Birth Parents Come First

Are You My Mother?[1]

No issue is likely to generate more emotion than the relationship between a child and his or her mother. In P.D. Eastman’s book, a small child goes searching through a farmyard, poignantly asking various animals: “Are you my mother?” One might juxtapose the foster child’s case manager searching for the right parent by asking the same question. Who is the real parent? The one who gave the child birth? Or the one who has cared for him and raised him?

Sometimes welfare departments and the courts resolve this complex issue by insisting on the easy answer: blood is thicker than water…Genes dominate…Nothing is more sacred than the right of a mother to her child. And they are right. Up to a point. Begin with kin. But when the child spends a significant amount of time elsewhere, honor the bond.

Unless a serious parental crime or illness has made reunification completely unacceptable, the first permanency plan is always to return the child to his or her birth parents. He may already be bonded with his birth parents. While that bond was disrupted because of neglect or abuse, bonding remains as a deep connection. Even where the child has experienced hurt and pain, there is still a yearning for the familiar. Home, with all its negative aspects, still means stability.

“Who is the mother?” The answer to this question becomes more complicated as time elapses and the child becomes bonded to other parents-in-fact. Physical synapses are formed in the brain to parallel genes. The child is torn. Conflict may also arise between the adults as they compete for a role in raising the child.

In court, where final decisions are made, the issue is most often one of rights. Whose right is primary? The birth parent or the child?

Once upon a time, fathers had an absolute right over the well-being and even the lives of their children. In the past, children were the least protected and the most vulnerable parties in society. No more. Now culture and law have progressed to protect those rights. Time and an elemental democracy have seen the shift from authoritarian family politics to the concept that all the family members have rights, including the child.

Unfortunately, some judges and courts have moved more slowly to protect the child. They will give the birth parents chance after chance, sometimes even year after year, to redeem themselves and reclaim the child of their flesh. In such cases, the rights of the birth parents have continued to be perceived to supersede the rights of the minor child, even proclaimed to be in the child’s best interests. As one judge recently declared: “The child has no rights.” Another judge said while removing a 5-year-old child from a home where he had lived since birth with his foster/adopt parents: “I put that child back where he belonged, with his real parents.”

Every child has the right to a safe and permanent home. The child’s rights are paramount, declared the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997. ASFA reflects a legal shift from the adult’s absolute right of ownership to the overriding right of the child to be safe and secure. While that may have clarified an important issue, room for disagreement still exists. Rarely is a resolution clear. More often, a situation develops where the child might be better off with the potential adopting parents, but okay with the birth parents. Where does one draw the line?

The appropriate response to competing rights is best answered realistically along a timeline, beginning when charges of abuse or neglect are substantiated against birth parents. At that point, the state has three options: to allow the child to remain at home, to find a relative to care for the child, or to place the child temporarily in foster care or in an institution.

Maintain if possible

The first choice is—or should be—to remain in the birth home when possible. If safety can be assured, maintaining the birth home has several advantages. Children do best in a stable environment. Delay and multiple placements are avoided. Parent training can be best accomplished by keeping parent and child together. Connections with the family neighborhood and culture can continue. State and local agencies save money.

More personally, bonding can be honored. Even in an unsafe and insecure home, the child is likely bonded to his or her parents. Disrupting this bond causes a trauma of its own. Consider a cost/benefit ratio. Does the cost of separation and disrupting a critical relationship outweigh the risk to safety and security? Can in-home support and services be offered with regular monitoring that will remedy the problem?

Kin care

The second choice is to locate a blood relative. For all children in foster care in 2011, the case plan for kin care was only 3 percent. Of those children discharged from foster care, 8 percent were placed with members of the extended family.[2]

Immediately upon removal, the case manager must undertake an inventory of extended family members. If responsible blood relatives who want the child can be found, the child should be placed first with them. This has the major advantage of allowing the child to continue close ties with his or her extended family.

Unexamined kin care has some disadvantages. Relatives are sometimes seen as an easy answer by the state and an excuse, despite safety concerns, to keep birth parents and child together. Statistical studies suggest that kin care and reunification have more negative emotional and psychological outcomes than adoption. Between 20 percent and 40 percent of those who are placed with relatives or returned to the birth parents reenter the foster care system. One remedy may be for interested kin to undergo the same thorough home study required for the licensing of foster parents and adoption.

