Enhancing and Celebrating Family Reunifications from Foster Care
AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON, D.C.–Benjamin Muhammad entered New York’s foster care system at birth, going through two kinship homes and an abusive foster home, all before the age of 9 when he was adopted by his aunt and uncle.
At a congressional briefing on Tuesday to celebrate National Reunification Days, May 8 through June 19, Muhammad stressed its significance.
“Reunification is so important because although parents might not have the best history, they love their children,” he said. “Love is the missing component in foster care.”
According to data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, in fiscal year 2009 more than 700,000 children spent at least some time in foster care, and on Sept. 30, 2009, 423,733 children were in foster care. While 276,266 exited foster care, 140,061 — 51 percent — were reunified with their parents.
“Reunification with family is the preferred outcome for children removed from their homes and placed in foster care,” said Mimi Laver of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law.
Amie S. Gladfelter, a caseworker with the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families in Pennsylvania, echoed the same sentiment.
“Reunification is the most important, since the cost of separation is quite damaging both on emotional and financial levels,” she said. “Funding should be supplied for things necessary for the family to be successful, like housing, transportation and food.”
Gladfelter also said that a family’s lack of basic necessities should never be the sole reason that reunification of a family fails.
With state budgets strapped for cash, many programs are still able to save money while preserving families. In Sacramento County, its dependency drug court is not only good for families, it’s saving millions of dollars. Over five years, the Sacramento Family Drug Court saved $17,619,822 in federal foster care costs alone due to the higher five-year reunification rates and shorter times in out of home care.
Findings from a decade-long evaluation of the Sacramento Family Drug Court clearly indicate that family drug courts can help parents successfully complete treatment, leading to significantly higher rates of children reunifying with their parents and lower rates of future child abuse reports.
Without the Family Drug Court, 369 fewer children would have reunified with their families by five years. Family Drug Court children spent an average of 26.5 fewer months in out-of-home care. Federal foster care costs for out-of-home care averaged $1803.13 per month per child.
In 2010 in Washington, D.C., 453 children in foster care were placed in permanent homes, and 227 of them were reunified with their families.
Hon. Zoe Bush, associate judge to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, who has served in the family court for 10 of her 17 years on the bench, described one of her cases that required multiple family members to receive mental and substance abuse services, as well as other community services, but ended in reunification.
“When custody was granted back to the parent, though, it was mom to mom, not judge to mom,” she said.
Kelly Cates, who while pregnant with her third daughter nine years ago, participated in substance abuse programs for her methamphetamine addiction and regained the custody of her two daughters, also spoke at the briefing.
“I credit the fact I’m sitting here because of the opportunities I received by finally working with my social worker and the Center for Addiction and Pregnancy at Bayview Hospital,” she said. “Something clicked and I was connected with every resource I needed to be successful.”
While at the center, Cates said that she was connected to parenting classes, transportation, probation, parent-aid that helped with visitation and even housing, due to a reunification housing clause in Section 8.
Although experts discussed the importance of reunification and necessity of community services to achieve it, tough economic times have caused states to slash funding to many of the services Cates attributes to her success.
Cates worked as a mentor at the Center for Addiction and Pregnancy at Bayview Hospital and would like to ultimately work in the field of addiction and mental health.
“Resources that were available to help me initially to become a productive member of society are no longer available due to lack of funding,” she said. “Funding for services that work towards keeping families together is being eliminated to pay for foster care.”
“I would hate to see other families not get a chance at reunification because of money,” she said.
The ABA Center on Children and the Law and other national organizations, including the National Association of Counsel for Children, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Casey Family Programs, and the American Humane Association are working together to promote National Reunification Days. Celebrating reunification enables communities around the nation to applaud the accomplishments of families who have reunified safely and successfully; inspire other parents, particularly those going through the recovery process, that it is possible to reunify; and to recognize the vital role that community partners, including mental health and substance abuse providers, courts and judges, foster parents and others, play in helping to reunify, strengthen and support families.