Family reunification is the preferred permanency objective in most cases where a child is placed in care.
Family reunification is a planned and timely process of safely returning a child to the care of a parent or parents, with a view to enduring reunification. The best interests principles in the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 (CYFA) are clear about ‘the need to give the widest possible protection and assistance to the parent and child’ and ‘the desirability, when a child is removed from the care of his or her parent, to plan the reunification of the child with his or her parent’. Strong partnership, early planning and intensive efforts with the family and other professionals are required to maximise opportunities for safe, timely and sustainable reunification.
Where family reunification is the permanency objective of the case plan, the compatible Children's Court orders are an interim accommodation order that places the child in care or a family reunification order.
In exceptional circumstances, family reunification may also be pursued when the child has been in care for more than two years and is under a care by Secretary order.
This advice addresses particular practice issues relating to engaging the family, undertaking case planning and reviewing the risk assessment for reunification using professional judgement, research and practice-based knowledge.
The child’s best interests must always be the paramount consideration in the case practice and service delivery of child protection and community services.
The best interests principles as set out in s.10 of the CYFA provide the framework for intervention and place the child at the centre of all decisions and actions, together with the SAFER children framework which combines evidence-based practice with professional judgement to enhance outcomes for vulnerable children and their families.
The key components of the best interests principles that must be considered in relation to family reunification, in addition to protecting the child from harm, protecting their rights, and promoting their development (taking into account their age and stage of development) and include:
- Giving the widest possible protection and assistance to the parents and child as the fundamental group unit of society and ensuring that intervention into that relationship is limited to that necessary to secure the child’s safety, stability and development (s. 10(3)(a))
- Needing to strengthen, preserve and promote positive relationships between the child and parents, family members and significant others (s. 10(3)(b))
- Needing to protect and promote an Aboriginal child’s cultural and spiritual identity and development by maintaining and building connections to their Aboriginal family and community (s. 10(3)(c))
- Giving weight as is appropriate in the circumstances to the child’s views and wishes (s. 10(3)(d))
- The effects of cumulative patterns of harm on a child’s safety, stability and development (s. 10(3)(e))
- The desirability of continuity and permanency in the child’s care (s. 10(3)(f))
- The desirability of making decisions as expeditiously as possible and the possible harmful effect of delay in making a decision or taking an action (s. 10(3)(fa)).
- Only removing a child from their parents’ care if there is an unacceptable risk of harm (s. 10(3)(g))
- The desirability, when a child is removed from their parents’ care, to plan the child’s reunification with their parents (s. 10(3)(i))
- Parental capability to provide for the child’s needs and any action taken by the parents to give effect to the planning goals set out in the case plan (s. 10(3)(j))
- Arranging contact between the child and parents, siblings, family members and significant others (s. 10(3)(k)).
The decision-making principles in sections 11 to 14 provide the framework for the decision-making process and stress the importance of meaningfully involving children, parents, and other relatives and interested parties, including carers, in the process, and providing assistance to enable their meaningful participation (for example by involving interpreters, community elders or culturally specific agency representatives).
The principles also stress the importance of arriving at decisions through consensus and collaboration where possible.
The best interests principles are explicit about only removing a child from their parents’ care if there is an unacceptable risk of harm and the desirability, when a child is removed, to plan for the reunification with their parents.
Additionally, the best interests principles are clear about the desirability of continuity and permanency in the child’s care, and the possible harmful effect of delay in making a decision or taking an action.
These considerations are based on the philosophy of preserving families as ‘the fundamental group unit of society’ (CYFA s. 10(3)(a)), the knowledge that children’s continuity and permanency in care arrangements are pivotal to their healthy development and equally, the importance of timeliness, as children’s developmental time frames do not allow them to wait indefinitely for their future care to be resolved (Brydon, 2004).
The challenge in planning and decision making is to find the right balance between these considerations that serve the child’s best interests, while also complying with the decision-making principles in the CYFA.
It is important to view family reunification as a process rather than a placement event (Brydon, 2004). The process includes maintaining family relationships while children are in short-term care, careful planning and sustained support after reunification (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006). Wulczyn (2004, p. 99) highlights this point in the statement that:
‘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’.
Reunification requires services and supports from when child first enters care and beyond the child’s return home, to meet the child's and their family’s needs.
