Supporting Timely and Successful Reunifications

Safe and timely family reunification is the primary permanency option for most children and youth who have been removed from their parent’s care. All children belong with family, and family separation is a traumatic experience for both children and parents. The root causes that lead to family separation can often be addressed by connecting families with tailored services to meet their needs. Reunification planning is an opportunity to equip families with tools and support that can help them thrive in the long term and prevent foster care reentry. It is critical that caseworkers take a family-centered, trauma-informed, culturally sensitive, and strengths-based approach when working with families to achieve reunification. Key pieces of that comprehensive approach are authentically engaging parents, children, and youth and helping them build their natural supports and network of family, kin, and community. This bulletin features strategies and best practices to help caseworkers support families before, during, and after the reunification process.


Reunification is the practice of returning both care and custody of a child to a parent1 following the child’s entry into the foster care system. It is a legal process overseen by a court and is usually contingent on a parent’s completion of a case plan and participation in required services and a determination that safety can be managed in the home. Reunification is considered “timely” when it occurs within 12 months of the child entering foster care (Children’s Bureau, 2022a). The term “successful” can have many interpretations, but for the purpose of this publication, reunification is deemed “successful” when families remain together following reunification and children do not re-enter foster care.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) requires States to make reasonable efforts to preserve or reunify families. This includes connecting families with services, performing home visits, partnering with families and youth in case planning, etc. The law also outlines several conditions under which States do not have to make such efforts (for example, in cases where the parent subjected the child to aggravated circumstances, such as sexual abuse). Situations outside of those identified by ASFA may pose reunification challenges as well (for example, in families where parents do not affirm a young person who identifies as LGBTQIA2S+ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, asexual, Two-Spirit, or another gender or sexual identity]). However, it’s still the child welfare agency’s legal responsibility to make reasonable efforts to preserve or reunify families before recommending a change in the permanency goal.


The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau collects State and Federal data on reunification and reentry. Based on data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, reunification is the most common goal for children in foster or out-of-home care (53 percent in fiscal year [FY] 2021) as well as the most common outcome for children leaving State custody (47 percent in FY 2021) (Children’s Bureau, 2022b). Families from nonWhite racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds may experience inequitable outcomes throughout the child welfare system. For example, children who are Black or African American, Hispanic and Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native are disproportionately represented in foster care compared with their percentage of the general population (Children’s Bureau, n.d.).

In 2019, of all children who reunited with their parents or other caregivers, a national median of 63 percent were reunited within 12 months of entering care (Children’s Bureau, 2022a). A national median of more than 7 percent of children reentered care within 12 months of a prior foster care episode. Data show a decline in performance over the last 5 years in both achieving timely family reunifications and the percentage of children re-entering care (Children’s Bureau, 2022a). As a result, the Children’s Bureau recommends that agencies identify and review specific barriers to achieving timely reunifications.

Additionally, the reunification rates for certain racial and ethnic groups may be different, further exemplifying the disparate outcomes faced by non-White families. Many studies show that non-Hispanic Black children and American Indian/Alaska Native children are less likely to be reunited with their families than non-Hispanic White children, but this finding is not consistent across all studies (LaBrenz et al., 2023).


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