Reunification assessment tool

Use this tool to guide your assessment of reunification of children with their families.

Family ties are long lasting and the relationships between parents and children are likely to continue far beyond any periods of living apart (Family Rights Group, London).

Ninety per cent of children separated from their families by entering care return home: nearly 60% are back home by six months from separation, and many more are home within a matter of days. Of those still separated at six months, 43% return home in the following 18 months; this number becomes significantly smaller following 24 months of being in out-of-home care. The return of children to their families is an important aspect of child protection work which requires as much attention as separation (Dartington Social Research Unit, U.K., 1992).

A fundamental objective of child welfare services is the reunification of children in out-of-home care with their families. Competent judgement and decision-making is required to ensure that this objective is achieved only in those cases for which it is appropriate (Dalgleish, Laurens and Newton. University of Queensland).

A reunification plan is essential when the permanency objective is family reunification. The guidance available in the SAFER children framework to formulate a case plan is relevant and supports development of a reunification plan.

Specific risk related issues

If there is a history of abuse or serious neglect, special efforts may be required to ensure successful reunion of the child with their family.

There are a number of poor prognosis indicators in relation to the likely success of a child’s reunification with their family. The following questions should be considered in relation to the child’s parents or proposed carers.

  • Has there previously been a severe consequence of harm to another child?
    • Has another child been killed or seriously harmed through abuse or neglect by either parent/carer?
    • If so, has significant change occurred since that time?
  • Has parental responsibilities for another child been terminated following a period of service delivery to the parent/carer and no significant change has occurred in the interim?
  • Has there previously been a severe consequence of harm to this child?
    • Has this child repeatedly, and with premeditation, been harmed or tortured by either parent/carer?
  • What was the nature of the abuse or neglect that brought the child into care on this occasion?
  • When reviewing the essential information categories, are there multiple characteristics for the child? (noting that child identity and characteristics are associated with adverse outcomes for children)
  • When reviewing the parent and caregiver essential information category, are there multiple characteristics? (noting that parent and caregiver characteristics are indicators of adverse outcomes for children).
  • What was the risk assessment? Has there been a change in the risk assessment?
  • Does the parent have the capacity to meet the needs of the child and address the harm?
  • Is there a safety plan in place during contact visits?
    • What needs to change before the child is considered safe during contact?
  • What abuse or neglect has this child suffered in the past?
    • nature (e.g. physical, sexual) and the vulnerability and severity of harm
    • what was the consequence of harm rating from intake through to the most recent risk assessment?
    • what was the probability of harm rating from intake through to the most recent risk assessment?
    • pattern of incidents over time (e.g. escalating, chronic, more than one form of abuse at same time)
    • whether there was intervention by Child Protection on each occasion

Likewise, there are a number of good prognosis indicators in relation to the likely success of a child’s reunification with their family as follows:

  • What is the history of the role of each parent/carer with this child?
    • Has either parent/carer raised the child for a significant period of time?
    • Has either parent/carer been able to meet the child’s basic physical and emotional needs (most of the time) in the past?
    • Has either parent/carer used appropriate parenting methods (including disciplinary measures) most of the time?
    • Does either parent/carer demonstrate an understanding of normal child development and relate to the child at an age appropriate level (e.g. not use the child to meet their own needs)?
    • Has either parent/carer been able to provide a stable and nurturing environment for this child in the past?
    • Has either parent demonstrated strengths that can build to protection and safety?
  • What are the static and dynamic parental characteristics that influence parenting capacity?
  • Do the parents/carers accept some responsibility for the problems that brought the child into care, and for changing the situation?
    • Are the parents/carers able and/or willing to recognise or acknowledge existence of potential risk to the child?
    • Are they willing to work to protect the child?
    • Are the parents/carers able and/or willing to comply with the department’s suggestions?
  • Do the parents consistently attend contact with the child?
  • Are the parents engaged with the child during contact?
  • Have the parents participated in the formulation of the case plan or reunification plan?
History/patterns prior to separation and during the current separation

Most children entering care come from disadvantaged families, but their problems are usually focused in one or two areas. If there are multiple problems affecting the family at the time of the child’s separation, the likelihood of return is reduced. However, it often helps to tackle one problem at a time.

