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FFT Special

Reunification Conferences
Helping Children Return Home

by Melissa Proctor, MSW, LCSW

Loraine was a 30-year-old mother whose two daughters were removed and placed in foster care due to her heroin addiction. In early 2012 she was losing hope of regaining custody and her parental rights were likely to be terminated in the next few months.  

Today, because of a Reunification Conference, Loraine has had her daughters back in her care for almost three years. They are an independent, healthy, happy family.  Loraine works full time as a parent partner and volunteers her free time helping other parents who are involved with the child welfare system and/or struggling with addiction. Loraine will tell you that much of what helped change the course for her family was a Reunification Conference offered to her in 2012 that she participated in as a “last hope.” Although Loraine believed she had completed most of the services required of her, her Child Welfare Services worker did not feel she was progressing in her case plan and her parental rights were at risk in a court hearing if something did not change, and fast. This article will describe the Reunification Conference meeting model and illustrate how it helps families like Loraine’s successfully reunify.  

In 2010, San Diego County Child Welfare Services approached Casey Family Programs to create a process to address the issue of parents like Loraine who seemed to be “stuck” and were not making progress toward regaining custody of their children. Together, Child Welfare Services and Casey Family Programs developed the Reunification Conference meeting model to help these parents advance in the reunification process. The main goals of Reunification Conferences are to 1) clarify what expectations need to be met in order for children to be returned to the care of their parent(s), and 2) develop a joint, concrete action plan and road map to meet those expectations. A Reunification Conference brings together the Child Welfare Services worker and supervisor, and the parent and his or her support person. Casey Family Programs provides a neutral facilitator and external consultant to help generate creative ideas to meet the case plan objectives. These conferences last two hours and involve six phases (welcome and overview; case presentation; clarification and exploration; brainstorming; action planning; and debrief).  

The Reunification Conference model, which is supportive, strength-based and entirely voluntary, recognizes the parent as the expert on her or his family. Meetings are held at a convenient time and place for the parent, and when possible, in a neutral location, such as a library or community center. The parent is encouraged to bring anyone he or she chooses to serve as a support. Loraine chose to bring the director of her drug treatment program, whose reports of Loraine’s unique progress and determination did a great deal to address Child Welfare Services workers’ stated concerns about the difficulty heroin addicts have in conquering addiction.

Each Reunification Conference starts and ends with scaling questions (i.e., “on a scale of 1 to 10…”) to see if the meeting has helped. These questions assess the parent’s understanding of what he or she needs to do to reunite with the children, as well as the parent’s and CWS worker’s confidence in the ability of the parent to meet case plan objectives. At the meeting, the case presentation is first given by the parent, then the worker. Also, a crucial focus of the discussion during the meeting is differentiating between true risk factors and other concerns that need to be addressed, but should not prevent the return of the children, such as transportation, income and support. The team brainstorms ways to address those concerns separately from decisions related to return of the children.

Much of what is so impactful about Reunification Conferences is that they improve communication between the Child Welfare Services worker and the parent and bring necessary clarity to exactly what is expected of the parent. Parents regularly report that they were angry and overwhelmed when their children were first removed and their case plan was initially shared with them. At that time, many parents neither remembered nor understood the case plan. Also, case plan goals are often written in general statements, such as, “Parent must make progress in individual therapy.”

By contrast, in Reunification Conference meetings, expectations are broken down into clear goals that are behavioral, measurable and/or time-limited.  For example, in a case like Loraine’s with substance abuse as the primary issue, the goal that states, “Parent must make progress in individual therapy,” becomes clear and specific:  “Parent must gain a better understanding of her own trauma contributing to her drug abuse and the impact of her drug abuse on the kids. This will be demonstrated through the mother’s completion of a responsibility letter to each child and monthly reports from her therapist to the Child Welfare Services worker. Child Welfare Services worker will inform parent if and why she is not on track within a week of reviewing the monthly report.”

Another key reason why Reunification Conferences work is because the tone of the meetings is positive, solution-focused and non-blaming. During the debrief phase of the meetings, parents report that they felt respected and heard. Redirection is used when any blaming occurs or individuals use subjective, judgment-laden language. For these reasons and more, Child Welfare Services and Casey Family Programs have found a level of success in helping families on the road to reunification that other meeting models have yet to offer.

Although no formal research has been done to evaluate the effectiveness of this meeting model, some tracking has been done. That tracking showed that about 70 percent of the families who were referred as “stuck” in the reunification process were able to have their dependency cases closed successfully after their Reunification Conference. Eighty percent of parents progressed to the next step in their case plan, such as a higher level of visitation or children placed with a parent on a trial visit, as a direct result of the meeting.  

As was true with Loraine, this often happens during the Reunification Conference because of the increased understanding between Child Welfare Services and the parent, as well as the detailed, comprehensive plan developed at the meeting. Reunification Conferences resulted in a significant increase in understanding of the case plan and confidence that objectives would be met for both the parent and Child Welfare Services worker, according to the scaling questions asked before and after the meeting.
As was illustrated by the story of Loraine and her daughters, as well as many other families, Reunification Conferences have proven to be a catalyst for progress when parents are not advancing in the reunification process. Reunification Conferences provide improved understanding and relationships as well as clearer, more concrete case plans. That can make all the difference in helping children return home.

For more information about the Reunification Conference model and its implementation in San Diego County, contact Melissa Proctor at 619-683-5641 or mproctor@casey.org.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Melissa Proctor has more than 20 years of direct practice and supervision experience with children and families involved in the child welfare system. More than 10 years of that experience is with youth in foster homes, group homes and residential settings. For the last nine years Proctor has been the family engagement liaison in Casey Family Program’s San Diego Field Office. Proctor’s position centers around doing birth family work for youth in foster care and providing services focused on permanency. Proctor also provides consultation to public child welfare agencies inside and outside of California through her work with Casey Family Programs. She earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998 and is licensed clinical social worker in California.    

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