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When children must be taken out of their homes for their own protection, the preferred option is always to attempt to reunify them with the parents as quickly and safely as possible. According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately three in five children in foster care will return home to their parents or other family members.
In Florida, family law courts oversee the reunification process, and will make the final decision regarding whether a child is return to the parent’s care or placed elsewhere. The day-to-day management of these cases is handled by the Florida Department of Child and Families (DCF).
The most common permanency goal for children in foster care is reunification. The aim of child protective services agencies regarding children in state custody is two-fold: to achieve parental reunification as quickly as possible and to help ensure that the child will not re-enter the foster care system at a later date.
In Florida, the court is required to assess the likelihood of reuniting the family within 12 months of a child’s removal, and the return of a child to parents or caretakers can happen before legal custody is restored. Often referred to as trial home visits, this process allows the child to live with the parent while DCF retains custody of the child and continues to supervise the family for an extended period of time. The parent can also file a motion with the court requesting reunification.
When considering reunification, the court will assess:
Reunification will be complete when both care and custody are returned to the parents or guardians and the child is released from foster care.
Many factors affect the likelihood of whether children will successfully reunite with their families. Research has found that certain characteristics of the child, family, and case can affect reunification outcomes, and children in care are less likely to reunite with their families when the following factors are present:
Strengthening support systems for parents can be key for encouraging reunification and avoiding reentry, and caseworkers often seek to incorporate the following services into families’ case plans:
Families seeking reunification are often experiencing many issues that need to be addressed prior to uniting again, and parents who utilize these services are more likely to successfully reunify with their children than those who only partially participate or fail to take part at all. Because services can have a significant impact on the prospect of reunification, it is critical that agencies ensure that each family’s needs are being correctly identified and addressed.
If parental reunification is unsuccessful and is not deemed to be in the best interests of the child, DCF will pursue other options to achieve permanency. Some parents will acknowledge that reunification is not possible and may voluntarily elect to give up their parental rights. Other times, the agency will determine that the child cannot safely return home because of risk of harm by the parent or the due to the parent’s inability to provide for the basic needs of the child. In these circumstances, DCF will seek an involuntary termination of parental rights (TPR) based on the following grounds:
When reunification efforts fail to correct the conditions or behaviors that led to the initial DCF intervention, federal law requires states to establish a “permanency plan” for each child in foster care. Florida requires that a permanency hearing be held no later than 12 months after the child was removed from the home or within 30 days after the court determines that parental reunification efforts are not required. If the court determines that a child will not be reunited with the parent, adoption will become the primary permanency option.
Competent legal representation is strongly associated with the achievement of timely and permanent reunification. A former foster child, social worker, and DCF investigator, Vero Beach Florida Attorney Susan Chesnutt focuses her law practice on child welfare issues and knows the ins and outs of reunification. For legal advice regarding parental reunification issues, contact our firm online or call 772-492-3330 today.