The other day, a stranger approached me and my brood at Costco and commented that I “must have my hands full with three boys.” My oldest, Zeke, quietly correctly her: “We have four boys.”
Our foster child had recently returned to his biological family. When we counted out Easter baskets in Target, we added two more for our little man, whom we nicknamed “A” on social media posts, and his baby brother, just in case they could join our backyard egg hunt.
The end of A’s time with us was anything but smooth and not at all easy. The situation was unique, painful, heartbreaking. We cared for him as our own son (and brother) for just two weeks shy of two years, and the absence of his personality and heart is stark. Not a day goes by that we don’t say his name.
A is the only child we’ve parented through foster care. We have no other experience of what reunification looks like. We entered foster care aware of the statistics: The average case lasts 18 months, and 50 percent of children go home to their families. Still, it’s hard to go from calling a child your son to suddenly not.
I know we’re not alone in wading through the grief of reunification as foster parents — it’s part of the gig. On a good day, I count it an honor to have loved a child like my own, helped a family in need and shepherded my children through a ministry like this. On a bad day, I wrestle with “what ifs,” “how comes” and tears.
Here’s what we learned.
Withhold your expectations
There is good reason to be hopeful and excited for the reunion of a family, or to be grateful for the opportunity to adopt the child you’ve cared for. There is also good reason to “trust but verify” every emotion and experience as a foster parent. The best way you can set expectations in your family is to communicate what you know regularly and practice surrendering to what is yet to be decided.
As a foster parent, you might be told six different things about the trajectory of a case in a matter of hours, because the lawyer disagrees with the caseworker and the parent aide is unsure of the goals. There are a million different ways you can be given incorrect or incomplete information regarding the future of the child in your care. Withhold any singular expectation of outcomes and only communicate to your children what you know 100,000 percent to be true.
Every reunification is unique
We have heard — both by following foster parents online and from friends — about children being mandated to go home with their biological families and the state picking them up just hours after the court hearing. We’ve also heard of mandated reunifications halted one week in, with the children ultimately adopted by their foster parents.
In our instance, we had the chance to be very hands-on and involved with A’s family. We worked in person at his future home, mapping out week by week the smoothest transition for him. Visits progressed from four hours per week to eight hours, to weekends, to three days a week. By choice, we managed the transportation. There is no singular policy on how a child is transitioned home. Understanding that every reunification can look vastly different is helpful.
Reunification will be hard on everyone
A child’s reaction to reunification can manifest itself in a million different ways. Managing the logistics, working through the impending grief and helping our child cope with the transition was the single hardest season of our time as foster parents. Regardless of age, many children will exhibit changes in sleep, loss of appetite and inward or outward expressions of stress. “Post-visit behaviors” can exhibit after the visit with the biological family. Reunification will bring about more frequent and longer visits, hence more behaviors.
Unfortunately, there are no cut-and-dried guidelines as to what behaviors are considered alarming, what behaviors should be reported, or what behaviors indicate reunification is not in the child’s best interest. As you can imagine, this can add a layer of stress to the parenting process. How do you know what behaviors are signs that the situation should be evaluated?
Just know you’re not alone. Reunification is super hard. But these kids need you. Being in the middle of the transition — and being there as a calm, loving presence — is a gift to their hearts. Stay strong.
A “child’s best interest” is subjective
Caseworkers and state law dictate to what extent the “child’s best interest” is considered. In foster care, there is an ever-present tension between protecting the child from abuse and neglect and honoring parents’ inalienable rights as protected by the Fifth and 14th Amendments. These rights explain many state policies of “minimal adequacy,” the typical standard of parenting required by biological families for reunification. Many biological families parent at a level above this measurement, but many also just meet these standards: providing food, shelter and medical attention.
Minimal adequacy and a child’s best interest can seem to clash. Knowing the laws surrounding child welfare is key. There are no constitutional amendments protecting a child’s best interest following instances or cases of neglect and/or abuse. At the end of the day, a parent’s ability to parent, protect the child and care for the child come down to one or two individuals’ opinions of the case — and some of these opinions will come from people who have never parented a child. This challenge in social work and child welfare is well-documented and constantly discussed in the field. Still, it’s important to understand the policies and laws surrounding permanency planning for children in foster care.
Realize “This too shall pass”
As harsh as this may sound, it’s true. The hardest part of finalizing permanency for a child in your care will eventually end. Reunification will eventually be halted permanently or completed successfully. The back-and-forth of visits, parenting a traumatized, stressed child and navigating a broken system will eventually come to an end. No matter how grueling the process, the effort you put in will always be worth it. It is never a loss to have loved and genuinely cared for a child in need.