For social service agencies part of their mission is to reunite children with their families once the parents’ goals have been met and safety has been established. This article may be used as a guide to help agencies make reunification a safe and successful one. Suggestions are made which may help parents overcome negative parenting habits, repair damaged relationships, and understand the effect this separation has had on their children. These are merely suggestions and should not be taken as professional advice.

REVISIT THE REASON FOR PLACEMENT

Review and discuss with parents the reasons their children were placed in foster care. If substance abuse has been an issue, discuss sobriety and what is needed to maintain that sobriety. If physical abuse has been an issue, help them develop a plan of action for stressful situations using the skills learned from anger management classes. If sexual abuse has been an issue, discuss how parents can protect their children and teach their children how to protect themselves. Help parents create a family safety plan. Information on self-protection for children can be found on the Childhelp website.

PARENTS CAN BE AGENTS OF CHANGE

Acts of abuse and neglect are often repeated from generation to generation. These family issues most likely have never been resolved. With help, these parents can be “agents of change.” A genogram is a way to explore family history with each parent. As parents work on completing the genograms, begin a conversation about their family members (Scarf, 1995). This discussion may bring up memories and events that have been forgotten. What will begin to stand out for these parents are the links between their families’ past and the issues that they are struggling with in the present (Scarf, 1995). This will give them some insight into why they are the way they are and why they respond and interact with their children the way they do. Armed with this information and a desire to change, these parents are in a position to break the cycle of abuse.

THE IMPORTANCE OF ATTACHMENT

Parents must renew their attachment to and bond with their children. One key element for parents to bond with their child is communication (Orlans & Levy, 2006). Family communication, verbal and non-verbal, is especially important for children who have been abused (Orlans & Levy, 2006). Children need someone to listen to what they have to say. For older children, taking the time to sit, talk and listen to them is crucial. When parents take the time to sit and listen to their children they will begin to feel the love their parents have for them. For infants and toddlers, tucking them in at bedtime and reading a bedtime story are important for bonding. Also, parents should schedule time to play and have fun with their children. Parents’ regularly and appropriately hugging their children is a powerful way of showing they care. These acts of love strengthen the parent-child bond and help the child begin to develop a sense of trust and security. Feelings of guilt can be a hindrance to attachment. This is where therapy comes in. If counseling has not been part of the family’s goals, counseling may be needed for the parents and children separately, as well as together.

DISCIPLINE v. PUNISHMENT

Be certain that parents know the difference between discipline and punishment. Share with them the fact that punishment is generally administered to hurt or to cause pain or suffering and opens the door to abuse. Discipline, on the other hand, helps a child learn the difference between right and wrong and how to behave in an acceptable manner. Discipline consists of a set of rules and consequences for not adhering to those rules. Rules and consequences teach children what is expected of them, what they can expect if the rules are not followed and should be applied without inflicting harm or pain.

THE CHILD’S NEEDS

Parents should be aware of the emotional, mental, and physical needs of their children. Children of reunification have had to adapt to being away from their parents and taken to a foreign place. Now, they must adjust to being returned to their parents whom they may believe have abandoned them. The bond of trust has been broken; this bond needs to be restored. These children need to feel that they can depend on their parents to accept, respect, protect, care for, and love them. Once returned home, depending on the length of time they have been separated from their families, children may feel that they no longer belong and may isolate themselves and withdraw from the rest of the family. Or, they may act the complete opposite and become clingy and desperate to fit in. They must be reassured that what has happened is not their fault. It is a good idea for parents to apologize to their children and confess any wrongdoing. Expressing remorse and saying “I’m sorry,” can be very powerful when spoken to a child eye-to-eye. However, in doing this, parents should be reminded that their actions must be consistent with what they say.

CREATING A SAFE AND HEALING ENVIRONMENT

Parents’ top priority must be to protect their children from further harm and to keep them safe. As children are returned home, things will not be the same. These children are not the same. There will be a period of adjustment. Since children of abuse can be sensitive to change, it is imperative for parents to establish routine and structure for the family as soon as their children are returned home. Children need and want structure. Structure in the home helps children feel safe and secure, while lack of structure can cause all kinds of problems. With lack of structure, children become unruly, their anxiety levels escalate and parents’ patience plummets. As the parents’ patience level drops, anger comes on the scene which often brings with it angry words and hurtful actions. Children need to know what to expect and when to expect it. Routine and structure provide this knowledge. There should be a set time to get up in the morning, a set time to go to bed at night, a set time for meals and everything in between (Orlans & Levy, 2006). Also, as part of the family routine, each family member should have designated chores.

A FINAL NOTE

Completing parenting classes is most likely one of the goals for reunifying parents. Since these children are recovering from the trauma of separation and abuse, it may be to the parents’ advantage, and in the best interest of the children, to attend parenting class specifically for parents of traumatized children and participate in individual therapy as well as family therapy.