Interviews with state administrators suggest that the following tools are gaining popularity to facilitate and speed reunification within traditional child welfare agencies.
Family Conferencing. Family conferencing, which is also known as family group decision making, was the most commonly identified new practice that states were using to enhance reunification efforts. Family conferencing was originally developed in New Zealand in response to concerns of indigenous people that Eurocentric expert-driven models were undermining their families and tribes.(9) The family conferencing model recognizes the strengths of families and their ability to help design solutions to child and caregiver problems. This model focuses on the extended family to make plans to ensure the safety of children at risk of abuse. As used in the United States, family conferencing involves inviting extended family members, friends, and members of the family's support network such as ministers or priests, to attend a meeting at the time of initial placement to discuss the problems that have brought a child into care and what needs to be accomplished for the child to return to a safe home environment. Rather than having the caseworker serve as the expert to determine what the family needs to do, the family is encouraged to come up with plans for what needs to be done. In practice, family conferencing programs vary in the extent to which families are empowered to come up with their own solutions. In some localities, family conferencing is a means to inform families about the permanency planning process, what is expected from the family, and what the repercussions will be if problems are not remedied in a timely fashion (i.e., the termination of parental rights). In other areas, family members are expected to participate fully in the design of the intervention and service plan to provide an environment where the child can one day return home. Ideally, family conferences are used throughout the service process to evaluate progress and make new plans as necessary. Supporters of family conferencing believe that it is effective because it identifies additional supportive resources for the parent and child, helps to break down the sometimes adversarial relationship between child welfare staff and family so that all are working toward a common goal, and serves to give the family notice of the consequences of inaction on the part of the parent.
Intensive Visitation. Intensive visitation programs try to increase safe and healthy contact between parent and child to maintain a strong bond and keep the parent focused on the goal of the child's return home. In response to research identifying visitation as one of the most important factors in reunifying families, Pennsylvania created a statewide manual on visitation. The manual provides practice guidelines to counties on how to make sure parents maintain contact with their child. The process is primarily focused on systematically changing visitation policy at an agency's administrative level, and then instituting administrative oversight (at the county level) of workers. In Tennessee, the state contracted with a private provider to provide therapeutic or intensive visitation between parents and children.
Foster Parent Mentoring. Foster parent mentoring is used to develop a helping relationship between the foster parent and the birth parent so that the foster parent serves as a source of support and learning for the birth parent. Under ideal circumstances, a mentoring foster parent has regular contact with the birth parent, allows visitation in his or her home, models good parenting behavior, and serves as a means of social support for the birth parent while the child is in care and even after the child returns home. Caseworkers we interviewed felt that when foster parents were willing to work with birth parents there were positive results in terms of greater visitation and the birth parents viewing the foster parents and agency as less of a threat.
While these tools are used to help facilitate reunification, they may also facilitate a permanency plan other than reunification. Workers told us that, at times, a consequence of foster parent mentoring was the birth parent's decision to voluntarily relinquish parental rights and consent to adoption of the child by the foster parents as the birth parent felt the child would be better off with the foster parents. Similarly, one state administrator told us family conferencing can help parents realize much earlier in the process that they are not going to be able to parent their child and this expedites permanency for the child.
9. Pennell, J., & Burford, G. (2000 March/April). Family Group Decision Making: Protecting Women and Children. Child Welfare, LXXIX (2), 131-158.