Strong engagement and collaboration with the family and the service providers is necessary in order to address the protective concerns to make the process of reunification possible.
Reunification planning is possible when risks, strengths, safety and protection are dynamically reviewed. Regular review of the risk assessment is necessary to consider whether decisions made as part of previous risk assessments and planning remain in the child’s best interests.
Reunification exists within the range of permanency objectives from family preservation aiming at preventing placement, through to permanent or long term care. Any of the intervention and planning options may have a place for each child and their family depending on their specific qualities, needs and circumstances (Tilbury & Osmond, 2006), with the goal of providing permanency in care arrangements for children in as timely a way as is consistent with their best interests.
For most children in care, family reunification can be achieved in a timely way and is therefore the preferred outcome. Evidence indicates that most children who enter care are reunified with their parents in less than a year.
The child’s best interests and assessment of the child’s developmental needs, present and future risk of harm and parental capability, should be at the core of all decision making for family preservation, family reunification, or permanent or long-term care.
Effective case practice involves engaging the child, parents and significant others throughout the intervention with the family. Engagement is an ongoing process that enables the family to be motivated to work with child protection and other services towards agreed upon goals. It includes the process of ‘joining’ with the family, getting to know them, understanding their story and context, and building a rapport as the basis of a purposeful working relationship.
Research and practice have shown the value of engaging families as an intervention to facilitate the process of change, and to achieve timely and sustainable family reunification (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006). A strong engagement and partnership approach with families enables good case work to be undertaken to address the protective concerns and achieve the intended outcomes, and is also consistent with the decision-making principles in section 11 of the CYFA.
Engagement and partnership also promote an accurate assessment of the viability of reunification and better long-term outcomes for children. This is particularly important in the statutory context where decisions and actions have far-reaching consequences for children.
Case planning in child protection must always be done in collaboration with the child, their family and professionals involved. The child’s voice should always be present in any reunification plan developed. Engaging with the child, hearing their perspective and understanding their story is an essential aspect of case work and planning. It enables the work with the parents to be more effective, as the child’s experience can be more easily ‘held in mind’. The details of the child’s experience matter. Good decisions are grounded in a strong appreciation of the child’s unique viewpoint (Miller, 2007).
Some useful suggestions for engaging children include:
- Use age appropriate language.
- Use a medium that is easier for children to relate to, such as drawing or puppets.
- Get down to their physical level, such as kneeling at a table with them.
- If children do not want to talk, do not try to force them. In certain circumstances it can be a useful strategy to invite them to listen to conversations had with their parents and check out the answers with them (The Bouverie Centre, 2002).
- If the child is an infant or has a disability or complex medical needs which limit how their voice is captured, observations should be used to bring the child’s voice and perspective into planning.
For children in care, the process of engagement should address the typical impact of loss and grief caused by the separation of the child from parents and other family members (Maluccio et al., 1993). Case practice needs to encompass opportunities for therapeutic work with the child and parents to assist their recovery from traumatic experiences. This requires partnering with a range of different services to work with the family. Hess and Proch (1993, p. 122) note that:
‘The hopelessness and sense of powerlessness felt by many parents can and do interfere with timely and successful reunification. Parents who feel they have no real control lose hope and stop trying to make the changes that allow reunification’.
The Best Interests Principles: A Conceptual Overview (Miller, 2007) contains a body of literature on partnership approaches with children and parents. The key messages in the paper include that family sensitive practice is committed to collaboration with families, holds compassionate attitudes, avoids blaming, values the experience of families, maximises family involvement in decision making and is underpinned by a belief that change can happen. This approach is premised on a realistic and continually deepening assessment of the risk issues, and the parents’ capability to address both the child’s needs and the harmful circumstances that necessitated the child’s removal.
A partnership approach with the family should not be confused with overly optimistic or naive practice that colludes with the minimisation or denial of the actual harm or risk to the child (Turnell & Edwards, 1999). Practice needs to be both strengths based, engaging the possibilities for change and healing, and forensically astute (Miller, 2007). For example, where there has been ongoing parental depression and violence and the parents believe that ‘the children were asleep or watching television or did not notice’, such faulty beliefs need to be challenged and rectified. Good engagement with the parents means that difficult conversations can be held to facilitate the process of change and provide the appropriate services to assist.
