A Synthesis of Research on Family Preservation and Family Reunification Programs. Correlates of Reunification and Reentry


Several researchers have examined characteristics that are associated with reunification. Some studies have focused on clients in programs aimed at facilitating reunification, although most have examined factors associated with "natural" reunifications (that is, the return home from regular foster care). These studies do not support causal inferences, but we report the findings for their heuristic value. Hess and Folaron (1991, 1992) found that parents' ambivalence about parenting was a substantial obstacle to reunification. Turner (1984a) found that reunification was less likely in cases in which parents had multiple problems and when parents had requested the initial placement. Schuerman, Rzepnicki, and Johnson (1994) found that children who had been abused were more likely to return home than those who had been neglected; in addition, families with housing problems, substance abuse, emotional problems of parents, and mental illness were less likely to be reunited, as were families headed by single parents. Cases in which children displayed problems in school or in relationships with peers or siblings were more likely to be reunited than other cases. Courtney (1994) showed that the likelihood that children would return home from regular foster care was lower for children with health problems or disabilities, families that were eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), African American infants, and African American children over 12 years of age; cases of sexual abuse were reunited more quickly than those involving child neglect. Among cases of physical abuse, Barth et al. (1986) found that families with less severe abuse, those whose children had few school problems, and families of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to experience reunification than other families.

Several studies have examined relationships between service characteristics and family reunification. For example, Schuerman, Rzepnicki, and Johnson (1994) found that the amount of contact between families and workers and the duration of time in reunification programs were positively related to reunification (this may reflect the fact that cases that were likely to be reunified were provided with more help and remained in the program longer than those that were not considered good candidates for reunification). In a study of "natural" reunification processes Goerge (1990) showed that the probability of reunification decreased as the length of time in foster care increased. Reduced length of stay in foster care has also been related to the number of contacts between family members and child welfare workers and number of contacts initiated by family members (Gibson, Tracy, and DeBord 1984), intensity of contacts between family members and workers (Barth et al. 1986), and the frequency of parent-child contacts (Gibson, Tracy, and 1984; Lawder, Poulin, and Andrews 1986). Barth et al. (1986) found that the provision of in-home services was not related to whether a child returned home and Courtney (1994) found that pre-placement services did not affect the chance that a child would return home from regular foster care.

As noted above, "successful" reunification is often thought to involve the resolution of problems that led to placement, stabilization of the child in the family home, and avoidance of foster care reentry. Lack of resolution of the problems or behaviors of the parent that led to placement, child neglect, poor parenting skills, and limited support from extended family members, friends, and neighbors have been associated with foster care reentry (Hess and Folaron 1991, 1992; Hess, Folaron, and Jefferson 1992; Davis, English, and Landsverk 1993; Festinger 1994). Longer stays in foster care and the duration of case management services both before and after the child's return home have been related to reduced likelihood of foster care recidivism (Wulczyn 1991, Turner 1984b).