Is it Time? The Decision to Return a Child Home

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Is it Time? The Decision to Return a Child Home

Julie Davis, Senior Program Specialist

When a child has been removed from his or her home because of abuse or neglect, how can a child welfare social worker know when it is safe for the child to return home? 

To make this decision, the worker needs to determine whether the previous safety concern—which was so great that the child needed to be removed from the family—has been resolved, or can be managed with support in the home, in a way that allows the child to be safe. Workers consider multiple factors when deciding to reunify a child with his or her family: the quality and quantity of visits during out-of-home placement; the protective factors of the caretakers (in other words, positive behaviors by caretakers that may help keep the child safe); the vulnerability of the child (which takes into account the age of the child, whether the child is verbal, etc.); and most importantly, any safety threats that remain a concern.  

If the system is working correctly, the family members are aware from the beginning of the out-of-home placement of what needs to change in order for the court and the child welfare agency to believe that they can keep their child safe on their own. The factors that inhibit parents’ abilities to care for their child safely should not be a mystery to the family; that is, they should have been discussed many times by the time a child is being considered for reunification. Those factors should be clearly articulated in the case plan as behavioral change goals. 

Behavioral change goals for parents can be modified during the life of a case as the worker gains a better understanding of the family. However, if goals change, the worker needs to clearly communicate these changes to the parents and ensure they understand that those changes are directly related to child safety.  

Creating and communicating clear behavioral goals has not always been a strength of the child welfare system. In the past, the system has focused on simply completing services, regardless of whether goals related to behavior and safety are reached. Too often we have allowed case plans to become checklists of changes we believe will improve a child’s quality of life, but which are not necessarily related to the child’s safety. As a system, we need to ensure that behavioral change goals are clearly articulated to the family and that the family understands why those behaviors need to change. 

Successful completion of clear behavioral goals is not the only step to returning a child home. This decision is also influenced by other systems. Representatives of the court system—including judges, district attorneys, corporation counsel, and guardians ad litem—all play a role in the decision to return a child to his or her home. School personnel, therapists, and even the public at large have opinions about the work of child protection, including the decision to reunify. A worker may be confident about the work that has been done with a family, yet a judge may want to see additional behavioral changes. This makes it imperative for the worker to be able to clearly articulate why reunification is the right decision, indicating behavioral changes that have occurred along with any in-home safety planning that has been put in place. 

Time constraints are another factor that can influence permanency decisions; change may take longer to occur than system requirements will permit. A number of factors can slow down the process, including whether change is imposed by parents’ internal desires or externally by the system; unrealistic deadlines; longstanding addictions that get in the way of effective parenting; and severe mental health issues that take time to treat, just to name a few. Federal and state timelines, which may drive the case plan, do not always allow for the amount of time needed for these types of changes.  

In order to feel comfortable with the decision to reunify, the worker needs to see that the family members have changed the way they care for their child. The worker has to have a level of trust in the family and in his or her own work with the family leading up to this point. 

The Structured Decision Making® (SDM) system can help make the reunification decision less difficult and scary for a worker. The SDM® system, a suite of decision-support tools, includes a reunification assessment. This instrument provides a structured framework for critical case-management decisions and helps to expedite permanency for children in out-of-home care. The goal of this SDM assessment is to assist workers in identifying the elements that go into the reunification decision and provide a structured way of explaining and understanding this difficult determination. 

The NCCD Children’s Research Center knows that each case is different and that no tool can provide the answer in every case. We know it is essential to have highly skilled workers with sound professional judgment. Our goal is to increase the reliability and validity of the decision-making process across workers by providing a research-informed framework to facilitate critical decisions about children’s safety. We believe that children and families deserve nothing less. 

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