

In conclusion

Supporting and promoting reunification is an important part of our professional role as foster carers, it may be hard sometimes, it may be difficult to understand on occasions and at other times we will have concerns.

However, being fully knowledgeable about our role from the day we begin fostering will prepare us for what it entails. As always information, education, understanding of the standards and regulations that underpin our work, the policies and procedures and trauma-informed practice will enhance our care of the foster children that become part of our families, for however long that may be.

Useful Links

birth families Care Plan Children Reunification reunification framework role of the foster carer supporting reunification
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