Reunification: The Journey

By: Barbara Myshrall

What image comes to mind when you think of child welfare? Is it dark images of children being taken from their parents because they can’t safely care for them? Parents with drug addictions, domestic violence issues and unsafe living conditions? Or do you picture foster parents who help to heal and care for abused and neglected kids? Perhaps adoptive parents who commit to a lifetime of love and support for children whose birth parents were unable to do so?

Most child welfare stories have two flavors: the dark and distasteful stories like those we see in the news, of parents who live with drug addictions, empty cupboards and refrigerators, unmade beds, and living in squalor. Then there are the bright, joyful stories of foster and adoptive parents who help save abused and neglected children. When children are taken from their parents, a primary goal is set for reunification, so why is it that we never hear the happy reunification stories? Maybe because nationwide statistics from The Children’s Bureau reveal that only 49% of children entering foster care are reunified with their parent, a decrease from 69% in 2010. While parents have a 50/50 shot at meeting the reunification goal, the data proves that odds of being reunified as a family are becoming less likely.

What is going wrong?

Are expectations set too high for parents whose children have been removed from the home? Do the parents just not care as much as they used to? The expectations of society are that parents care for their children responsibly and overcome any barriers to provide a healthy environment to raise their children. So, who are these people that fall short of society’s expectations? Many of these parents may be in their current situation because they suffer from their own untreated trauma from earlier in life, or untreated mental health issues. But the number one reason for taking children from their homes is parental substance abuse.

Many people still believe that substance abuse is “self-inflicted” and therefore have no patience for anyone who falls victim to addiction. What we know now that we didn’t know before is that drugs rewire the brain so that the drug is the brain’s only reward and thus its only motivation. We’ve also learned that addictions can grow out of traumatic experiences; people don’t generally party themselves into addiction. Addiction applies a long, powerful influence on the brain in three distinct ways: 1) craving for the substance, 2) loss of control over its use, and 3) continuing to use despite the negative consequences. Overcoming addiction is possible, however the process is usually long, slow, and complicated. It took years for researchers and policymakers to arrive at this understanding and it’s time that we, as a society, become educated and elevate our level of understanding.

When parents have their children taken from them, it is a very private and personal situation that is played out very publicly. We expect the most from them when they are at their worst. Parents are given the standard 12 months to complete tasks in their court-assigned case plan, which usually include a series of court dates and case planning sessions, a combination of weekly parenting, domestic violence, and/or anger management classes lasting several months, and some level of substance abuse treatment and counseling. Most people never know the incredible humility, courage and strength that it takes to transform a life.

It may come as no surprise that parents suffering from addiction rarely behave rationally. The system runs like a well-oiled machine, case after case, day after day, child after child, but a parent coming into the system for the first time is completely clueless to the process. When everything is falling apart, these parents are asked to face up to their wrong-doing, acknowledge their addictions and unsafe living habits (which they will deny), and ­­make drastic lifestyle changes. Trying to meet these obligations in addition to a full-time job is difficult. Many parents are too embarrassed to tell their employers (or anyone else) what is happening and why need to miss so much work. The system doesn’t care about your work schedule. And let’s not forget you’ve been given 12 months to succeed. Twelve months may sound like a long time, but it is a relatively short time to change your life and the way you live it every day.

These parents are people, and we don’t know the path that brought them to their current situation. We know nothing of their personal pain or struggles. In light of all that we now know about addiction, don’t they merit our compassion? We transform our world, our families, and our communities, when we first transform ourselves. We must encourage the ability to be genuinely concerned about the welfare of others. Compassion is the sympathetic sorrow and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Aren’t we a compassionate society? Instead of judging these parents in disgust, let’s open the compassionate door to our heart and give them a chance.

Most successful parents are reunified with their children without ever having seen the face of success. As a means to foster hope and encouragement it’s important to tell reunification success stories and celebrate the families who have been reunited. The value of a parent entering the system and seeing someone who looks like them who has successfully been reunified is immeasurable.

President Reagan declared the first National Foster Care Month in 1988, and it took over 20 years before we celebrated the first National Reunification Day in 2010, which was declared on June 16. It took 2 years to figure out that reunification should be celebrated for at least as long as foster care, so June became National Reunification Month, and it’s when we recognize the people and efforts that help families to stay together. But let’s not get it twisted: the real work comes from the parents themselves. The life transformations made by these parents don’t happen overnight, especially for those involved in substance abuse.

Reunification needs to be celebrated all year long. Stories of reunification need to be told. If you’ve been successfully reunified, tell your story! There is no shame in success!