Miller and Dwyer (1997) discuss the process of engaging parents in difficult conversations, whilst not losing rapport or colluding with their minimisation or denial of the behaviours that may have harmed the child. The pacing of the interview is vital and ‘talking about, the talking about’ can be a useful strategy. It is important to be transparent with parents about the child’s experience and openly discuss their preparedness to work through the issues that need to be addressed. For example, where a father has been physically violent to his partner and child but minimises the impact of this, it is necessary to engage him in facing up, taking responsibility and being accountable to change his behaviour. Establishing an explicit agreement early in the interview to be ‘upfront’ is very useful and checking out his willingness to have the difficult conversation usually enables a more productive process. Some useful questions that can be asked include:
- Are you sure you can handle talking about your violence?
- It isn’t easy - it takes a lot of courage to face up to the fact that you really hurt someone you love
- How does it affect you to talk about your violence? (Jenkins, 1990)
A crucial aspect of engaging with parents from the outset of intervention is to develop realistic and clear goals and measurable strategies, action tasks and timelines
The ongoing engagement and case work should keep the parents focused on the parameters of the change required of them and the child’s needs. This enables parental motivation, commitment and sustainability of changes to be assessed over the agreed upon period that is within the legislated time frames for family reunification, except in exceptional circumstances. For example, where a parent who has a drug issue is attending counselling but not making the necessary progress to address the addiction, ‘upfront’ discussions need to occur about the consequences of this. Decisions should not be based solely on parental cooperation and compliance with case plans or family members’ reports of readiness for family reunification (Hess & Proch, 1993; Brydon 2004).
Assessment is a dynamic and recursive process that must constantly incorporate new information to enable effective planning and fair and transparent decision making (CYFA s. 11(c)) about the appropriateness of family reunification or permanent or long-term care (Frederico et al., 2006).
Assessment is an integral part of planning for successful and sustainable reunification that should enable a child to remain permanently in the care of their parents. Reunification should be assessed and planned for as early as possible in a child’s out-of-home placement to promote their stability (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006; Maluccio et al., 1993).
When the risk assessment is regularly reviewed and updated with latest information contemporaneously, this assists with informing any assessments, including the risk assessment, that go on to inform or relate to reunification planning.
The need for comprehensive and accurate assessments
Research discusses the range of variables relating to the likelihood of family reunification.
Some of the commonly cited factors that impact on reunification include:
- frequency and quality of the parent-child contact during placement
- number and type of presenting problems prior to placement
- parents and children’s motivation for reunification to occur
- continuity of care arrangements and length of time in care
- age and culture of the child
- behavioural problems experienced in care
- experience, continuity and contact of workers.
Research findings are not able to clearly inform practice regarding whether and when to reunite children with their parents, as there are no reliable predictors of future harm or to distinguish those families able to benefit from intervention and treatment (Brydon, 2004b; Jackson, 1997). Comprehensive, accurate and individualised assessments are needed to arrive at the best decision in a timely way that promotes the child’s safety and development (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006; Tilbury & Osmond, 2006).
The SAFER children framework promotes continually seeking, sharing, sorting and storing information and evidence, together with analysis of what this information and evidence tells us about consequence and probability of harm to inform comprehensive and accurate assessments.
The SAFER child framework, together with the specialist assessment guides, particularly ‘Reunification assessment tool’ provide a strong framework for developing and reviewing reunification plans. A reunification plan must always have the child at the centre and be created to support the child or young person’s safety and wellbeing. Careful professional judgement, analysis and decision-making are needed to ensure that reunification occurs only where it is in the child’s best interests.
A thorough risk assessment to determine the child’s developmental needs, vulnerability, consequence and probability of harm, and safety factors informs decision making, along with evidence from a range of other sources.
These sources of information include direct observations and interviews with:
- the child
- the parents
- significant others.
Other important perspectives and sources of information include:
- specialist service providers
- professionals from placement services and family services
- other professionals involved with the child and family
- file records on the child and other siblings. Case records can reveal critical historical information on previous interventions and must be integrated into the present assessment.
Planning is integral to meet children’s best interests as it draws together the collaborative assessment and case work with families to make decisions about the child’s future care and wellbeing. A case plan is key to setting out the significant decisions about the child’s care and wellbeing, which remains the central focus when planning for reunification.