Reunify when ready

If the neglect and abuse were severe enough to remove the child in the first place, successful reunification may seem unlikely. On the other hand, families can become temporarily incapacitated. The child may be bonded to parents who need time to recover and change. Bonded relationships can be restored and preserved. Reunification offers other important advantages. The time in temporary care may be reduced. And not least, it saves the state money.

The child welfare system strives to balance protecting the safety and well-being of abused and neglected children with preserving families whenever possible. When children must be removed from their homes and placed in foster care, family reunification is the required plan. Unfortunately, not all reunifications are successful, and a significant number of children reenter foster care each year. Reentry to foster care represents a failure of permanency that compounds the serious negative effects on children. The child welfare system must work to reduce and prevent reentry into foster care by continuing follow-up care and services.

What the data reveals

The initial case plan for all but a very few foster children is reunification. Fifty-one percent of foster children leaving foster care in 2011 were reunited with their birth parents.[3] The median length of stay in foster care for children before they were reunified was six months.

Rates of return to foster care following reunification continue to be high. Over the next three years, approximately one-third of these children will reenter the foster care system, well above the recommended federal maximum guideline of 8.6 percent.[4]

Adoption from foster care is the other major permanency option. How do failed adoption rates compare to failures of reunification? While accurate figures on failed foster care adoptions are difficult to obtain, data from the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) can be utilized to obtain a good estimate. Festinger and Maza estimate that 3.3 percent of foster care adoptions are dissolved.5 Other estimates range from 0.5 to 6.6 percent.[5]

Reentry to foster care after reunification with the birth family continues to be a persistent problem with serious consequences for children and their families. The child who is continuously shuffled back and forth experiences multiple problems. While the ideal solution is to return the foster child to his family of origin, the failure rate for reunification is alarmingly high. How can we improve reunification?

Haste versus delay

States with a high percentage of reunification within 12 months also have a high percentage of reentry. The data suggests that reunification may have been too hasty. Not all of the problems that led to removal were resolved adequately or new problems arose that were not addressed.

On the other hand, delay is an equally serious problem. The longer a child is in out-of-home care, the less likely reunification will be attempted or successful.

Most parents do not voluntarily relinquish their rights. Too often reunification continues to be the permanency plan long after it appears unlikely. Perhaps the birth parents are having trouble changing their lifestyle. Perhaps the case manager has not monitored progress weekly or set deadlines. The birth parents may have disappeared without signing the necessary papers for a simple termination of parental rights. In any case, the child is left to languish in temporary substitute care.

The obvious answer is that neither being too quick nor waiting too long is a good solution. Instead, the child welfare system needs to know realistically when and where to change plans. Pursue reunification with diligence while the child waits in substitute care. But know when to draw the line and change the case plan from reunification to another permanency option. The clock is ticking. In an attempt to balance the rights of the parents with the child’s needs, ASFA suggests some very practical deadlines. The permanency plan can be changed after six months, and a termination of parental rights is mandated after one year or 15 of the past 22 months in temporary care.

Provide an immediate detailed plan for reunification

To begin the reunification process within 24 hours of removal, case managers should provide birth parents with an immediate “to do” list of the important factors to remedy. This is neither profound nor complicated. Identify the specific reasons why the child was removed and suggest a remedy. This allows concerned birth parents to begin at once to work toward their child’s return. The plan may be changed and expanded at the first official hearing. With an initial plan, however, parents have the immediate opportunity to demonstrate their good will. A motivated birth parent will work diligently and with speed to get their child back. Less motivated parents are providing important information about their priorities.

Far from being harsh, such a plan offers many advantages. It provides a compliment to birth parents by treating them as responsible adults. The birth parents learn immediately and specifically what they must do for the return of their child. The case manager can assess the motivation of the parents to fix the problems leading to the removal. By beginning as soon as possible, the time spent in temporary care can be kept to a minimum.

Here are examples of six areas that can be made specific in any plan for reunification. Each item should include a deadline or a date to be completed. The plan should be co-signed by the birth parent(s) and the case manager when presented. The initial plan can be modified to fit the individual circumstances.

