National Reunification Month: Recognizing the People and Efforts Working to Keep Families Together
The top priority for foster care is ensuring the safety and well-being of children. People are often surprised to learn that helping families heal and reunify is also a major goal. Foster care exists to keep children safe, not as a punitive system for adjudicating the failures of parents. It offers temporary assistance for families and is predicated on the belief that parents can change.
Sensationalized news stories of extreme long-term physical abuse make it easy to believe that every case is horrific, but in reality, most cases of abuse are from neglect. Neglect is rarely malicious but rather situational. The vast majority of parents 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.
Cases that involve physical abuse are rarely prolonged patterns of malicious behavior. Instead, many abuse cases are the result of parents’ inability to cope with crises successfully. While intervention is needed to keep children safe, when a parent loses control in a stressful situation, it doesn’t mean they are always physically abusive or that they will be going forward. That parent has made a grave mistake but needs to be given the opportunity to learn and improve their behavior.
This doesn’t mean that all families will rise to the occasion and change. Some will try and fall short because they cannot overcome the circumstances that caused their child to be placed in foster care. There are others who, for various reasons, will not reunify with their children because they don’t put in the effort.
When poverty, domestic violence, or drug abuse precipitates neglect or a person is neglectful because they simply do not know better, rather than malice or an inherent inability to parent —extrapolating that they could never parent safely is unfair and incorrect. To vilify the parents of children in foster care and declare someone permanently unfit to parent based on largely circumstantial factors would make a drastic lifelong decision based on temporary and fixable factors.
Separation and Toxic Stress
Reunification is also essential because significant research has shown that reuniting families is a fundamental component of a child’s well-being in most cases. And a critical factor of a child’s well-being is ensuring that every effort is made to reduce trauma. Developmental scientists have studied and documented that separating children from their parents results in negative consequences, which causes distress.
When we’re distressed, our brains release stress hormones into our bodies. Cortisol is one of the most well-studied of those hormones. Toxic stress can result from a prolonged period of distress without help from a loved one, such as separating a parent and child. It can negatively affect a child’s brain development, cause serious long-term behavioral consequences, impact a child’s mental health and resilience, and even be detrimental to learning.
Making Reunification a Reality
Foster parents are truly amazing! Every day they practice the delicate balance of caring for and loving the children in their care and hoping that someday, they can be reunited with their parents.
Supporting reunification is an enormous emotional and logistical commitment made by foster parents. That commitment extends beyond offering love and support to a child or children; it also includes offering it to their biological family. Even though SOS Illinois Foster Parents are dedicated to reunification, it’s a challenging process to relinquish the children they’ve come to love.
The dedicated Foster Parents and staff at SOS Illinois provide intensive, family-centered services that support a stable and safe home environment. Whether that process includes creating a custom plan to help families address the circumstances that initiated the child’s placement in foster care, helping children develop and maintain meaningful connections with family, including returning to the family home.
The unique SOS Children’s Village Illinois model of care positively impacts foster children’s lives. That commitment includes developing tools to help birth parents navigate the system, such as creating a handbook to help birth parents better understand the sometimes confusing court system and Department of Children and Family Services.
Given the right circumstances and supports, parents can often make the necessary changes in their lives to become a positive influence for their children. While it can be easy to condemn parents for making choices that result in removing their children, offering empathy and encouragement can pave the way to make the necessary changes to enable them to become the parent they want to be and their children need.
Want to learn more about how our Village Model of Care supports family reunification, read about how our Foster Parents support birth parents. Interested in becoming a Foster Parent at SOS Illinois and complete our questionnaire.