The accompanying actions table sets out the goals and tasks parents and others need to undertake to implement the case plan. The actions table must align with the case plan, including goals that are clear and specific, and have been developed with the family.
Case planning and permanency planning
Permanency planning promotes continuity in care and relationships by making permanent arrangements for children to live with their family of origin or in other care at the earliest possible time.
Permanency planning was initially conceived in the mid-1970s for children in out-of-home care and has grown over time to encompass a systematic, goal directed and timely approach to planning for all children subject to child protection intervention (Tilbury & Osmond, 2006).
The principles of permanency planning are embedded in section 167 of the CYFA, which contains the hierarchy of permanency objectives (s. 167(1)), the preference for kinship care where a child is placed in out of home care (s. 167(2)), and the timelines within which family reunification should be achieved (s. 167(3) and (4)) and beyond which, except in exceptional circumstances, alternate permanent or long-term care will be more appropriate objectives.
Concurrent planning was designed in the 1990s as a model of permanency planning that involves working towards family reunification while, at the same time, developing an alternative permanent plan (Katz, 1999). Concurrent planning aims to avoid drift associated with sequential planning by assessing the likelihood of reunification and, when families have a poor prognosis for reunification, working simultaneously on an alternate permanency plan (Tilbury & Osmond, 2006). This includes engaging in intensive reunification work with families in a time limited way and placing children early with relatives or foster/adoption families in the event that reunification cannot occur or fails.
The principles of permanency planning emphasise children’s relationships and development, and aim to promote resolution of future care arrangements in a timely way. Elements of permanency planning that are highly relevant to case practice include:
- Early assessment and planning with families and services to promote timely decision making and action
- Case plans having a permanency objective, with the accompanying action table that sets out goals and tasks with measurable indicators of change and timelines to progress towards the objective
- Informing parents from the outset of intervention of the urgency of reunification from the perspective of the child’s development and the legislated timelines for family reunification, and the consequences of not demonstrating sustainable parenting capability to provide care and achieve the objective within the set timeframes
- Involving members of the extended family or relatives where appropriate early in the intervention to care for the child and support their immediate family
- Where the likelihood of enduring reunification is low, managing the parallel process of planning for reunification while seeking out alternate care arrangements that can offer the maximum level of security and potential permanency.
Concurrent planning is consistent with the framework for intervention guided by the best interests principles (s. 10) and the framework for case planning (s11-12 and 166-169).
The CYFA mandates maximum time frames for family reunification orders and case plans with a permanency objective of family reunification.
There will be cases where the child’s current carer is prepared to become the child’s permanent or long-term carer if family reunification cannot be achieved in a timely way.
Where this is the case, assessment of the suitability of the carer should be completed so that a change of case plan permanency objective can be implemented without delay if family reunification cannot be achieved in a timely way.
Where the current carer is not offering to be a permanent or long-term carer if reunification cannot be achieved, consideration should be given to convening a family-led decision-making meeting to identify how the child’s extended family may be able to assist in providing permanency for the child.
Participation in planning and decision making
An essential part of planning and decision-making is the ongoing participation of the child, parents, carer, extended family or relatives, community members and service system.
The decision-making principles (s. 11) and additional decision-making principles for Aboriginal children (s. 12) in the CYFA, establish the requirements for collaborative, inclusive and culturally competent planning and decision-making processes.
Case plans, actions tables and all associated plans may be developed through:
- informal meetings and discussions
- family-led decision making meeting or Aboriginal family-led decision making (AFLDM) meeting
- formal case plan meetings.
Regardless of the process, the child and family, their significant family or kin, professionals and if a child is living out of parental care then their current carer, must be involved. Everyone must have an opportunity to provide input about the way forward.
Where family violence is a concern, safety of adult and child victim survivors must be paramount. If safety is a concern, it is not appropriate to bring a perpetrator and adult or child victim survivor together for a formal case plan meeting.
Formal case plan meetings may be most appropriate when:
- genuine agreement cannot be reached about how the family and the department will work together to protect and care for the child
- there is a need to review the current case plan because genuine agreement cannot be reached
- the child, family or a professional makes a request for a case plan meeting.
Research is clear that working collaboratively with family members and particularly parents, empowers families and leads to good decision making and better outcomes for children (Tilbury & Osmond, 2006; Maluccio et al., 1993). Involving children where developmentally appropriate and parents as much as possible as active partners, enhances their engagement and participation to achieve timely and sustainable family reunification.