  • Health of the birth parent: Medical and psychological evaluation and treatment. Drug screening. Attendance at AA or alcohol education classes. Other.
  • Change of residence: Move to acceptable housing. Separate from abusive person. Other.
  • Employment: Show number of jobs applied for each day. Obtain a job by [insert date]. Hold a job for x number of weeks. Other.
  • Knowledge of the child: Complete a developmental child history. Other.
  • Parent training: Attend classes. Observation with foster parents. Volunteer time at daycare center. Self-paced video or computer programs. Other.
  • Visitation: Give date to begin. What time? Where? How often? Keep track of attendance.

Other issues

Many other factors besides haste and delay affect the outcome of reunification. Research has shown that a return to foster care is more likely when the birth parents have problems with substance abuse and mental health. These issues take a long time to resolve and may recur.

Successful reunification is jeopardized by a lack of preparation and readiness. Reunification may have been seen as a quick and easy solution. The case manager may have failed to monitor parental efforts to change, making it difficult to adequately assess return readiness.

The court system presents several problems. Continuances and crowded court dockets cause bureaucratic delays. Some judges are prone to extend the timeframe for reunification beyond ASFA’s guidelines. Other judges may order premature reunification against the recommendations of the child welfare system.

Simple success in achieving reunification is not the only important outcome variable. We also need to learn how well reunified children do. A California study of 149 ethnically diverse foster children ages 7-12 compared reunified youth with those who did not reunify. The reunified youth showed more self-destructive behavior and substance use. They were more likely to have been arrested, to have received lower grades in school, and to have dropped out. They experienced more total behavior problems and suffered from lower competence. On the other hand, there were no significant differences between the groups in delinquency, sexual behaviors, pregnancy and suspensions. Summarizing other studies, they found no coherent evidence that foster children who are reunified fare better than those who are not.[6]

Recommendations for success

An early and diligent search for extended family members may be preferable to placing the child with a strange foster parent. Extended family members should undergo screening and training similar to that required for foster parents.

Successful reunification is more likely when the birth parents are engaged and can play a meaningful part in their rehabilitation. They are more apt to follow through when they believe their involvement is valued and respected.

Children who were visited by their birth parents were ten times more likely to be reunited. The obvious measure is to encourage more frequent visitation when appropriate.

Foster parents can help by encouraging the birth parents. They can help with mentoring both the parents and the children and by supporting visitation.

Case managers help by making regular visits with the parents and child and by monitoring the parents’ reunification plan.

Studies show that post-reunification services, from three months to as long as needed, are vital to success. These especially include the provision of concrete services, such as food, transportation, and assistance with housing and utilities.

The courts can help by tracking and following ASFA’s timelines for moving matters along. Ideally, court monitoring should continue after reunification.[7]

Cooperative adoption

A cooperative adoption is formalized when the adopting parents and the birth parents agree in court to some negotiated, specific post-adoption visitation. Typically, the adopting parents offer minimal visitation in return for the willingness of the birth parents to give up their parental rights. The birth parents may accept this or request some changes. In the latter case, negotiations and mediation continue until agreement is reached or there is no cooperative adoption.

Most foster/adopt parents already know the birth parents. The total termination of contact with the biological parents makes little sense. Unless the parent-child relationship has been destructive, a cooperative adoption has many advantages for all concerned: the child, the birth parents and the adopting parents.

A cooperative adoption can be a plus for the birth parents. The need to go through the painful and often hotly contested battle to end their parental rights is eliminated. The birth parent is freed from what they may perceive as continuing requirements and “harassment” by the welfare department. Most importantly, they no longer need to fear totally losing their child.

The adopting parents also benefit from a voluntary termination of parental rights. When they already know and have worked with the biological parents, they have some idea of what a continuing relationship might involve. They can use that knowledge to be very specific and detailed about any necessary limits for continuing contact. Finally, in some of the more positive situations, a cooperative adoption extends family connections, in particular by allowing for contact between genetic siblings.

The big advantage for all three parties with a cooperative adoption is that a court fight can be avoided. The judge is not required to render an either/or decision. Despite their legal right, the birth parents often fail to exercise even minimal contact. Should the adopting parents renege on their promise, the birth parents may go to court to request compliance. In any case, the adoption itself remains final. If the major players can work together, the child’s interests will be better served.

