Summary of Attachment and Bonding in the Foster and Adopted Child

Part One: Bonding and Permanence

Attachment and Other Relationships

  • Bonding is a significant attachment
  • Bowlby’s attachment theory
  • A confusion of terms
  • Definitions are important

Bonding refers to the lasting strength of a relationship, not necessarily its biological source. Throughout life people may attach to one another in ways more significant and more powerful than those dictated by genes. A very close friend can become more important than a brother or sister. The most obvious non-genetic bond occurs in marriage, where two people attach themselves to one another with a commitment that supersedes genetic connections and expect that connection to last a lifetime.

Deepening toward Significance: The Emergence of Bonding

  • The developing concept of bonding
  • Physical evidence
  • Rapid Synaptic Growth from Birth to Age Four
  • Psychological markers
  • Social signposts
  • The tipping point
  • Three cups of tea

Bonding is a continuum, a progression from distance to intimacy. The togethering begins with a meeting where a tangible connection occurs, proceeding over time to friendship. The friendship may grow into an attachment. As that attachment becomes more secure and necessary, bonding may result.

An Objective Definition of Bonding

  • Time in place
  • The behavior of the child
  • Bonding is reciprocal
  • Family identification
  • Sibling bonding
  • Multiple attachments or bonds
  • Bonding myth-conceptions

Bonding is the highest and most intense form of attachment. When two items are attached with super glue, they are bonded. Pulling them apart is very difficult. Separation is possible but at some considerable cost. Parts of both sides may be broken or torn. The result is ugly.

Part Two: Promises and Problems

The Promise of ASFA

  • The rights of the child are paramount
  • Deadlines, timelines and permanence

The child is going through a process that will determine what kind of adult he or she will become, and to what extent he or she will be capable of working and loving. The very pathways of life are being fashioned. Basic needs for health and safety and a secure attachment provide the foundation for growth.

When society removes a child from an unsafe home, that society assumes an obligation to make the situation better, to make the birth home a safe one or to find an alternate permanent placement for the child. As society’s most vulnerable citizens, foster children should have a primary claim on our collective conscience. The Adoption and Safe Families Act provided a significant legislative framework for abused and neglected children to achieve genuine permanence within a reasonable time.

Problems Remain

  • Foster care population
    • Case goals
    • Length of stay in foster care
    • Waiting for adoption after a termination of parental rights
    • Outcomes
    • Adoption
    • Summary of progress
  • Delay: The pain of waiting
  • Multiple placements: Why children are moved
  • Emancipation
  • What happens to youth who age out?
  • The excuses we use to kid ourselves
  • The system is flawed

Children are our most valuable resource, our hope for the future. Foster children are our most vulnerable citizens. Concern for their well-being must have the highest priority. Delays in establishing permanence add to an already negative situation. Reunification and adoption are the only true measures of permanence. Every child has the right to a permanent home within a year.

The High Price of Instability

  • Dealing with separation and loss
  • What happens when bonding is interrupted?
  • Statements of fact

Earlier attachments or their absence predetermine the formation of later relationships. We come to expect what our experiences have taught us. We greet and deal with new relationships based upon our prior internal working models or patterns.

The problems begin with the initial abuse or neglect that led to the child’s removal. However, the damage is compounded by multiple caregivers, waiting for permanence and emancipation. Attachment insecurity increases the risk for childhood and adult psychopathology.

As will be seen in the next three chapters, foster children who age out of the system become mentally ill, spend time in jail and are homeless at disproportionate rates.

Delay, Despair, and Detachment: The Mental Health of Foster Children

  • A common regression
  • Childhood mental illness
  • Childhood experiences carry over
  • Adult mental illness

When a foster child first enters care, a critical attachment or bond has already been disrupted. He is placed in a temporary parking spot where he is physically safer until a permanent and stable home can be found. This is an emergency placement. If he were in a burning building, our first step would be to get him out fast. The situation itself is a serious problem. Being in temporary care after having been removed from his home is an emergency. The best therapy for a newly removed foster child is to return him to his rehabilitated family or to find him a new and stable home, and to do so within the year prescribed by law.

Striking Back in Anger: Delinquency and Crime in Foster Children

  • Crime and attachment

The accumulating body of evidence demonstrates that placement instability is associated with weak attachments and juvenile delinquency. This is clearly a chicken/egg problem: Children are moved because they misbehave and they keep misbehaving because they continue to be moved. Placement in group homes only increases the descent into delinquency. Nevertheless, the correlation between lack of placement stability and delinquency demands some innovative thinking. The ideal would be a stable home with committed parents who were willing to stay the course.

The temporary nature of foster care and its uncertainty contributes to a significantly higher outcome of delinquency and crime.

No Place to Call Home: Moving toward Homelessness

  • Homelessness is complex
  • Foster care runaways

The relationship between foster care and homelessness is well expressed by Roman and Wolfe: “There is indeed an over-representation of people with a foster care history in the homeless population…Physical and mental health problems also interact in the homelessness-and-foster-care equation…It is clear from this study that what happens to children has a lifelong impact on them. When you see homeless adults, it is quite possible that they are homeless because of people and systems that failed them as children…If it is necessary for children to enter the foster care system, extraordinary measures should be taken to move them as quickly as possible into a permanent living situation (family reunification or adoption), taking all steps necessary to avoid multiple placements.”