  • What are the circumstances of the child’s current separation from their family, and when did it occur? For example: voluntary; court order; abandonment, whether with friends, relatives, hospital or in foster care.
  • What was the nature and extent of the stresses experienced by the family at the time of separation?
  • What is the understanding of the child and family members about the purpose of the current separation? Do they believe it will resolve or relieve their problems?
  • What are the expectations of the child and family members about what the separation will involve? Are these realistic?
  • What are the expectations of the child and family members about what the return will involve? Are these realistic?
  • Does the family have the necessary support to assist them meeting the goals identified?
    • Are the goals and tasks SMART goals?
  • What, if any, changes have there been in the family situation since the time of separation?
    • What is the nature and extent of any family problems which have emerged during the period of the child’s current separation?
    • Have the problems which made the placement necessary been reduced, resolved or exacerbated?
    • What are the views of the family members regarding any changes?
    • What goals have been set with the family? Have they been achieved or partially achieved?

The history of previous placement prevention attempts, and previous reunification attempts are important prognosis indicators.

  • What is the history, if any, of alternative placements for any other child in the family?
    • What is the number and length of the child’s previous separation(s) from their family? (Have any placements exceeded six months?)
    • Over what time period?
    • What was the nature of any such placement (e.g. foster care, relatives)?
    • Why were such separations necessary? Were they associated with child protection intervention?
  • What is the history, if any, of alternative placements for this child?
    • What is the number and length of the child’s previous separation(s) from their family? (Have any placements exceeded six months?)
    • Over what time period?
    • What was the nature of any such placement (e.g. foster care, relatives)?
    • Why were such separations necessary? Were they associated with child protection intervention?
  • What is the history of preventive measures previously used by protective services to keep this child with their parent(s)?
    • Have home-based services been successfully utilised in the past?
    • If so, for how long? Why were the improvements not sustained?
  • Has the child been returned home following a previous period in care through protective intervention? What happened?
  • Have there been any previous reunification attempts during the current period of the child’s separation from their family? If so, why was it unsuccessful?

Some specific assessment questions apply to parents aged under 16 years with no parent support systems of their own.

  • What has been the outcome of any previous placements of the child and parent together?
  • Has the parent asked to relinquish the child on more than one occasion since initial intervention?

Older children stay longer in care and therefore makeup the majority of those who return home after two or more years in care: nearly two-thirds will have been 12 years of age at the point of separation; and three quarters will be boys. Many children who stay in care for longer periods will leave care for destinations other than home, but it is a mistake to assume that they will never return to live with relatives (Dartington Social Research Unit, U.K.). However, in line with the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005, if a child or young person is not successfully reunified within a period of 24 months, alternative long term care will be arranged for the child, except in exceptional circumstances.

After two years of separation, the child’s original role will have been eroded. Rebuilding a place for the child at home can make a valuable contribution to their future wellbeing, regardless of whether or not return takes place.

  • What is the child/young person’s case plan and permanency objective?
  • Does the case plan include provision for enhancing the child’s/young person’s role with their family (regardless of whether or not the permanency objective is for return home)?

Information about the child’s experience of care, and about the nature of changes in care, are important factors in reunification assessment.

  • For how long has the child been separated from their family on this occasion?
  • What is the child’s experience of their current placement?
    • Include details of the placement (e.g. model of care, period in the current placement, distance from the child’s family home).
    • Focus on information about how the child has coped (e.g. their experience, behaviours and development during the placement).
  • What is the child’s experience of their previous placement(s) during the current period of separation?
    • Include details of any such placements (e.g. model of care, period in the placement, reason for moving on, distance from the child’s family home).
    • Focus on information about how the child coped with each placement (e.g. their experience, behaviours and development during each placement).
  • What is the child’s emotional, cognitive and social functioning at the present time in relation to their age? In particular, note the presence/absence of any:
    • developmental delays
    • behavioural problems (e.g. age inappropriate)
    • special needs (e.g. medical, educational, disability).
Parent-child contact during separation

It is important to determine the quality of relationships existing between the child and their family members at the time of the child’s separation in order to monitor any changes during the period of the child’s absence.

  • What was the nature of the relationships within the family at the time of the child’s separation?
  • Who was the child’s main provider of emotional support?
    • natural mother?
    • natural father?
    • other relative, friend or significant person?
  • Who are the child’s family members and what are their ages? (i.e. genogram)
  • With which family members did the child have contact?
  • What was the nature of the child’s relationship with each family member? (e.g. hostile/cool/unstable or steady/warm/close)

‘Regular contact’ between the family and the child implies that contact is routine, taken for granted and not restricted to special events.

Formulating a contact plan in collaboration with the family, that meets the needs of the child and is in line with their case plan, will support family contact being regular and consistent.