A distinct challenge in case practice is to involve fathers, particularly non-custodial fathers, and paternal relatives in planning and decision-making processes (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006). Case practice models and approaches such as family-led decision making model and Aboriginal family-led decision making (AFLDM) meetings are well recognised for promoting the active involvement of families and significant others to facilitate family reunification efforts (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006).
Appropriate services and supports
A major component of case practice is identifying and coordinating services and supports that are responsive to the child and families particular needs.
Appropriate therapeutic and family services can support a child’s recovery and wellbeing in out of home care, strengthen families in culturally appropriate ways, and facilitate successful and sustainable family reunification (Maluccio et al., 1993; Wise, 2000).
The types of services and supports required for each child and their family will vary depending on the protective concerns that led to the child’s removal, any relevant conditions that are included on the interim accommodation order or protection order, and ongoing assessment and planning.
When a permanency objective of family reunification is determined, practitioners must consider connecting the family to the Victorian and Aboriginal Family Preservation and Reunification Response to provide the family intensive and tailored therapeutic intervention and the best possible support in achieving family reunification.
Other purposeful and appropriate services and supports must be regularly reviewed to reflect the family’s needs, potential and progress towards the permanency objective of family reunification.
Planning for services and supports should occur as early as possible after the child’s placement in out of home care.
Services should be practical and comprehensive so as to address all relevant aspects of family life (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006). The most effective intervention involves all members of the family and addresses not only parenting skills but also the child’s developmental needs, parent-child interactions and a range of life competencies such as communication, problem solving and behaviour management (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006; Ainsworth, 2001).
The literature suggests that services should be timely, targeted and culturally competent to meet the individualised needs of children and families.
The types of services and supports that can assist families include:
- Concrete services, to deal with needs related to poverty such as food, transportation, financial assistance, housing and utilities (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006; Frederico et al., 2006)
- Universal services, that support children’s inclusion in kindergarten and school, and link families to other universal services such as maternal and child health services and medical services
- Therapeutic or counselling services, to work through issues of trauma and compromised parent-child relationships (Miller, 2007b; Tilbury & Osmond, 2006)
- Home based services, with the intensity and duration families need, that provide case work, parenting and life skills education, family focused treatment and assistance in accessing community resources (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006)
- Substance abuse services, with intensive case management, programs tailored for women and children, and social support (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006).
- Family violence, mental health or disability services where these issues are adversely affecting parenting capacity.
- Post reunification services, that continue to enhance parenting skills, address the child’s changing developmental needs and link families to community support. Specific post reunification services that contribute to positive outcomes for families include concrete services, universal services, home based services, substance abuse services and mental health or counselling services (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006; Jackson 1997).
Usually a combination of ‘soft’ services such as counselling and parent education, and ‘hard’ services such as child care and respite care, are required as parents need both knowledge and tangible resources to be able to provide developmentally appropriate care for their child (Maluccio et al., 1993). Informal practical and emotional support from extended family members, friends, neighbours and community is also highly beneficial for families (O’Neill, 2000; Maluccio et al., 1993). It is critical that the support of services, extended family and significant others is sustained beyond the child’s return home so as to ameliorate concerns and prevent re-entry to care (Ainsworth & Maluccio, 1998; Jackson, 1997).
Communication and consultation with the service system partners is critical to formulating and enacting the case plan, including planning and tracking progress towards reunification. This group of professionals collaborating, sharing information and contributing to planning is the care team. Sometimes, and particularly when planning for and working towards reunification, the care team will comprise the child’s caregiver, parents and other important members of their network too. Communication within the care team needs to be frequent and regular, and the approach should not rely only on case conferences, but include regular care team meetings, telephone and email contact also. There needs to be a clearly designated person in the care team who will take responsibility for initiating and coordinating relevant meetings.
It is particularly important that carers are involved as active partners in the family reunification and decision-making processes as promoted in the decision-making principles. Carers have a unique role in facilitating reunification given their direct care and intimate knowledge of the child. The literature discusses the critical role that carers play in promoting the child’s development and supporting both the child’s contact with their family and the parents through mentoring. The development of a positive relationship between carers and parents may prevent children from experiencing the stress of divided loyalties and position carers to play a supportive role after reunification (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006).