No states prohibit cooperative adoptions. More than half the states currently have statutes that allow written and enforceable contact agreements. The contact can range from a minimal exchange of information about the child to the exchange of cards, letters and photos, all the way to personal visits with the child by birth family members.[8]

Cooperative adoption is appropriate when 1) the birth parents and adoptive parents know each other and are willing to enter into a post-adoption agreement; 2) the birth parents realize that they are unable to care for their children but they do not wish to sever all contact with the child for life; and 3) children are in danger of languishing in foster care because reunification is not working, but the situation does not provide grounds for involuntary termination of birth parent rights. By facilitating a voluntary termination of the birth parents’ rights, these laws have permitted hundreds of foster children to obtain permanent homes through adoption with minimal delay.

On a more child-centered and personal level, all adopted children will have basic questions later on. What were my birth parents like? Am I okay? If so, why did they give me up? Most will contemplate or initiate a search.

Cooperative and open adoptions are not the same. While an open adoption does not in itself give the birth parent any legal rights of continuing contact or visitation, it recognizes the child’s need for personal information.

Lori Ross, an adoptive parent, wrote about what social networking has done for openness in adoption: “With MySpace, Facebook, and constant Internet access, it finally clicked that there is no such thing as closed adoption anymore. Twelve years ago, it might have been hard for my kids’ birth parents to track us down. But even then, it wasn’t hard for many of our foster and adoptive kids to find their birth parents when they made a choice to do so, particularly if they were older than toddlers when they came into care. Now it’s not even a contest. We can find anyone we want to find by clicking a few buttons on the computer—and our kids can find them faster than we parents can.”[9] In both a cooperative and open adoption, children will have the opportunity to work out separation problems with their biological parents face to face in real time.

Summary and conclusions

Every child has the right to a permanent home. The birth parents and the extended biological family remain the first choice for permanence, even after neglect or abuse has been substantiated. More than half of the children in foster care are reunified. Approximately one-third of these children, however, are eventually returned to foster care. Reunification has sometimes been too hasty, and, in other situations, has taken too long. If the problems were serious enough in the first place to remove a child from his or her home, the likelihood of their remediation is not high. The case manager’s best approach is to offer the birth parents an immediate plan to begin in a tangible way on the road to recovery. Then monitor the progress weekly.

Reunification and adoption are the two major permanency options. Approximately one-third of reunifications fail, resulting in reentry into foster care. Considering that serious reasons existed for their original removal, that should not be a big surprise.

Adoption is the other major option for permanence. An estimated 5 percent of adoptions from foster care fail compared with more than 30 percent of reunifications. This significant difference in success rates suggests two obvious conclusions. First, when a child has bonded over time with his foster parents and they wish to adopt, that plan offers a more stable future for the child. Second, when reunification is attempted, the chances for success might be improved with extensive and continuing financial, medical and counseling support.

The possibility of a cooperative adoption offers a good segue to the next chapter on the role of foster parents.

Chapter 10: Birth Parents Come First Notes

[1] P.D.Eastman, Are You My Mother? (New York: Random House, 1960)

[2] Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS), 2013.

[3] The data on reunification are summarized from: Children’s Rights, Fact Sheet on Reunification, 2011, and the Child Welfare Outcomes Report, 2011.

[4] Child Welfare Information Gateway, Adoption disruption and dissolution, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau, 2012.

[5] T. Festinger & P. Maza, “Displacement or post-adoption placement? A research note,” Journal of Public Child Welfare, 3, 2009, 275–286.

[6] Heather Taussig, Robert Clyman and John Landsverk, “Children Who Return Home from Foster Care: A 6-Year Prospective Study of Behavioral Health Outcomes in Adolescence,” Pediatrics. Vol. 108(1), July, 2001.

[7] These and other strategies for successful reunification are well described in a 2011 publication prepared by the Child Welfare Information Gateway.  “Family reunification: What the evidence shows.”

[8] To find information on a particular state, view the printable PDF: “Postadoption Contact Agreements Between Birth and Adoptive Families: Summary of State Laws,”

[9] Lori Ross, “Helping Children Connect with Their Birth Parents,” Adoptalk, Fall, 2013.


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