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This article will review the Federal mandates to the state and Illinois State laws that address the return of a child or children placed in foster care. The first goal of foster care is to bring the family safely back together. However, before a child or children can be reunited with their parents, a “permanency plan” must be in place. This is often referred to as “reunification.” Laws and policies governing foster care and reunification are different from state to state. Still, federal law provides mandates and direction to the states under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
What is the Reunification Process on the Federal Level?
Currently, many organizations provide information or resources to prevent child abuse and neglect. The Child Welfare Information Gateway is the congressionally mandated and funded information service of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, Administration of Children and Families, United States Department of Health and Human Services. The CWIG was established in 2006 to replace the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse. The CWIG covers child welfare topics, including family-centered practice, child abuse and neglect, abuse and neglect prevention, child protection, family preservation and support, foster care, achieving and maintaining permanency, adoption, management of child welfare agencies, and related topics such as child and family assessment, laws and policies, statistics and coincident family issues. (www.childwelfare.gov)
The federal law requires states to establish a “permanency plan” for each child in foster care. This means the plan should address where the child will live when they leave foster care. Whether they will go home to their family, live permanently with relatives, or are placed up for adoption. “If a child remains in foster care for 15 out of 22 months, in most cases, the law requires the child welfare agency to ask the court to terminate parental rights.” Before this happens, however, the states are REQUIRED to work to bring the parents and child back together. “Reunification: Bringing Your Children Home from Foster Care,” Child Welfare Information Gateway, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2015) (www.usa.gov/federal-agencies/child-welfare-information-gateway)
What is the Reunification Process on the State Level?
In Illinois, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is the agency tasked with preventing and protecting children from abuse and neglect. The Illinois Administrative Code, Title 89, Social Services “law” outlines the duties of the Department of Children and Family Services. The Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act provides that DCFS shall, upon receiving a report made under this act, protect the health, safety, and best interests of the child in all situations in which the child is vulnerable to child abuse or neglect, offer protective services, stabilize the home environment and preserve family life whenever possible. 325 ILCS 5/2. The DCFS website provides under “Foster Care” that DCFS “strives to reunite children with their birth families. Nearly half of all foster children are reunified with their families within 12 months. (https://www2.illinois.gov/dcfs)
There are so many resources that it is difficult to list them here. Illinois has two agencies in Chicago with the specific purpose of abuse prevention. The Prevent Abuse America, 228 W. Wabash, 10th Floor, Chicago, IL 60604 312-663-3520 – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, which is committed to promoting legislation and policies and programs that help prevent child abuse and neglect, support healthy childhood development, and strengthen families. Working with State chapters, PCCA provides leadership to promote and implement prevention efforts at the national and local levels. Also, the Healthy Families America, 228 S. Wabash 10th Floor National Office, Chicago, IL 60604.312-663-3520 Email: email@example.com promotes child health and development of positive parenting through voluntary home visits by trained staff.
The child welfare agency AND the Court must be sure that a parent will be able to keep their children safe, provide for their needs, and are prepared as a parent before the child or children are returned home. The “plan” to bring the child or children home is the service plan, a treatment plan, a reunification plan, or a permanency plan. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services refers to the plan as a “permanency plan” or “reunification” plan.
The permanency process begins when the first contact is made with the child and family. It is an ongoing process that must first consider the best interests, health, and safety of the child in all planning decisions. When evaluating the child’s best interests, DCFS or service provider will look to the Juvenile Court Act.
Juvenile Court Act, 705 ILCS 405/1-3, the best interests factors include the following considerations when placing a child in foster care.
- The physical safety and welfare of the child, including food, shelter, health, and clothing.
- The development of the child’s identity.
- The child’s background and ties, including family and religious.
- The child’s sense of attachment.
- Where the child feels love and a sense of value.
- The child’s sense of security.
- The child’s sense of familiarity.
- The continuity of affection for the child.
- The lease is a disruptive placement alternative for the child.
- The child’s wishes and long-term goals.
- The child’s community ties, including church, school, and friends.
- The child’s need for permanence and stability.
- The uniqueness of every family and child.
- The risks attendant to entering and being in substitute care.
- The preference of the persons available to care for the child. (705 ILCS 405/1-3)
Section 315.80 of the Illinois Administrative Code, Chapter III: Department of Children and Family Services provides the “components” of the permanency planning process. The permanency planning process continues until the health and safety of the child are assured, and Department-funded services are terminated.
The components or activities that must occur include:
- A diligent search for missing parents, when necessary.
- An initial assessment and ongoing assessments of whether a case should be opened, and services delivered, and determine the needs of the family;(Sec. 315.100)
- Worker intervention and contacts (ongoing and after reunification) (Sec. 315.110)
- Family meetings (Sec. 315.120)
- Development and implementation of a service plan; 315.130)
- Selection of a permanency goal; (315.200-315.240)
- The use of concurrent planning; (315.245)
- Evaluating whether families are substantially fulfilling their obligations under the service plan and correcting the conditions that led to the placement; (315.300)
- Consideration of alternatives to reunification;( 315.305)
- Preparation of termination of Department services and aftercare planning; (315.310)
- Preparation for, attendance at, and participation in administrative case reviews, court hearings, and permanency hearings. 89 Ill. Adm. Code 316 (Case Reviews and Court Hearings)
What is the Caregiver’s Role in Reunification?
The caregiver or foster parent is involved in the permanency or reunification plan. DCFS instructs the caregivers to make the return of the child or children to their families successful. DCFS provides literature to the caregiver who assists in the process. A brochure called “Guiding the Caregiver through Self-Assessment for Reunification Support” (Rev2/2008/CFS 250) can also be found on the DCFS website.
A caregiver’s role in family reunification is vital. Parents who develop relationships with the caregiver and their children during the process help pave the way to a smooth transition of the child or children back to their parents. Caregivers can assist with the child or children being less anxious, help in the family healing process, and sometimes create bonds between the family and the caregiver, which can be instrumental in a successful reunification process.
The return of a child to a parent after placement in foster care is made after careful consideration, which begins on the day of placement. A parent will need to be involved in every step and participate in the permanency plan to have a successful outcome. The Courts, along with the agency providing the care and implementing the permanency plan, will not terminate the child’s foster care until it is determined that it would be in the child’s best interests.
See Illinois Administrative Code, Title 89 Social Service, Chapter III: Department of Children and Family Services, Sub Chapter a, Part 315– Permanency Planning. (Last Updated February 19, 2021)
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