The CYFA defines contact as the contact of a child with a person who does not have care of the child, by way of a visit or communication by letter, telephone or other means and includes overnight contact.
Contact is enshrined in the best interests principles and is a means of promoting children’s identity and wellbeing through connections with their family, community and culture.
The benefits of regular contact between children and their parents, siblings and other family members are well recognised by research (Tilbury & Osmond, 2006), irrespective of the care or legal arrangements (Masson, 1997). Research indicates that continued contact can be a protective factor for children that improves placement stability (Tilbury & Osmond, 2006; Masson, 1997). Hess and Proch (1993, p. 122) highlight some of the benefits of contact in the comment that:
‘Visiting reassures children that their parents want to see them and have not abandoned them, and helps children experience and work through feelings stirred by the separation, allowing developmental gains’.
Contact should be a purposeful and planned intervention, and must be included in case plans and regularly reviewed. Contact conditions are often stipulated on interim accommodation orders and family reunification orders and must be complied with. The purpose, frequency and nature of contact are critical components of the child’s experience in placement (Jackson, 1997), and need to be assessed for each child and their family. Contact arrangements should be carefully considered based on the permanency objective. In addition to direct contact, other forms of indirect contact should be encouraged wherever possible and appropriate, including telephone calls, letters, cards and photographs.
In a minority of cases where a parent has been sexually abusive or violent or threatened violence, the child may be traumatised by contact. Careful judgement is required and close contact with other treating professionals in the family’s life is crucial so that any decision made is in the child’s best interests.
Sufficient quantity and quality of contact should be provided to facilitate successful and sustainable family reunification or to preserve family relationships in the context of long-term or permanent out-of-home care (Hess & Proch, 1993). This is important particularly given the legal requirements and maximum timeframes in the CYFA for achieving family reunification for a child who is in out-of-home care.
Contact is an integral part of assessing, through direct observations and discussions, whether children and their families are willing and able to live together. Contact promotes a more accurate assessment of the viability and timing of family reunification, whether all children should reunify together or sequentially where relevant, and the appropriate services and supports needed to facilitate the process of reunification (Hess & Proch, 1993). Contact creates opportunities to enhance parental skills and interaction. In this context studies suggest that contact should have a therapeutic focus, and supervising workers should have clinical knowledge and skills (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006). It is essential to assess the impact of contact on the child and interactions between the parents, child and siblings. It is particularly useful to assess contact in the family home or other physical settings that encourage more positive and natural interaction among family members (Hess & Proch, 1993). Hess and Proch (1993, p. 130) argue that:
‘Family members’ interactions during visits, and parents’ compliance with reasonable and mutually agreed upon visiting plans are important - perhaps the most important - indicators of the feasibility of reunification’.
While the assessment of the likelihood of successful reunification may focus on the interaction between child and parent, the main purpose of contact for the child is to maintain all of the child’s family relationships, especially with siblings. It is particularly important to ensure that the child has the opportunity for appropriate levels of contact with all family members who are significant to the child, not just parents who wish to resume care.
Child development workers are key members of the child protection team. Their ongoing observations regarding contact and changes that may be occurring are a vital component of good decision making. Wherever possible, there should be continuity of relationship between the child development worker and the children and families they supervise for contact. Child development workers play an invaluable role in assisting children to transition between their carers and parents, and children often disclose important information whilst in the car. Good case notes and file records need to be kept.
In addition to coordinating the practical aspects of contact like time, location and transportation, there are other important factors or considerations that should be taken into account. These include the child’s age and stage of life, gender and culture, the child’s developmental and therapeutic needs, the child’s routine and activities, and the child and parents’ views and wishes. Contact should balance the child’s needs for safety and wellbeing with the parents’ needs to act independently so as not to inhibit their interactions (Hess & Proch, 1993). The child's, parents' and carer’s reactions to contact should be recognised, prepared for and worked through in a timely way (Tilbury & Osmond, 2006). The specific needs and circumstances of Aboriginal children and those who have a particular cultural identity must be considered when arranging and assessing contact. Good practice requires engaging and partnering with parents, carers and community members where relevant to improve outcomes for children (Tilbury & Osmond, 2006).
