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Journal Issue: Children, Families, and Foster Care Volume 14 Number 1 Winter 2004

Family Reunification
Fred Wulczyn


Although the statutory framework that gives structure and purpose to the child welfare system gives clear priority to natural families and reunification, rates of reunification have declined during the 1990s. The simple fact is, over the past 20 years, little progress has been made in defining and implementing meaningful reunification programs. Over that same time period, adoption incentives have been strengthened, and new funds for children leaving by way of independent living have been authorized. Meanwhile, structural incentives favoring placement in foster care have been left largely intact. Although the law says a parent's rights are protected, the burden of proving fitness is in subtle ways the parent's burden, not the state's.

Troubling trends with regard to reunification rates and reentry into care following reunification indicate that reunification practices and programs need specific attention. First, the administrative data indicating slower reunification rates in recent years suggest that overall awareness of the importance of reunification has to be increased. States report that greater attention is being paid to the ASFA milestones (the 15/22-month rule), but it is not clear how states are dividing their attention between adoption and reunification.53 Adoption likely gets more administrative attention because the burden falls more squarely on the state. In the case of reunification, the burden of action and compliance rests with a family that has diminished credibility. From the state's perspective, adoption incentives are clearer. Overall, a clearer focus on reunification and reentry as outcomes should help restore the importance of reunification.

Federal and state efforts to measure child outcomes will not solve all the problems in the child welfare system, but simply knowing and tracking children as they enter and leave foster care offers a foundation for improving the lives of parents and children.54 Renewed attention to family reunification is imperative if the child welfare system is to create a more consistent and coherent approach to unifying and supporting families.