NUMBER 699• 9 MARCH • FAMILY REUNIFICATION
The characteristics and circumstances of children and families also affect the likelihood of reunification. Reunifying a child with his or her birth parents is not a one-time event. Rather, it is a process involving the reintegration of the child into a family environment that may have changed significantly from the environment the child left. During the time apart, both the parent and the child may have encountered new experiences, developed new relationships, and created new expectations about the nature of their relationship. All these factors must be considered and accounted for when facilitating both physical and psychological reunification. Some studies have found that certain child and family characteristics can hinder or help the reunification process.
Some researchers have found that parental ambivalence about the return of children can be a significant barrier to successful reunification.19 Other studies have found that parents who have multiple problems are less likely to successfully reunify with their children.20 For example, parents with a combination of substance abuse problems, mental illness, or housing problems, and/or single parents, were less likely to be reunited than parents who did not face a multitude of concerns. Additionally, one study found that the duration and amount of contact families had with child welfare workers were positively related to reunification.21 Although other factors may be at work in this dynamic, it appears that continued and consistent interaction between reunified families and social workers may facilitate the reunification process. Maintaining contact between parents and child welfare workers may be particularly challenging, as some families may be resistant to maintaining ongoing relationships with the child welfare system — a system they may perceive as coercive, invasive, or threatening — after a child's return. This situation stands in contrast to many foster and adoptive families, who often request more interaction and assistance from the child welfare system.22
Children can also experience psychological distress during the reunification process. They may experience feelings of grief, loss, or fear at the prospect of leaving a foster home. A child's psychological health can also affect reunification. One longitudinal study of more than 600 children found that children with behavioral or emotional problems were less likely to be reunified than were children who did not face these difficulties.23 Another study found that children experiencing health difficulties and/or disabilities had lower reunification rates than children who were not.24
Wulczyn, F. (2004) Family Reunification. The Future of Children, Vol.14 No.1, Winter 2004 . From The Future of Children, a publication of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
19. Littell, J., and Schuerman, J. A synthesis of research on family preservation and family reunification programs. Chicago: Westat, James Bell Associates, and the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, May 1995.
20. See note 19, Littell and Schuerman.
21. See note 19, Littell and Schuerman.
22. Freundlich, M., and Wright, L. Post permanency services. Washington, DC: Casey Family Programs, 2003, p. 47.
23. Landsverk, J., Davis, I., Ganger, W., et al. Impact of child psychosocial functioning on reunification from out of home placement. Children and Youth Services Review (1996) 18:447–62.
24. See note 19, Littell and Schuerman.