Fostering is not supposed to last forever. It is by definition a temporary arrangement wherein a foster parent steps in and plays the role of parent until the child is reunited with their original parent — or adopted, if the former is not possible. While reunification is the goal, however, it can be a traumatic process for all of the people involved.
If you are currently a foster parent or curious about fostering, learn more about foster child reunification.
Reunification is defined as the act of unifying people or things into a coherent whole after a period of separation. As far as foster care is concerned, reunification is when a foster child is returned to the care of their original parent.
(Note: Typically, the parent the foster child is returned to is their birth or biological parent. However, that is not always the case. A child, for instance, may have spent the bulk of their younger years being parented by their grandparents or other extended family members).
How to prepare for reunification
1. Interrogate your definition of ‘parent’
Becoming a foster parent will likely force you to confront your own understanding of what it means to be a parent. After all, most of us are socialized to believe that this is a life-long responsibility — and that if it’s not, there has been some failure or strategy.
When you foster, it would be helpful to interrogate your own understanding of what it means to be a parent. Why? In short, because it will enable you to provide the best care to a foster child.
A foster parent’s role is inherently temporary. Unlearning the belief that parenting must be life-long will enable you to provide the parental care your foster child deserves while they are in your care, and to feel proud of those efforts even after they leave your care — rather than feeling like a failure.
Further, if you do not interrogate your own beliefs about parenthood, you risk transmitting toxic ideas about parenting to your foster child. As a foster parent, you need to remember that returning a foster child to their original parents is the goal of foster care. As such, implying that their original parents are failures because they needed to step back from parenting to get their lives in order, is doing your foster child a disservice.
A supportive and attentive foster parent can mean the world to a child going through one of the scariest and most topsy-turvy periods of their short lives. Because many removals are related to financial distress or addiction, foster children may have been living in under-resourced homes, hotel rooms, cars or tents. A consistent and attentive adult, and access to personal needs and education is an invaluable lifeline. It may not feel like it, but the emotional support you give your foster from day one helps them be more prepared and confident for reunification.
2. Be supportive of parent visits
In most instances, visits between a foster child and their original parent are court-ordered.
A foster parent should be explicitly supportive of these visits, and supportive of the foster child mending and growing their relationship with their original parent. If these visits are treated as a nuisance or imply that their original parent doesn’t deserve to see them, you may cause lasting harm.
Cheering on your foster child’s parents/family, and going above and beyond to maintain their connection will be an incredible asset to both your foster child and their family. You are a key piece holding the delicate bond of their family together.
Remember: As a foster parent you’ll be assigned a social worker or case manager who will help orchestrate the logistics of these visits. So if the timing of these visits, for whatever reason, are not feasible for you, be sure to talk to your caseworker.
3. Respect the original parent’s decisions
Foster parents are there to advocate for their foster child, and provide them care, guidance, and support. However, their original parents legally are still in charge of making medical, educational, religious, and spiritual decisions.
As a foster parent, you can’t just go along with their preferences because you’re legally obliged to. You also need to respect their decisions, and make sure that your foster child knows that you respect their decisions.
Failure to do so will send your foster child the message that their original parent does not have their best interest at heart. If your foster child internalizes this belief, reunification is going to be much trickier because it will put your foster child into a state of stress.
4. Create a game-plan
When it begins to look like your foster child is going to be reunited with their original parent sometime soon, make a plan around future contact.
How? First, think realistically about what kind of contact you’d like to have with the child. For example, Would you like to send them yearly birthday cards? Attend graduations? Meet for a bi-monthly lunch date?
After thinking about your own wants and needs, talk to your foster child, their case worker, and their original parent to come up with a plan that works for all involved.
Important: Do not have this conversation too soon. One of the most essential things you, as a foster parent, provide to a foster child is stability. Bringing up a conversation about them leaving too early or too often can stop your foster child from settling into your home.
5. Lean on your own support system
You knew that you were signing up to provide temporary care to a child when you applied to be a foster parent. But even if you’re happy that your (former) foster child and their original parent are reunited, you may still miss them — and that’s OK.
It is normal to grieve the loss of a child. During this transition time, lean on the support of your foster co-parent(s), case worker, local support groups for foster families, and your therapist, if you have one.
Remember: It is OK to take time before integrating another foster child into your home.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team