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How foster parents can support reunification

Two adults smiling next to a child at a table with a computer in front of them

If you’re a foster parent, you know that there is one unifying goal for every child in foster care: permanency. The best way to achieve that is typically through reunification. In fact, the majority of children and youth in foster care will be reunified with their families. 

You are in a unique position to make a positive impact on a young person’s life by supporting reunification efforts. But, even so, you may have questions about this goal and how you can help. 

We spoke with an AdoptUSKids foster care and adoption specialist to gain insight into this topic. 

  • Many of the strategies she suggests center around partnering with the birth families.
  • That partnership has the added benefit of making the child feel more comfortable in your care, with two sets of important adults in their life working together.

In the words of a foster and adoptive parent who wrote for our blog back in 2021, “If you support birth parents and treat them with respect, it helps them and it lessens the trauma of the child when they go home.”

Assess your ideas about birth families 

To authentically support the goal of reunification, it may help to reflect on what you know about birth families, as there are many myths out there. Elizabeth Brescia, a senior foster care and adoption resource specialist, helps frame this. 

“A majority of the children enter due to neglect. Maybe the parent has a substance use disorder. Substance use disorders are common across all families in America and can impact anyone.”

Consider looking within your family and extended family ties. You’ll soon realize that, as Elizabeth puts it, “There’s really no such thing as it couldn’t happen to your family. So, if it can happen to everyone’s family, then the children come from families who are everyone.” 

In addition to making the child more comfortable, there is research indicating that a strong relationship between foster and birth parents increases the chances of reunification.

Be supportive when it comes to visits

Court-ordered visits with birth families are part of most case plans. Elizabeth explains why these visits are so important, saying, “A child is getting to see their parent who they are missing probably every single day, if not even more often than that.”

Some adults who were previously in foster care have described hearing hurtful things about their birth parents, and this can cause additional trauma. Show the child that you know visits are important to go to and that you are in full support of their relationship with their birth parents.

“We all get really busy in our lives. It’s important, though, that the child get a sense from you that you view these visits as important and worth it, and that it doesn’t accidentally come across as trudging to a dentist appointment,” Elizabeth explains. 

Involve birth parents in decision-making

In a recent article published by WTVR-TV, foster parents Margie and Pedro Rosas are featured for their relationships with birth parents. They respect birth parents’ decisions and preferences. For example, they ask about things like haircuts and whether or not the parents want their child to use a pacifier.

Elizabeth responded to the idea of reaching out to birth parents by saying, “That’s absolutely fantastic because that provides continuity for the children—when you go to a new home, there are just so many things that are different. The smells are different, the colors can be different, the food is different.”

Two adults and a child eating dinner together

You might ask a birth parent questions like:

  • “What music does your child like?”
  • “Do you have any advice about clothes your child prefers?”
  • “Is there any type of clothing that is frustrating for your child?” 

In addition to making the child more comfortable, there is research indicating that a strong relationship between foster and birth parents increases the chances of reunification.

Create a life book to prepare for the transition  

We often hear from adults who were previously in foster care that their memories of childhood are fuzzy. This can be difficult for identity and well-being.

A life book can be used by your foster child to remember moments from before they were in care and document happy times while they’re in your care.

A life book is also a way to connect your child with their history and culture, and it can be a great activity to do together. It can even be used during visits with birth families. Your child can bring the book and share exciting moments with their loved ones. And once the child is reunified, the book can provide positive memories of their time in your care.

“A great place to start is to go ahead and have the child tell you about some of their favorite things that happened before they came to your home and then keep recording something as an activity together. Just go back and add to the book if they feel like something fun happened today, or if they’re really excited about something they got done today,” Elizabeth says.

See this downloadable life book template from the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association.

Finally, reach out for support

While you recognize a child has been reunified for their own well-being, and you may even maintain contact with the family, you will likely grieve once a child leaves your home.

Know that you can take time to grieve, and it is natural to feel this way after the loss of a child. It is also understandable to take time before considering another placement.

You can reach out to your caseworker for support groups in your area. You can also explore support resources on our state information pages and on Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Related resources

For additional information about reunification, explore the Children’s Bureau Express. In a 2020 article, the Children’s Bureau also talks with foster parents and a birth mother to highlight a story of how one child was reunified with his family.