Parents’ Pasts and Families’ Futures: Using Family Assessments to Inform Perspectives on Reasonable Efforts and Reunification
Whether parents can overcome the problems that lead to abuse and neglect of their children is the essence of questions surrounding efforts to return children to their parents once legal custody of a child has been granted to the child welfare agency. Consistent with a legal and policy framework protecting parental rights in the United States, the threshold for separating a child from his or her parents is set high, and family reunification is the preferred permanency goal for most children who come into the child welfare system. Despite this policy preference, reunification rates are lower than desired and even when reunification does happen, some children experience subsequent placements.
In this study, comprehensive family assessments conducted by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services are used to identify and better understand the experiences of a subset of parents involved with the child welfare system who report extensive exposure to trauma in their own personal histories. We explore the relationship between parents’ childhood experiences and their current functioning. We examine what caseworkers and clinicians see as the initial prognosis for these families and the reunification and reentry outcomes for their children. The findings that a subset of parents involved with the child welfare system have extensive childhood trauma experiences and present with multiple problems or service needs have implications for caseworker engagement as well as interventions. The study raises fundamental questions about our obligation and approaches to serving parents, protecting children, and promoting well-being. We hope to encourage dialogue about what policies and practices might need to be developed and implemented in order to improve long-term child and family well-being outcomes for this particular group of families.