In cases where family reunification has been decided and leading up to it, there should be a progressive increase in the length, frequency and type of contact to enable the family’s necessary preparation and transition for successful and sustainable reunification (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006; Hess & Proch, 1993). This progression is typically described as moving from supervised contact, to unsupervised contact, then to overnight contact and finally to extended contact in the family home (Hess & Proch, 1993). Hess and Proch (1993) advise against setting a specific date for the child’s return home until the parents have safely completed the steps of unsupervised contact in the family home, overnight contact, contact lasting several days spread over a period of two months or more and if possible, several extended contacts for longer than a week. Hess and Proch (1993, p. 130) caution that:
‘Reunification can take place only after the family has had the opportunity to carry full childcare responsibilities unsupervised and overnight and only after caseworkers and the family are confident that the child is safe in those situations’.
Hess and Proch (1993) outline a number of important tasks that should be completed for contact to facilitate successful family reunification. These tasks are:
- Developing a contact plan based on the permanency objective, court ordered conditions and case plan
- Preparing the child, family members and carers for contact in order to maximise the family’s movement toward reunification and prevent or diminish access related problems
- Coordinating and regularly reviewing contact arrangements with all participants
- Modifying contact plans to reflect improving parental capability to care for the child safely and the child’s changing developmental needs
- Assessing, interpreting and recording contact interactions, parental compliance and the child’s reactions to contact
- Assisting the child’s transition back to their parents’ care.
Working with the child, family, community and other professionals to enact the case plan is essential to achieving a sustainable permanency objective for the child. The actions table is critical to enacting the case plan. It is a family-friendly document that can be used to discuss progress or identify where further supports are needed to achieve goals. Reviewing and updating the actions table does not require a review of the case plan; the actions table can and should be a live working document.
It is good practice to enact case plans in a collaborative and transparent way, inclusive of all the relevant members of the network around the child and family. Children’s safety is a shared responsibility and through the process of enacting a case plan, the involvement of a network can provide solutions for safety and care that might not have been possible without involvement. Effective care teams are an essential element of enacting a case plan. Care teams are required for children in care and should also be considered for families who are working with Child Protection by agreement.
Evidence based studies show that family reunification is much more likely to occur earlier rather than later in a child’s placement in care, particularly in the first year.
Farmer (1996) undertook a national study of reunification practice in the United Kingdom where the sample consisted of 321 children reunified with their families after removal through statutory intervention. Farmer states that:
‘Not surprisingly, the length of time children had spent in care was also important since we found that successful return was associated with short stays in care; that is, periods of less than a year’ (p. 414).
The department’s own data shows that reunification is achieved within six months for around a half of children who are reunified and that only a small proportion of children are reunified after more than two years in out of home care.
A period of 12 months is generally an appropriate timeframe over which to support a family towards reunification before efforts could or should cease.
Research is clear that for all children and particularly younger children, their age and stage of life, development and needs mean it is harmful to them to wait for longer for a determination about whether their parents will make the necessary changes to enable them to return home.
Timely decision making and action that is responsive to children’s developmental needs is very important.
Calculating the period of a family reunification order
It is important to maintain an accurate count of the time that the child spends in care.
Family reunification, despite everyone’s best efforts, is sometimes unsuccessful.
If the child re-enters care, it is important for everyone to be clear about how many months remain where the Court can make a family reunification order and about how long the department will continue to pursue a permanency objective of family reunification.
Overnight contact does not constitute reunification, but within six weeks of a child returning home with a view to remaining at home, the parents are to be directed to resume parental responsibility to the exclusion of the Secretary.
The Court should be notified that the child is now subject to a family preservation order (CYFA s. 288A). If the plan for the child to be reunified is unsuccessful (as opposed to for a brief respite placement from which the child is intended to return home) the family preservation order should be breached and a family reunification or care by Secretary order sought.
In this way, an accurate count of time in care can be made based the start and end dates of Children's Court orders (including interim accommodation orders that place the child out of parental care).