  • What is/was the (written) contact plan for the period of the current separation?
    • include the nature (e.g. visits, supervised or unsupervised; telephone calls; letters); purpose; venues; frequency (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly, seldom, never, N/A); and length, of planned contacts.
  • Is the contact plan contained within the case plan consistent with the permanency objective, and vice-versa?
  • What is/was the parents’/carers’ participation in the planned contact arrangements?
    • include attendance for visits; preparation; level of active involvement; level of social work follow up required.
  • With reference to the written contact assessments, have the contact visits provided realistic and adequate opportunities to test out the likelihood of harm issues and current parenting strengths and difficulties?
    • Have they included meal routines, bed routines, a mixture of supervised and unsupervised visits, and opportunities for the parents to learn and test out new skills?
  • Have there been any incidents of a protective nature during contact visits?
    • between either or both parents/carers and this child?
    • between either or both parents/carers and another child, whether still at home or also in care?
  • Describe the quality of the contact/relationships between parents/carers and child at the present time from the child’s perspective?
    • Does the child express eagerness/unwillingness to be with the parents/carers?
    • Is the child comfortable/fearful of the parent/carers at the point of meeting?
    • Is the relationship warm/indifferent/hostile (e.g. what is the level of affection or concern both expressed and demonstrated by the child for the parents/carers)?
  • Describe the quality of the contact/relationships between parents/carers and child at the present time from the parents’/carers’ perspective?
    • level of empathy and affection for the child
    • appropriateness of response to the child’s verbal and non-verbal signals (i.e. communication and discipline)
    • ability of the parent/carer to put the child’s needs before their own.
  • What, if any, changes have there been in the child’s relationships with their various family members since the current separation began? For example, has there been improvement, deterioration, fluctuation?

Return is a process, not an event, with many stages and rites of passage, beginning with the moment of separation.

  • How do the family members perceive themselves?
    • Do they consider themselves to be ‘a family’?
    • Are there emotional outlets for tensions within the family?
    • Is the child able to get their views across to other family members?
  • What, if any, continuities have been maintained in the child’s life during the separation?
  • What, if any, role has the child retained within the family during the separation?
  • What, if any, ‘territory’ does the child retain in the family home? For example, possessions - toys, keepsakes, gifts; a bed; a bedroom.
  • Do the child and family members share a sense of belonging to each other? If indicated, what more can be done to maintain the child’s sense of belonging to home?

Including relatives in decisions about the child’s future is likely to contribute to a positive outcome, not only with regard to return, but with respect to other aspects of the child’s life.

Case plans must always be formulated in collaboration with children, families and professionals. The child’s voice should be present in all plans. The SAFER ‘My views’ resources support ways to ensure the child’s voice is heard and present when formulating the case plan.  

  • How inclusive of the child’s parents/carers and other family members is the case plan for this child?
    • Have the child’s relatives, particularly the parents/carers, been actively encouraged to participate in the decision making process for the child’s care - including medical, education and other social activities and responsibilities?
    • To what extent do they participate?

A child entering care on their own is more likely to return home than one who enters with brothers, sisters, step or half-siblings. For those who enter care with brothers and sisters and remain away for six months, the likelihood of reunion is increased if the family group is dispersed during the period of separation. It is not suggested that breaking up sibling groups is a good idea. Unfortunately, placement breakdowns and limited placement options mean that the separation of siblings is necessary when, ideally, it would be better to keep brothers and sisters together. Decision making in regard to sibling groups should be made with return home in mind (Dartington Social Research Unit, U.K.).

  • If the child has siblings, where do they live?
    • Are they in care together?
    • Are they at home?
    • Are they dispersed in different placements?
  • What is the nature and strength of the relationships between the siblings?
  • What contact does the child have with their siblings?
Sustainability of change

The existence of a satisfactory support system is important to the effective and ongoing functioning and wellbeing of all families. In the situation of a child returning home after a period in care, the nature of the supports consistently available to the family is of crucial significance.

  • What is the nature of the support system for the parents/proposed carers?
    • Does either parent/carer have an association with sex work (i.e. related to substance misuse?)
    • Does either parent/carer have positive, significant relationships with other adults (spouse, parents, friends, relatives) who are supportive of the parent(s) or carer's sustained change?
    • Does either parent’s/carer’s extended family or any significant friends live nearby? Are they willing and able to provide support?
    • Do extended family members and/or significant other adults have a history of helping appropriately when the parent/carer is not functioning well? Have they followed through on commitments in the past?
    • Did any relatives or significant other adults come forward to offer help when the child required placement?

Unfamiliarity with a safe and stable home life can severely limit parents’ ability to overcome other problems in their lives.

