Skip over navigation

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

Family Reunification
Fred Wulczyn


  1. Portions of this section were adapted from Wulczyn, F., Zimmerman, E., and Skyles, A. Relative caregivers, kinship foster care, and subsidized guardianship: Policy and programmatic options. Chicago: Chapin Hall Center for Children, University of Chicago, 2002.
  2. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized parents' fundamental-liberty interest in the care and custody of their children in its decision requiring clear and convincing evidence of parental unfitness before termination of parental rights. Moreover, the Supreme Court observed: "We have little doubt that the Due Process Clause would be offended '[i]f a State were to attempt to force the breakup of a natural family over the objections of the parents and their children, without some showing of unfitness and for the sole reason that to do so was thought to be in the children's best interests. Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246, 255 (1978).
  3. Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000); and Parham v. J.R. , 442 U.S. 584 (1979).
  4. As the court noted in Santosky v. Kramer, "[W]hile there is still reason to believe that positive, nurturing parent-child relationships exist, the parens patriae interest favors preservation, not severance, of natural familial bonds." Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745 (1982).
  5. In the matter of Michael B., 80 N.Y.2d 299, 590 N.Y.S.2d 60 (1992).
  6. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Law, a presumption is a supposition that the law either allows or requires. "Some presumptions relate to people, e.g. the presumption of innocence and of sanity. Others concern events, e.g. the presumption of legality (omnia praesumuntur rite et solemniter esse acta: all things are presumed to have been done correctly and solemnly). Most relate to the interpretation of written documents, particularly statutes. Almost every presumption is a rebuttable presumption, i.e. it holds good only in the absence of contrary evidence. Thus, the presumption of innocence is destroyed by positive proof of guilt. An irrebuttable presumption is one that the law does not allow to be contradicted by evidence, as, for example, the presumption that a child below the age of 10 is incapable of committing a crime (see doli capax)." Dictionary of law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Market House Books, Ltd., 1997.
  7. Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-272); Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (25 U.S.C.A. §§ 1901–1951); and the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (P.L.105-89).
  8. Stein, T.J. The Adoption and Safe Families Act: Creating a false dichotomy between parents' and children's rights. Families in Society (2000) 81(6):586–92.
  9. ASFA includes a requirement that states allocate up to 20% of the Title IV-B, subpart II funds for post-reunification services. However, in the context of total spending for foster care services and the dramatic increase in the number of children going home, the resources are limited by comparison. Also see note 8, Stein.
  10. The 15/22-month rule is troublesome for some because the process of rehabilitation can take longer than 22 months, especially when substance abuse is involved. Relapse is part of the recovery process. If a child is placed with a relative, the issue is not so acute, as placement with a relative serves as an exception to the rule. Otherwise, a mother midway through the recovery process might be faced with having her parental rights terminated, a setback that could have deleterious consequences for her.
  11. Relative guardianship is another permanency option that states are using more frequently. See the article by Testa in this journal issue for more information.
  12. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. AFCARS, Report #8. Washington, DC: DHHS, August 2002. Available online at
  13. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information. 2002 Child Abuse and Neglect State Statute Series Ready Reference: Permanency Planning: Concurrent Planning. Washington, DC: National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, 2002. Available online at
  14. Katz, L. Concurrent planning: Benefits and pitfalls. Child Welfare (1999) 78(1):71–87.
  15. See note 14, Katz.
  16. See note 14, Katz.
  17. Hess, P.M. Parental visiting of children in foster care: Current knowledge and research agenda. Children and Youth Services Review (1987) 9(1):29–50.
  18. Westat and Chapin Hall Center for Children. Assessing the context of permanency and reunification in the foster care system. Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services, 2001.
  19. Littell, J., and Schuerman, J. A synthesis of research on family preservation and family reunification programs. Chicago: Westat, James Bell Associates, and the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, May 1995.
