How social workers can achieve successful reunifications for children in care

Social workers need to assess families' needs as soon as reunification is an option to ensure best outcomes, writes Elaine Farmer and Mandy Wilkins

Photo: Gary Brigden

By Elaine Farmer, professor of child and family studies, Bristol University and Mandy Wilkins, NSPCC development manager

Last year over 10,000 children returned home from care – the most common outcome for children in care. It is, of course, right that we support children to remain at home with their families, but sadly research shows that half of children who return to their parents are re-abused or neglected and almost half of returns break down within two years.

Far too many children return home without a robust assessment of whether or not their family situation has improved since they came into care. Not only is this bad for children, there are also significant costs.

A recent report calculated that it costs £61,614 for each child who re-enters care after a failed return home, compared with £5,627 to improve support for the child and their family to help them remain safely at home.

We can change this. Research highlights clear changes to policy and practice that would improve the lives of children returning home from care as the following stories highlight.

Case study

Candice’s return home – current picture

Candice returned to live with her mum, Yvonne, when she was ten, after being in care for 18 months. She went into care because her dad was violent and her mum had mental health problems. When Candice entered care Yvonne could not find support to deal with her problems. No one asked Candice if she wanted to return to her mum, but one day Yvonne collected Candice from school and brought her home.

As Candice was voluntarily accommodated, Yvonne was able to do this. However, Candice had no time to prepare herself – and a lot had changed, including a new man living in the house. She missed her foster carers but didn’t admit this to her mum.

Yvonne’s mental health deteriorated, she blamed Candice for this and their relationship went downhill. Candice didn’t tell anyone how she felt, no one asked, and she spent most of her time alone in her bedroom.

Candice’s return home – how it could be

After coming in to care, both Candice and Yvonne maintained that they wanted to be together and they kept in touch through regular contact sessions. Candice’s social worker, Matt, assessed the family to decide if it would be in Candice’s best interests to live with Yvonne again. Matt arranged for Yvonne to receive treatment for her mental health problems.

Yvonne got together with a new partner, Jez, who was involved in the assessment. Matt’s assessment showed that, after a year, things had really improved with Yvonne, and they started planning a gradual return home.

Matt, and a whole team of professionals and friends, provided support to the family to prepare them all for the transition home. They spoke regularly to Candice about what she wanted and needed. Matt continued to support Candice, Yvonne and Jez after she returned home, and six months in, everything is going well.

Candice’s story shows the particular problems when parents choose to end section 20 voluntary agreements. Our system often fails to respond. There is inadequate assessment of need; it is assumed that cases won’t meet the threshold to initiate care proceedings, and so the reunifications happen, without enough involvement from children’s services and with insufficient support for children and their family.

The same is true when older children ‘walk themselves home’, and for many other children who return home.

Good practice

The good practice highlighted by research is not difficult to achieve and does happen. However, to make such positive practice more common, there needs to be a fundamental shift in how we deal with reunification.

It should no longer be an invisible area of practice – the core question underpinning reunification speaks to the heart of children’s social work: ‘Will this child be safe and nurtured if they return to live with their parent/s?’

Social workers and independent reviewing officers need regularly and pro-actively to ask this question once the child is in care:

–         If the answer, after a robust assessment, is no, then alternative permanence options should be sought.

–         If the answer is ‘maybe’ then children’s services and partner agencies need to work together to support the families and plan properly for reunification.

This requires assessing risk and protective factors, parental capacity for change, careful inter-agency work and evidence of actual change by parents. And, it involves practice which has the child’s experience at its heart and is guided by their best interests.

These changes on the ground need to be driven by commitment and leadership from senior management – locally and nationally.

Getting reunification right means that returning home should be a safe and positive experience. The costs of providing robust assessments tied to appropriate support are dwarfed in comparison with the costs of the child remaining in or re-entering care.

Our work with local authorities shows that there is an increasing recognition of what good reunification practice looks like and a commitment to putting children’s best interests at the heart of decision-making.

This piece is based on chapter seven from the NSPCC’s book, ‘Promoting the wellbeing of children in care’, which was launched this month.

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