  • What is the family history of each parent/proposed carer?
    • Was there consistency of parental caretaker? Or did the parent/carer spend significant periods of time in foster care or group care when growing up?
    • Is there evidence of the parent’s/carer’s childhood needs having been met adequately? Or did the parent grow up in a family characterised by intergenerational abuse?
    • Does the parent’s ethnic, cultural or religious heritage include an emphasis on mutual caretaking and shared parenting in times of crisis?

In assessing the capacity of the parents to maintain a successful reunion with their child, there are a number of poor prognosis indicators, both for the parents as individuals and as a couple.

  • Does either parent have any addictions to illegal drugs or alcohol?
  • Regarding the birth mother, during pregnancy, did she misuse drugs/alcohol, disregarding medical advice to the contrary?
  • Has either parent/carer been diagnosed with:
    • a severe mental illness (i.e. which has not responded to previously delivered mental health services)?
    • a chronic and debilitating mental illness (i.e. which responds slowly or not at all to the current treatment)?
  • Has the parent/carer shown only temporary positive response to therapeutic interventions (e.g. enthusiasm)?
  • Or is either parent/carer aggressive, or violent?
  • If so, are the parent’s/carer’s symptoms continuing to adversely affect their ability to adequately protect and nurture the child?
  • Does either parent/carer have a recent history of serious criminal activity and imprisonment?
  • Are the parents/carers experiencing stress in their relationship due to conflict?
  • Is there a pattern of family violence perpetrated by the father or other family member? If so, are they willing to address this?
  • Does either parent/carer have a history of being unable to maintain a stable relationship?
  • Does either parent/carer have an intellectually disability or acquired brain injury?
    • If so, does the parent/carer have significant support needs?
    • Does the parent/carer have a support system of relatives or friends able to share the parenting?
  • What is each parent’s/carer’s level of self care and maturity?
    • general health,
    • use of medical care for self,
    • adequacy and consistency of hygiene and grooming,
    • history of housing/mobility,
    • history of financial capacity,
    • educational/employment history and skills,
    • self-esteem,
    • ability/motivation to resolve own issues (e.g. abuse as a child),
    • genuine motivation to change,
    • ability to form trusting relationships,
    • ability to maintain supportive network of family and friends,
    • level of co-operation with protective workers and other support service workers (e.g. attendance for appointments, attitude to change).
  • What positive behavioural changes have the parents/carers been able to demonstrate since the time of the child’s current separation?
    • Over what period of time have the changes been sustained?
    • Have the changes been temporary or long lasting positive responses to intervention?
  • To what level is there regression to previous modes of functioning (indicating a lack of sustained change) following the return of stressors related to the child’s presence (e.g. during contact visits)?

Going home can be painful and difficult; returning home is quite as stressful as separation. Family members should be forewarned that even the most successful reunion will have its stresses and strains.

  • Since the time that return home has become real/a real possibility, what, if any, unforeseen changes have there been in the parents’ health, family relationships, or household membership?
  • How prepared are the family members to seek support should problems arise?
    • What additional supports are already in place? (e.g. does the action table include a description of the service provision required and utilised by family members?)

Reunification is typically characterised by a honeymoon period. This is likely to be followed by a dispute, usually started over something quite trivial. The explosion will often bring to the surface much deeper problems to do with the pain of being separated, and hurtful things may be said in the heat of the moment. Parents experience guilt; children feel they have been let down. Things are much less likely to work out well if hurt feelings are kept bottled up, so this is an opportunity for the air to be cleared and should be viewed as a healthy part of the reunion process, rather than a threat to lasting reunion. If all parties are able to discuss their feelings openly, the chances of successful return are much improved.

  • How prepared are the family members for the anxiety generated by the return of the child?
  • How prepared are the family members for the disputes which are likely to occur?
  • Are the family members able to see value in these tensions?
  • How prepared are the family members to discuss with each other the pain of separation and their role in the rift?

Children establish roles, not only within the family, but also outside the family, which may threaten relationships at home.

  • How prepared are family members for the child/young person to return to the wider social network?

Poverty, in itself, is not a barrier to return. On the contrary, where adolescents are concerned, the reunion of a child can improve the economic situation of a family and at the same time help to re-establish the child’s role within the family.

When a child goes home as an adolescent, a particular set of considerations apply. The reunion is more likely to be negotiated informally between relatives and offspring, and is unlikely to be based on implied permanent residence in the family home. Furthermore, the reunion of an adolescent often coincides with other changes of circumstance. Greater stability at home can lead to better relationships with others outside and improve job prospects.

  • What is the current means of income for the parents/carers? How secure is this?
  • What is the child’s current situation with regard to education/employment and income?

