by Annie E. Casey Foundation, with contributions from Plummer Youth Promise Practice Leadership
Reunification is the first and primary permanency option for children and youth placed in foster care. At the same time, the COVID-19 epidemic presents challenges to timely reunification due to the associated health risks and the need for social distancing. Child welfare professionals are asking, “How should we actively pursue reunification goals and help to assure families are safe and stable during this public health emergency?”
1. INSTITUTE STEPS AND CRITERIA FOR CONSIDERING REUNIFICATION
- Develop criteria to identify the children and youth who are candidates for reunification in the short-term. Criteria may include: using data to identify cases that may be ready for extended visits, trial or final discharge; updated safety and risks assessment were completed, risk factors related to COVID-19; no current safety threats that prevent reunification; accessibility and availability of services and supports; reunification plan approved by the court; and critical elements of case plan were completed.
- Develop or utilize an existing collaborative teaming process to create the plan to reunify the family and address identified needs. These decisions should not be made unilaterally and should most importantly include the family and ensure the inclusion of the child’s and youth’s voice.
- Allow assessment of safety and risks to drive reunification versus strict adherence to case plan completion. Evaluate the completion of elements of the case plan necessary to support and maintain reunification for each case.
- Consider the unique circumstances of each family dealing with the realities of COVID-19 and assess if there might be compelling reasons to delay or reconsider reunification efforts (particularly for those cases nearing the statutory timelines of 15 out of 22 months).
- Think about providing more support over a longer period that is slowly tapered off, especially for families whose children and youth have been in group placements. This assures the continuation of critical services and supports through the COVID-19 crisis (unless these children and youth will remain eligible for ongoing services).
- Allow transition age youth who are reunified to remain eligible for aftercare or extended care services for a minimum of one year following reunification.
2. ENGAGE AND PREPARE PARTNERS AND STAKEHOLDERS
- Reach out to providers to assure services and supports are available, adequate and can be delivered, especially in communities that are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
- Connect with the courts, legal representatives and advocates to find out how they are using technology to continue their work. If necessary, explain why it is important to continue moving children and youth to reunification, even amid this this crisis.
- Ensure that agency staff, parents, children, youth, kin caregivers and foster families can connect virtually to hearings, virtual visits and and meetings.
- Ramp-up current agency expectations for post reunification contact through increased visits/contact and adapt procedures to maximize virtual visits.
3. DEVELOP A REUNIFICATION ACTION PLAN WITH THE FAMILY
- Keep in mind that sustaining the safety of children requires building safety networks— relationships that increase the overall visibility of the child or youth and provide both protection and a strong sense of belonging, especially during times of crisis. Safety networks incorporate relatives, friends, community organizations, faith communities and the like, in addition to professional supports.
- Develop an open, judgement-free comfortable environment that allows caregivers, youth and children to freely ask for and expect supports requested for successful reunification.
- Think creatively about how to provide and maintain essential in-home services and supports to families who are reunified, for example, virtual case worker home visits and tele-therapy. Provide lists with links to community resources, especially those that can assist during the COVID-19 emergency.
- Ensure that there is an emergency care plan in place that includes identified options as alternate caregivers in the event that the primary caregiver/s is temporarily unable to care for their child/ren or youth (for example, due to illness or relapse).
- Support the maintenance of connections with previous kinship caregivers and foster parents who can be a source of continuity for the child or youth and support for the family.
- Engage the family’s network of support in providing resources for the family (for example, emotional encouragement, respite, childcare, transportation — and include supports by phone or virtually (video-calls, texts, emails, etc. ).