  20. See note 19, Littell and Schuerman.
  21. See note 19, Littell and Schuerman.
  22. Freundlich, M., and Wright, L. Post permanency services. Washington, DC: Casey Family Programs, 2003, p. 47.
  23. Landsverk, J., Davis, I., Ganger, W., et al. Impact of child psychosocial functioning on reunification from out of home placement. Children and Youth Services Review (1996) 18:447–62.
  24. See note 19, Littell and Schuerman.
  25. Maintained by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. For a more complete description of the Multistate Foster Care Data Archive, see Wulczyn, F., Hislop, K., and Goerge, R. Foster care dynamics 1983–1988. Chicago: Chapin Hall Center for Children, 2001. The archive's 12 states (Alabama, California, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin) account for approximately 55% of children in foster care nationwide. Although the states in the archive are diverse, they are not necessarily representative of the states not included. A more representative sample of states might yield slightly different results.
  26. The data in Figure 2 describe how children left their first episode of foster care. Children who return to care for a second episode may exit for other reasons.
  27. See Wulczyn, F. Closing the gap: Are changing exit patterns reducing the time African American children spend in foster care relative to Caucasian children? Children and Youth Services Review (2003) 25(5–6):431–62; and note 18, Westat and Chapin Hall.
  28. Although separate data are not presented here, a discharge analysis of babies admitted in 1990, the children most likely to be adopted, shows that 30% of African American babies were adopted compared to 26% of Caucasian babies.
  29. Although other exit types (for example, discharge to other family members) were included in the calculations used to produce Figure 1, comparable data for other exit types are not displayed.
  30. According to the archive dataset, about 5% of children admitted prior to their thirteenth birthdays were still in their first placement episode, even though 10 years had passed.
  31. Formally, the results presented in Figure 4 are risk ratios produced using a competing-risk, Cox proportional-hazards model. Although the coefficients are not presented separately, the child's age, race/ethnicity, type of placement, state of residence, and urban character of home county are included in the model.
  32. Wulczyn, F. Adoption dynamics: The impact of the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Chicago: Chapin Hall Center for Children, University of Chicago, 2002.
  33. The data for the 1990 group are the most complete in that children admitted that year have the longest follow-up period. Data for later years are more limited in that too little time has elapsed to observe reentry fully; some children are still in care, and other children who have been reunified may yet return to care. The apparent decline in reentry rates depicted in Figure 5 is an artifact of the shorter observation period available for the later cohorts.
  34. Festinger, T. Going home and returning to foster care. Children and Youth Services Review (1996) 18(4–5):383–402.
  35. Jones, L. The social and family correlates of successful reunification of children in foster care. Children and Youth Services Review (1998) 20:305–23.
  36. The basic pattern is true in all states. However, it is important to remember that state-level differences (and county-level differences within states) are substantial. The state and county variation holds important clues as to the effectiveness of different approaches to reunification and adoption. Very little research examining these differences has been undertaken.
  37. The case of relative care, and kinship guardianship specifically, poses an interesting challenge to the stable notions of parental rights and responsibilities. In Indiana, the legislature created a de facto custodian status in an effort to give third parties equal standing with natural parents in custody matters. A "de facto custodian" is defined as: "[A] person who has been the primary caregiver for, and financial support of, a child who has resided with the person for at least: (1) six (6) months if the child is less than three (3) years of age; or (2) one (1) year if the child is at least three (3) years of age. When a de facto custodian has been identified, the court shall consider the following factors in determining the child's 'best interests,' in addition to the usual 'best interests' of the child factors: (1) The wishes of the child's de facto custodian; (2) The extent to which the child has been cared for, nurtured, and supported by the de facto custodian; (3) The intent of the child's parent in placing the child with the de facto custodian; and (4) The circumstances under which the child was allowed to remain in the custody of the de facto custodian, including whether the child was placed with the de facto custodian to allow the parent seeking custody to: (A) seek employment; (B) work; or (C) attend school." However, in an early test, the court of appeals in Indiana overturned a lower court decision granting custody to a permanent guardian, largely because the court determined that the natural parent was fit and able to resume responsibilities. In its ruling, the court was unwilling to consider the claims of the guardians without first setting aside the parent's fitness. See Froelich v. Clark (In Re L.L.), 745 N.E.2d 222 (2001).
