The Crooked Path to Reunification

McKenna Murray, FCNI staff
June, 26, 2020 -

While growing up, I think I had an above-average level of exposure to the foster care system. I had close family members and multiple friends who fostered and/or adopted kids. Also, two of my best friends in high school had been in foster care. And yet, even though I thought I knew everything, since I started working at Family Care Network nearly three years ago, I have come to realize how much I’ve misunderstood about foster care. I had subconsciously bought into the myth that the primary objective of foster care is to “rescue kids from terrible parents.” I slid parents--who are really just people--into invisible boxes marked “Good” or “Bad.” I figured that foster kids must be relieved to get away from their perceived horrible family situations. 

Fortunately, throughout my career, I’ve learned that these boxes are not so clear-cut. Kids love their parents, and the vast majority of them prefer to live with their parents, regardless of what kind of parents they are. Very few parents plan to abuse or neglect their kids. And biological parents and their children are irrevocably bonded together, regardless of the circumstances. As I’ve become more aware of these truths, I’ve grown deeply proud of FCNI’s mission, “to enhance the wellbeing of children and families in partnership with our community.” It is not “to help trauma-impacted kids heal” nor is it to “find better families for kids.” Although we do support youth with transitioning to independent living or adoption if necessary, our primary goal is reunification and preservation of families whenever safely possible.

Just as the reasons for removal differ, the process of reunification is unique to each family and youth. Every case, however, requires a team. Child Welfare Services (CWS) and the courts determine what goals need to be achieved in order for reunification to occur. The parents’ part usually involves completing steps to manage their own mental health or secure safe living conditions, along with assistance from their CWS social worker. FCNI social workers and parent partners support parents with portions of this process, as well as with learning parenting skills to manage both developmentally-appropriate and trauma-related behaviors their kids might present. Therapists support the family in processing the trauma that has occured and reworking their family dynamics.

Foster parents, rather than functioning like substitute parents, play a vital role in family reunification. First, they model healthy family functioning for youth and biological parents. I don’t mean that they aim to impose their own ideas about what to eat or how to keep the house clean. I mean that foster parents exemplify positive communication, emotional/behavioral management techniques, and methods of relationship-building. Many of our foster parents implement stable routines and chores in order to teach youth how to care for themselves and function as part of a household team. Our foster parents also often directly mentor and collaborate with their youths’ biological parents to help them figure out how to best support their specific child and their needs. They hold their youths’ hands through the process of reunification by providing a listening ear, a safe space, and activities that boost their moods. They combine the role of a parent with a trained mental health eye as they observe the youth daily and discuss their progress with the team. When youth are reluctant to contact their biological parents, foster parents provide them with gentle prompting as well as emotional support. Watching our foster parents provide these support services in action has definitely changed my perception of foster care.

Of course, learning to fulfil my own role as a Rehabilitation Specialist (RS) bot only helped to facilitate this shift in thinking, but it also required it. I’ve had the humbling honor of partnering with families and youth during all of the different stages of reunification--from the shock of placement in foster care, to the uncertain questioning of whether reunification is a viable goal, to the long battle of reducing unsafe behaviors while also transferring important coping and life skills, to preparing youth to actually transition back home, to providing support after that transition has occured as the reunited family tries to find their new normal. 

My job largely consists of helping children and youth build the skills they need to maintain stability in their foster placement as well as to successfully reunify. These skills include identifying and coping with their emotions, positively communicating their thoughts and needs, and setting healthy boundaries. Sometimes I work only with the youth and their foster parents, other times I get to work with biological parents as well, supporting them in utilizing the skills they are learning from others on the team. Although I teach many of the same things to all of my youth, I’m careful to individualize the process to each one by finding creative ways to engage their interests, learning styles, and needs. I love building a relationship with my youth in which they get to practice these skills first-hand. Sometimes I drive them to their family visits and support them in applying the skills to those relationships, like practice sessions for reunification. 

Despite our best efforts, however, reunification is rarely a quick, linear process.  I frequently consult with my supervisor and team to remain goal-focused and consciously manage my emotional investment in certain outcomes for the kids and families I grow to love so much. At the end of it all though, it’s an amazing feeling to see families--who really aren’t that different from any other family--overcome the obstacles in their life to come back together again.