Policy Resource

National Reunification Month: Helping Children and Parents Heal

Jun 18, 2012

June is National Reunification Month, a time both to reflect on this parent and countless others who struggle to reach a place where they can be rejoined with their children and above all to celebrate these families’ resiliency.

“I wouldn’t let them in,” says the young woman speaking to the camera, “and they pounded on my door for about 45 minutes….[My baby] was sleeping and I just laid in bed with him and held him because I knew what was coming.” This young mother is telling the wrenching story of the day her child was removed from her care and placed in foster care. On a recently released video, she recounts her own struggles growing up without a mother, her history of sexual abuse by a family member, and her lack of self-esteem.

This young mother was lucky—she landed in the court room of Judge Constance Cohen, a leader of one of eight active Safe Babies Court Teams (Court Team) developed by ZERO TO THREE in communities around the country. The Court Team’s support ultimately made her and her baby a reunification success story. It wasn’t easy, but encouraged by foster parents who were willing to act as mentors and role models, a team of service providers able to make services available, and a judge who treated her with dignity, she was able to pull her life back together and regain custody of that baby whom she had held onto so tightly.

June is National Reunification Month, a time both to reflect on this parent and countless others who struggle to reach a place where they can be rejoined with their children and above all to celebrate these families’ resiliency. While many events will take place this week, leading up to Fathers’ Day on June 17, supporting families should be a focus all year long for the communities that must come together around them. Visit the National Reunification Month website for more information.

The Safe Babies Court Team Project at ZERO TO THREE is giving many families with young children in foster care reason to celebrate. A recent evaluation has shown that young children in Court Teams sites leave foster care for a permanent home more quickly—about a year sooner than a nationally representative comparison group pulled from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Wellbeing (NSCAW), according to an evaluation by Dr. Kimberly McCombs-Thornton. When the study controlled characteristics that might explain the results, it found that Court Teams children left foster care nearly three times faster. (See references below.)

But the finding that gives the greatest reason to celebrate during National Reunification Month is that reunification with parents is the most common reason Court Teams babies leave foster care. This means that Safe Babies Court Teams appear to have a significant effect on how young children exit care. 38% of children in the Court Teams were reunified compared with 29% for NSCAW. In the national comparison group, adoption was the most frequent outcome (41%) compared with 15% of Court Teams children. Moreover, while the outcome of reunification typically leads to longer stays in care, reaching this goal in the Court Teams did not prolong the time children spent in foster care.

These findings are particularly important for infants and toddlers, who make up the largest group of children entering foster care each year. Once in care, young children tend to stay the longest. If they go home with their parents, almost a third are likely to reenter care. Along the way, their development, already at risk because of maltreatment, may get further off track. Fragile bonds of attachment may fray if they don’t see their parents frequently or have a consistent caregiver on whom they can count. Reaching a permanent home quickly is paramount for the youngest children, for whom a few months can represent a significant portion of their entire lifetime.

A Court Team is composed of child welfare staff, representatives of the legal system, and community service providers, all called together by a judge whose leadership is the catalyst for the systems change that follows. A basic principle recognized early in the Court Teams Project’s development is that if our goal is to help parents to be better parents, then we have to deal with their own early experiences of trauma, frequently including sexual abuse. We also have to address current issues such as mental illness, domestic violence, and lack of housing that make creating a stable home for a baby seem an overwhelming task.

Dr. McCombs-Thornton’s qualitative analysis suggests two reasons for the difference Court Teams make. One is the judicial leadership. Judges motivated parents by encouraging them and modeling for them the importance of being concerned about their children’s wellbeing–while also demanding accountability for meeting their responsibilities under the service plan. The second factor was monthly case reviews by the Court Team. More frequent than normal scrutiny may have motivated parents to comply with their plans more quickly and kept key actors in the service system focused on the timeline. It also meant everyone could see progress and find the motivation to continue to strive for success.

A recently-released DVD, Safe Babies Court Teams: Building Strong Families and Healthy Communities, describes the approach and offers more in-depth views of several issues—including the importance of focusing on the parents’ needs in trying to reunify families and support early development. In addition to Judge Cohen’s team in Des Moines, Iowa, teams currently are active in communities in Mississippi, Louisiana, Connecticut, Arkansas, North Carolina, Hawaii, and Nebraska.

Perhaps the parents who have been through the Court Team process and come out on the other side strengthened and supported as parents can say it best. The young mother whose words started this post describes how Judge Cohen “treated me with respect, she applauded me and encouraged me.” As we look toward Fathers’ Day, the last word belongs to a young father with a criminal record and history of drug use who turned his life around when he saw his infant son withdrawing from the crack cocaine in his bloodstream. Seeing how willing he was to learn what was best for his son, the Court Team helped him gain control of his life and custody of his child. He is now that person in the community others look to for support. Quite simply, he says, the ZERO TO THREE Court Team “believed in me.” He says he “wasn’t looked at as someone who had been in trouble or a drug addict…[but] was looked at as a parent. It was a beautiful feeling.”

Resources on Safe Babies Court Teams:

McCombs-Thornton, Kimberly. “Moving Young Children From Foster Care to Permanent Homes: Evaluation Findings for the ZERO TO THREE Safe Babies Court Team Project.” ZERO TO THREE 32 no. 5 (2012): 43-48.

McCombs-Thornton, K. L., & Foster, E. M. (2012). The effect of the ZERO TO THREE Court Teams initiative on types of exits from the foster care system: A competing risks analysis. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(1), 169–178. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2011.09.013

Safe Babies Court Teams: Building Strong Families and Healthy Communities. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE, 2012. Available for order at http://www.zerotothree.org/maltreatment/safe-babies-court-team/safe-babies-products.html

Safe Babies Court Teams, a project of ZERO TO THREE. http://www.zerotothree.org/maltreatment/safe-babies-court-team/

Lewis, J. Dean (ed.) and Hudson, Lucy (guest ed.) “Young Children Involved in the Dependency Court.” The Judge’s Page (a newsletter of the National CASA Association and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges). March 2012. http://www.casaforchildren.org/site/c.mtJSJ7MPIsE/b.7997865/k.E675/March_2012.htm

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