One of the excuses people give for not being foster parents is that they can’t imagine getting attached to a child and then having to say goodbye when the child is reunified with his mom or dad.
This fear, of course, misses one of the main goals of foster care, which is to give a child a safe, nurturing place to be while they wait for their parents to make the necessary changes to bring them home safely. Reunification is the primary goal of foster care. It is not always possible, and when it isn’t, alternate permanency (i.e. adoption) is pursued. But, initially at least, reunification—either with parents or other members of a child’s family of origin—is the default goal.
Most of the children we have had in our care were not reunified. We adopted some of them. Some were adopted by others. And several are still in foster care, either with us or with other foster parents. But over the last year, we have been able to be part of two successful reunifications, and it has been such a joy and privilege to join these families’ stories during one of the darkest times of their lives.
I have many foster care friends who have been involved with reunifications that were nothing short of tragic: foster parents loving and caring for children who became attached to them, only to be cut off when the children were returned home. Foster children who felt safe and secure in their foster homes, where they knew stability and peace for the first time in their lives, only to be disrupted yet again when they were sent back to their parents. Foster children who were reunified only to be physically and sexually abused yet again, left permanently damaged emotionally and physically.
But I have also gotten to witness reunification done right, and each case had several things in common:
When reunification is done right, the foster child does not lose a foster family they’ve grown to love. Rather, their mom and/or dad welcomes the foster family into their new world. The child returns home to his mom and/or dad, but keeps a relationship with his foster parents as well. This is not an easy dynamic, to be sure; foster parents and parents must show one another tremendous grace for this to work. Boundaries need to be established and respected. Mom needs to be mom, while foster mom can assume the role of auntie or close friend. But it’s so worth it, for the sake of the child who has already been through so much.
When reunification is done right, the foster family becomes part of the parent’s support system. When a parent has done the heavy lifting of turning her life around after being separated from her children for a season, she needs a lot of support and encouragement. The foster parent can be part of that. For example, if a single parent has just completed rehab, a parenting course, and a year of supervised visits, then manages to find a job and stable housing while simultaneously stepping back into the day-to-day stress of parenting, she will likely need occasional support when her work schedule leaves her with no one to watch her child or she just needs a break. The foster parent can be a resource for her to call whens he needs that additional support. It takes a village to raise a child, and it is a beautiful thing when a foster parent can be part of a parent’s village after reunification.
When reunification is done right, foster parents and parents are able to be humble and generous with one another for the sake of the children they all love. While some parents probably want to move on with their lives as though their child’s stint in foster care never happened, that is not possible—at least, not for their child. If a child has spent a significant amount of time living in someone else’s family, being integrated into their lives, settling in to their routines and their house rules, that child has a bond with their foster family. To insist on breaking that bond only causes the child another disruption.
Trauma on top of trauma.
Obviously, I am writing in generalizations here. Each case is unique. There are times when it is not possible or wise for the relationships I’ve described above to be realized. Some foster parents cannot do it. Some parents cannot do it. Reunification is a complicated and messy endeavor. For some, it is too complicated and messy. There are no nicely tied-up loose ends. A child’s life is disrupted yet again. They have to establish yet another “new normal,” yes, with “their” mom, but not their mom as they knew her—not if she has done the heavy lifting and has changed for the better. Or perhaps with a member of their extended family or a new adoptive mom and dad who are perfect strangers to the child.
Trauma on top of trauma.
But in my experience, it is worth pressing in to the complicated and messy parts for the sake of surrounding a child with more love, more support, and more evidence that they matter and their well-being matters. It is worth choosing to show love and mercy—both the foster parents and the child’s parents—in order to let the child they all love know they don’t have to lose another relationship that matters to them.