A young person convicted three or more times is highly likely to re-offend. This, in itself, is not a threat to successful reunion, though the consequences of criminal activity can undermine the best laid plans and strain family relationships.

  • If the young person has a history of convictions, are contingency plans in place which can accommodate the possibility of future offending and include alternatives to imprisonment which would enable the young person to stay at home?

Children who have been away a long time frequently come home to a changed family; if there are new step-parents or children in the household, it will be a difficult time for them as well. The returning child may feel like a stranger, and may not be in the right frame of mind to make friends.

Remember, all members of the child’s proposed family household need to be considered in the context of the current assessment for reunification, particularly proposed carers. Further, ongoing assessment of each household member will be necessary following the child’s return home. Formulating a reunification plan in collaboration with the family that is linked to the case plan is critical and reviewing this plan at key points will identify how the child and family are progressing with the plan.

  • Is the child returning to the same house from which they moved at the point of the current separation?
  • Who is living in the house to which the child will be returning?
    • What are their relationships to the child, and their ages?
    • Is the structure of the family acceptable to the local community?
  • In regard to the pending return, are voluntary arrangements with the family entirely satisfactory, or, if an order exists, has a change in legal status been considered?

Return requires preparation and the substitute carers should be an integral part of any planning. The involvement of foster carers and residential workers need not end on the day the child goes home. Their continued support can make the difference between success and failure.

  • What special efforts are being planned/made to ease the transition home?

The moment of reunion can be said to occur when sufficient family members accept that the child has come home to live. It is rare for all participants to view the event positively, and many will harbour doubts. For a homecoming to be successful, things don’t have to go exactly to plan, but it is important to get the pace right. Everyone needs time to settle. Nevertheless, when return does occur, it is valuable if family members can celebrate it in some way.

  • Have plans for the reunion been tailored to meet the timescale of the family members?
  • Do the participants have a clear perception of when return will/has occurred?

It is quite common for families, children, foster carers and child protection practitioners to become anxious as the return home day draws closer, and to become unsettled as family members try to establish a new way of operating. This should not necessarily be viewed as a negative indicator for the success of the reunion. Apparent problems may indicate an attempt by the child or another family member to take control of events rather than a failure of the child protection strategy. It may be helpful for all participants to focus on the reasons for the decision for the child’s return home at this time.

  • What is the consensus, if any, regarding the level of success of the child protection intervention in this case?
    • Are all parties concerned committed to implementation of the plan, and in agreement with the contingencies?
    • Are all parties concerned committed to making the return home work, regardless of any practical difficulties which may be encountered, such as accommodation or finance?

It is important that we do not become blinkered in our expectations of the family’s future prospects, no matter how bleak they may seem. A child’s return sometimes brings about a radical change for the better in family relationships within the home.

  • Is there any evidence of an unforeseen (positive) transformation in family relationships?

If success is measured as the proportion of children who remain with their families for 12 months following reunion, then more than 70% do well.

  • What is your prognosis for the reunion, and why?
Other factors

Child protection practitioners should be cognisant of a number of systemic factors which have the potential to affect momentum for return of a child to their family over time, as follows:

  • Has there been a change in the child’s:
    • child protection practitioner
    • legal status
    • placement
    • contact arrangements

since the last case conference/ review of the case plan?

  • If there has been a change in the child’s child protection practitioner, has regular contact been maintained between the child protection practitioner and child, and between the child protection practitioner and the family?
  • If there has been a change in the child’s legal status, has it necessitated any change in the case plan for the child? Does the new legal status support a permanency objective of family reunification? The court order and case plan must align.
  • If there has been a change in the child’s placement, does the placement enhance continuities in the child’s relationships with their family members, social networks, education (or training/employment), cultural and racial identity, and relationships with their current carers?
  • If there has been a change in the child’s contact arrangements, are they consistent with a permanency objective of family reunification and do they enhance the chances of this occurring?
  • Consider a review risk assessment to assess any changes in risk as new information is obtained during reunification and when the child has returned home.

‘Family Reunification: Factors Elicited by the Critical Incident Technique.’ Leonard I. Dalgleish, Kristin R. Laurens and David R. Newton. School of Psychology, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

‘Going Home: A Pocket Guide for Families of Children Looked After by a Local Authority.’ Family Rights Group, London.

‘Going Home: Returning Children Separated from Their Families. Key Factors in the Return Process.’ The Dartington Social Research Unit, 1992.

Lutheran Social Services of Washington and Idaho, 1994 (Based on ‘Foster Care Drift: A Risk Assessment Matrix.’ Child Welfare, by Linda Katz and Chris Robinson).

Additional information