The CYFA directs efforts at reunification to be made before the child has been in care for 12 months by restricting the length of an initial family reunification to that period of time (CYFA s. 287A(2)). The Court may extend a family reunification order after the child has been in care for 12 months up until the child will have been in care for 24 months if “there is compelling evidence that it is likely that a parent of the child will permanently resume care of the child during the period of the extension” (s. 294A(1)). The Court is most likely to view cogent (clear, logical and convincing) evidence of progress towards reunification during the first 12 months in care showing it is likely, not just possible, that the parent will resume permanent care of the child as compelling evidence that a family reunification order should be extended. A review of progress made is therefore a key part of the case plan review to be conducted before applying for an extension to a family reunification order or for another order at the end of the first 12 months.
When the child has been in out of home care for 24 months, the Children's Court cannot further extend a family reunification order and an application for a care by Secretary order (or, if a suitable carer is available, a permanent or long-term or care order) must be made unless the child can be returned home safely and with an assessment suggesting that family reunification will be permanent.
In exceptional circumstances, a family reunification permanency objective may still be appropriate when a child has been in care for more than two years and is subject to a care by Secretary order. Examples include cases where family reunification can be expected to be achieved within a further short period of time, or where there are no significant protective concerns with regards to a parent once that parent has been released from gaol, or is otherwise expected to be available to resume care of the child.
A count of days in care is available in the child’s CRIS record. Supporting information about about Counting time in out-of-home care is available in the Child Protection manual.
Confirming reunification by changing the nature of an order
Under a family reunification order (s. 288A) or care by Secretary order (s. 289A), a direction may be given by Child Protection to a parent or parents to resume full parental responsibility for their child. This has the effect of changing the nature of the order to a family preservation order without returning to court.
The Court, child and parents are provided with a copy of the direction and, from the date of the direction, the family reunification or care by Secretary order is taken to be a family preservation order. The family preservation order then continues for the duration of the pre-existing order.
Once a direction is issued, the change in nature of the order cannot be undone administratively. An application to court regarding the family preservation order would be required.
Changing the nature of the order in this way is only appropriate where:
- a child has been in care under a family reunification order or care by Secretary order; and
- the permanency objective has been family reunification; and
- protective concerns have been addressed to the extent that it is safe for the child to return to the care of a parent or parents; and
- with support under a family preservation order, reunification is likely to be permanent; and
- there are no court applications on foot on relation to the child; and
- a sufficient period remains before the expiry of the order (noting the expiry date of the order cannot be changed by this process – if a longer period under a family preservation order is required, apply to revoke the existing order, and recommend a family preservation order in the disposition report).
A direction to resume parental responsibility can only be given where the case is not before the Court because, where there is an application on foot, the Court’s jurisdiction takes precedence and it would be inappropriate to resolve matters by the department exercising this administrative power.
Assessing the safety of, and preparing for, reunification will typically include gradually increasing periods of unsupervised and overnight contact with the parent or parents intended to resume parental responsibility for the child. As successful reunification seems increasingly likely, return to placement may no longer be pre-arranged.
A case plan review is required at the point where successful reunification is assessed to be achievable in the near future. A case plan with a family preservation permanency objective including the intended date of formal reunification is to be endorsed and provided to the child and parents, with the requisite information regarding internal reviews, and the carer is to be informed, at least six weeks before the intended date for issuing the direction. This allows time for any party to request an internal review of the decision before it is acted upon, if they disagree.
This also allows a final period of assessment of whether reunification is likely to endure during which it will usually be appropriate for the child to be in the care of the parent intended to resume parental care, with carefully monitoring.
If concerns arise during this period, the child may be brought back into care, and the risk assessment and case plan are reviewed as appropriate.
If the assessment supports reunifying the child and changing the order administratively is appropriate, a direction to resume parental responsibility should be issued within six weeks of parent being allowed by Child Protection to have care of their child. If a direction is not the appropriate mechanism, an appropriate application should be made to Court within the six weeks, seeking a disposition of a family preservation order – see Variations and revocations).
Where changing the order by direction, conditions may need to be included. An application to Court may be made for that purpose only. The Court may determine that the order is to include conditions without requiring parties to attend or be represented.
Regular visits with the child and parents, and contact with significant others and professionals are essential ways of assessing and planning for the child’s safety and development, and their care and wellbeing. Regular reflection on the outcomes of tasks and progress towards the permanency objective is an important collaborative mechanism to monitor the family’s progress both before and after family reunification. A case plan review may also be required at any stage where there are significant developments or changes in the child or parents’ circumstances. When changing to the permanency objective and making other significant decisions, the child’s best interests is always the paramount consideration.
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