An International Database and eJournal for Outcome-Evaluation and Research


Reunification, process of transformation, multiperspectivity, retro- & prospective


Aim. Foster care services in Germany have little scientific data available on the processes involved when reunifying foster children with their families of origin (Schäfer, Jespersen 2012). Uncertainties also arise in practise. Often, the attempts to reunify a child with the birth family are made very late in time (when the child is already safely placed and integrated in a foster family), they are not well enough prepared and the reunification itself is insufficiently assisted. The rate of failed reunification attempts is therefore high (Kindler, Küfner, Thrum, Gabler 2011). The aim of the project is to expand the existing data base and to make concrete recommendations for reunification processes. At the moment, there are no satisfying answers to the question of how reunification processes can be enhanced to:

  • provide new development opportunities for the foster child;
  • avoid imposing unnecessary burdens, personal injuries and negative consequences for all the parties involved and;
  • pave the way to a stable reintegration with the birth family.

It is essential to this end to identify the factors that contribute to the success or failure of a reunification process, an issue that has already been addressed in international research. The project sets out to perform a detailed analysis of the dynamics and processes at different stages: What happens in the foster home, the birth family and the social service agencies? How do both families deal with the transformations in their family relationships? In which ways do they affect each other? How are the changes handled by the child? What kind of support is needed, at which stage?

One of the objectives of the project is to elaborate standards, quality criteria and practical guidelines for further enhancing foster care and for advancing the options available to social service agencies to get involved.

Methods. The project complies with the standards of qualitative research. Since January 2013, a sample of 20 cases is analysed in the scope of the data collection, including planned and unplanned reunification processes as well as cases with a high likeliness of successful reunification and still open outcome. The sample was selected from a total of 50 cases based on the «theoretical sampling».

Various contrasting elements are explored, including:

  • socio-cultural differences between birth and foster family;
  • continuity and discontinuity in the child's biography;
  • secure or insecure attachment to foster or birth parents;
  • level of preparation prior to reunification and resources of the birth family;
  • reasons for the placement.

The data is collected based on a multi-perspective research design, which takes into account the experiences of the various persons involved in the reunification process, including those of:

  • the professionals involved in the case;
  • the birth family;
  • the foster family;
  • the foster child;
  • other important persons.

To gather the relevant data, the project draws on a range of different interview types as well as the analysis of available youth welfare records and participant observation.

The retrospective part of the data collection addresses the history of the reunification, beginning with the child's placement in the foster family.

The prospective part of the data collection takes into consideration:

  • the processes involved in the decision to reunify a child with the family of origin;
  • the preparation as well as the actual process of the reunification;
  • the integration of the child into the birth family and;
  • the transformations in the foster family.

Particular attention is given to the increased vulnerability and the specific needs of the persons involved at different stages and phases of the reunification process.

The data is documented in written form and summarised in chronicles of support trajectories, which are analysed as follows:

  • various readings and open coding;
  • development of a categorization system;
  • process analysis of each case;
  • comparison of cases;
  • definition of topics and general conclusions.

The evaluation and analysis of the data collected aims to deliver practice-oriented, concrete guidance. In addition, the data is used to perform theory generating analysis and an evaluation of transformation processes in interdependent figuration using the example of foster and birth families.

Findings. The project was started in autumn 2012 and does not yet allow for final conclusions. However, first observations and intermediate results can already be summarised.

1. Well-planned reunification processes from foster care are uncommon in Germany. In the German foster care system, strategies to form and accompany reunification processes do not exist yet. Birth parents' desires for the return of their child regularly provoke resentments and worries in foster carers and professionals.

2. Often, it is unknown to parents how long the child is supposed to remain in care and who might be the contact person in the professional area. It is not clear how they may develop and modify their role as a parent, how they may maintain the relationship with the child and how they can participate in decisions concerning the care arrangement. The cooperation with parents has to be significantly intensified:

  • general assistance to improve the living conditions in the family of origin;
  • concrete assistance to enhance parenting skills and parent-child contact.

3. The lack of transparency in the decision-making processes leads to high levels of uncertainty among the involved, both during the period of the foster placement and regarding the arrangements required when the child is to be reunited with the birth family. The foster carers are inadequately informed about possibilities of reunification as established in the law. They and other family members take the child's permanent stay in the foster family for granted. A reunification process is experienced as an unpleasant surprise. Foster parents worry about the child who has to return - following their interpretation - to an unimproved birth family. They worry about the further development of the child and how the child may cope with the loss of the foster parents as attachment figures.

4. The specific needs and signals from children and adolescents during their individual development phases are of substantial importance, but are taken into consideration very differently by professionals. Some professionals integrate children and youth immediately; they meet them regularly and spend time with them. Other professionals rely just on the foster parents' assessment. Many children wish to grow up in both families and like both of them. They easily get in loyalty conflicts when they are asked to decide between their foster family and their birth family.

5. Findings regarding research methods.

Access to reunification processes is time-consuming and ridden with prerequisites. There are few potentially available cases and retentions from professionals regarding the topic. A study which accompanies processes needs to submit to unforeseeable changes in a very complex field of research. It demands a high degree of flexibility from the researcher.

Key references

Biehal, N. (2007). Reuniting Children with their Families: Reconsidering the Evidence on Timing, Contact and Outcomes. British Journal of Social Work, 37. Jg., S. 807-823.

Bullock, R., Gooch, D. and Little, M. (1998). Children going home. The re-unification of families. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Kindler, H., Küfner, M., Thrum, K. and Gabler, S. (2011). Rückführung und Verselbstständigung. In: H. Kindler, E. Helming, T. Meysen and K. Jurczyk (Hg.) (2011). Handbuch Pflegekinderhilfe. Deutsches Jugendinstitut e.V., München, 613-665.

Schäfer, D., Jespersen, A. (2012). Rückkehrprozesse von Pflegekindern in ihre Herkunftsfamilie. Vorbereitung eines Forschungsprojekts. SI:SO 1, 17.Jg S, 54-61.

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