Updated: Jun 22
June 22, 2023
I started with the Center on Children and the Law at the ABA two weeks prior to the start of nationwide Reunification Month events. I was excited to participate in activities around the country and spotlight reunification stories in my new role. At the same time, I was still acutely aware that Reunification Month was neither celebrated nor embraced by everyone.
For the past decade June has been acknowledged as Reunification Month. During this time I heard from attorneys, judges and agency caseworkers that one legal outcome should not be celebrated over another. There is still a strong sentiment that celebrating reunification would “discourage other permanency options” despite reunification’s priority status when determining permanency. Even more troubling, many defense attorneys and parents have expressed to me that in recent years reunification events have been co-opted by the system. Reunification events are more about celebrating a still very much broken system rather than focusing on and celebrating the hard work of parents, many of whom are Black and people of color and low-income. Nationwide, many events now focus on caseworkers, attorneys, and resource caregivers – painting them as family saviors without mentioning where parents fit in the reunification paradigm. Reunification Month events have somehow now become another place within the system where initial removal or agency involvement bears the stamp of justification.
Reunification events must not become another vehicle to embrace current child welfare practices and cultures that not only de-prioritize parents but also further alienate parents. Reunification month is meant to do the exact opposite.
The origination of Reunification Month came from a parent-centered place. A place where the work of the parent was not only honored on an individual place but also highlighted the role of parents in child welfare. Many celebrated parents express that had they received financial support or needed health services, removal would have been avoided. Monique, ABA 2023 hero, shared that her children were taken from her after a terrible medical misdiagnosis (See ABA website link for Monique's story: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_interest/child_law/project-areas/national-reunification-month/). She was forced to defend herself while surviving the trauma of removal and parental grief. Her story underscores the dangerous myth that agency separations cause no harm to children and parents. This month is meant to be a social justice call to advocates – a time to highlight the importance that families receive due process, protection of parental constitutional rights and that parental voices are integrated in every decision-making moment within the life of their case - pre and post removal.
Reunification events should aim to eliminate shame and raise parental voices in order to challenge the flawed removal and reunification processes along with uniting the community on how to better serve families prior to system involvement. Reunification events must celebrate the parent’s story and eliminate the “they brought it upon themselves” narrative that still persists despite evidence showing the majority of agency involvement is connected to poverty-based reasons. The approximate 400,000 children in foster care need this community to actively seek reunification while challenging the delays created by current system failures.
As one of the first states to recognize Reunification Month, New Jersey saw an immediate change from the legal and judicial community. For the first time, judges saw parents together with their children outside of court. We frequently heard that Reunification Month and events should be celebrated more than adoption day and be a required event for all involved in the child welfare system.
Legal Services of New Jersey’s (LSNJ) reunification event highlighted families who faced trauma from removal and shed transparency on the process they endured and challenges they overcame to achieve reunification. While parents spoke about these traumatic experiences, attendees saw children being children and parents being parents in the audience, a crystal clear reminder that removal is about people and not allegations. We also heard from the reunified children who year after year asked everyone in the audience to remember that they were the “lucky ones” for being sent back home. It was never a question of if for them, but a question of when they were going home.
LSNJ ultimately changed the event title to “Family Unification Day” to further make clear the focus of the event. Reunification events can and should celebrate the resource caregivers, attorneys, caseworkers and service providers who have fought tirelessly to support a family reunification. They are heroes in the process, and are needed and valued. The issue is when we stop there; only raise up those heroes and forget the purpose of these events - to honor parents, listen to them and ask them what they need from us to keep their family unified.