  38. For further discussion on this topic, see the article by Allen and Bissell in this journal issue.
  39. Courtney, M., Needell, B., and Wulczyn, F. National standards in the Child and Family Services Reviews: Time to improve on a good idea. Chicago: Chapin Hall Center for Children, University of Chicago, 2002.
  40. The Safe and Stable Families Program, reauthorized in 2002, together with the older Title IV-B program, provides more than $500 million each year for a full range of family-based services, including those targeted to children being reunified. However, it must be noted that most of those funds are allocated at the system's "front end," and the mandate to use the funds for reunification services is relatively weak.
  41. The Title IV-E waiver program affords some flexibility in the use of Title IV-E funding, but waiver programs have limited scope and duration.
  42. See note 19, Littell and Schuerman.
  43. Fraser, M.W., Walton, E., Lewis, R.E., and Pecora, P.J. An experiment in family reunification: Correlates of outcomes at one-year follow-up. Children and Youth Services Review (1996) 18(4–5):335–61.
  44. Taussig, H., Clyman, R., and Landsverk, J. Children who return home from foster care: A 6-year prospective study of behavioral health outcomes in adolescence. Pediatrics (2001) 108(1):E10.
  45. Burford, G., Pennell, J., and MacLeod, S. Manual for coordinators and communities: The organization and practice of family group decision making. St. John's: Memorial University of Newfoundland School of Social Work, 1995.
  46. Browne, D., and Moloney, A. 'Contact Irregular': A qualitative analysis of the impact of visiting patterns of natural parents on foster placements. Child and Family Social Work (2002) 7:35–45; Haight, W.L., Black, J.E., Mangelsdorf, S., et al. Making visits better: The perspectives of parents, foster parents, and child welfare workers. Child Welfare (2002) 81(2):173–202; Hess, P.M. What caseworkers consider in developing visiting plans for children in foster care. Champaign-Urbana: School of Social Work, University of Illinois, 1987; note 17, Hess; and Leathers, S.J. Parental visiting and family reunification: Could inclusive practice make a difference? Child Welfare (2002) 81(4):571–93.
  47. The article by Brenda Jones Harden in this journal issue examines the importance of child development.
  48. Chamberlain, P., and Reid, J.B. Comparison of two community alternatives to incarceration for chronic juvenile offenders. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (1998) 66(4):624–33.
  49. Henggeler, S.W., Melton, G.B., Brondino, M.J., et al. Multisystemic therapy with violent and chronic juvenile offenders and their families: The role of treatment fidelity in successful dissemination. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (1992) 65(5):821–33; and Henggeler, S.W., Roland, M.D., Randall, J., et al. Home-based multisystemic therapy as an alternative to the hospitalization of youths in psychiatric crisis: Clinical outcomes. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (1999) 38(11):1331–39.
  50. It should be noted, however, that comprehensiveness alone many not be the key to success. Studies of comprehensive child development and mental health programs have found these types of programs disappointing. See Goodson, B.D., Layzer, J.I., St. Pierre, R.G., et al. Effectiveness of a comprehensive, five year family support program for low-income children and their families: Findings from the Comprehensive Child Development Program. Early Childhood Research Quarterly (2000) 15(1):5–39; and Bickman, L., Lambert, E.W., Andrade, A.R., and Penaloza, R.V. The Fort Bragg Continuum of Care for Children and Adolescents: Mental health outcomes over five years. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (2000) 68(4):710–16.
  51. See note 9.
  52. Kerman, B., Wildfire, J., and Barth, R. Outcomes for young adults who experienced foster care. Children and Youth Services Review (2002) 24(5):319–44.
  53. See note 18, Westat and Chapin Hall.
  54. Brim, O.G. Macro-structural influences on child development and the need for childhood social indicators. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (1975) 45(4):516–24.