The Adoption and Safe Families Act wisely allots one year as the maximum time in which to find a permanent home for children in out-of-home care. Society’s challenge is to follow that mandate.

Part Three: The Players

Birth Parents Come First

  • Maintain if possible
  • Kin care
  • Reunify when ready
  • What the data reveals
  • Haste versus delay
  • Provide an immediate detailed plan for reunification
  • Other issues
  • Recommendations for success
  • Cooperative adoption

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.

What the Foster/Adopt Parents Can Do

  • Work with the birth parent
  • Get to know your foster child
  • Keep a daily journal
  • Work with a mental health professional when necessary
  • Demonstrate attachment
  • Work with your case manager
  • Advocate for your foster child
  • Three month review

Children in care need the foster parents’ knowledge and love. If the foster parents are concerned that the child’s best interests are being ignored, they need to speak out as an advocate. Getting along is the key to making a difference. Foster parents should use good communication skills to be sure that the information necessary to make informed decisions affecting the child’s entire life and future is available to the welfare department and in court. When communication appears to fail, they may need to hire an attorney to be sure that all information and recommendations are fully presented before the judge. The child is the most important party to all these efforts, and the child’s best interests are paramount.

Engaging the Child

  • Breaking down communication barriers
  • Understanding permanency
  • Bridging the gap

Too often ignored, the most important player in achieving a permanent home may be the foster child. For any plan to work, the school-age child or youth needs to be actively involved. Otherwise, they are likely to sabotage the plan with detachment, negative behavior or simple non-compliance.

The first step in engaging the child is to break down the barriers of distrust. This is best done by listening to the foster child’s opinions and concept of permanency. Then help them think about some of the immediate and realistic problems that are very important when one becomes an adult without a permanent home.

The Role of the Mental Health Professional

  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment
  • The assessment of bonding
  • Universal bonding checklist
  • Write a strong report

The role of the mental health professional is to diagnose and treat social and emotional problems. In addition, he or she may be called upon to perform a bonding assessment. A strong written report will define bonding and detail the serious consequences that may occur when such a significant relationship is interrupted.

Next, we consider the roles of the welfare department, the special advocates and the courts, those institutions that are entrusted by society to watch out for foster children.

How the Child Welfare Department Can Help

  • Policy changes that would help
  • It starts with the CPS investigator
  • Good case managers make a difference
  • Good child welfare supervisors make a difference
  • How to help the birth parents
  • Working with the foster parents
  • Working with the courts

The case manager is the power broker in achieving permanence within child time. As the child’s legal guardian, his or her job is to guide the abused child through a complicated system toward a safe and stable outcome. The job begins when neglect or abuse is substantiated. The wise case manager will then work cooperatively with the birth and foster parents. He or she will work with the courts to see that the timelines are followed to avoid drift in temporary care. And through it all, the case manager will keep the desired outcome in the forefront: to find the child a permanent home.

Advocating for the Child: The CASA and the GAL

  • An advocate’s job description
  • Effectiveness

The concept of a volunteer advocate as an independent voice remains an excellent one. The courts, case managers, foster parents and birth parents need to look for and insist upon a child advocate who truly does the job. In simple terms, the CASA or GAL should be knowledgeable about child development and well-being, and informed by regular contact with the child and other parties.

Finding the Right Attorney

  • When do foster parents need an attorney?
  • How can an attorney help with adoption?
  • The expert witness in court
  • The foster/adopt parent in court
  • Take allegations seriously
  • How to find the right attorney
  • How much does an attorney cost?

While they have the most immediate responsibilities for everyday care, foster parents are often left out of the decision-making process. When disagreements arise, foster parents need to be notified and heard. A knowledgeable attorney can help them find their voice and have a say in what happens.

Courts Have the Final Word

  • Presenting bonding in court
  • Appellate court decisions

While appeals are always possible, the decision of the trial court judge is usually final. For that reason, the court should be the last resort in seeking permanence for a child. Far better to anticipate, prepare and work matters out ahead of time. Here are a few steps or suggestions, both for birth parents who wish to be reunified with their child and for foster parents who wish to adopt.

First, show yourself to be a committed and caring parent. If you are the birth parent, follow the plan conscientiously to remedy the reasons for the loss of your child. Be on time for appointments. Turn your home and life around.

As a foster parent, follow the child welfare policies. Keep a daily journal. Include everyday happenings, as well as school achievements and medical appointments. Preparing a Life Book for your foster child is evidence of your concern and commitment.

Second, get along with the case manager and the CASA/GAL. This is equally important both for birth and foster parents. If they don’t contact you, call them and report. Having your own opinion is important, but do not badmouth the other parties. Search for areas of agreement and build on those. If the birth and foster parents get along, consider a cooperative adoption.

Third, marshal a wider body of support. Reach out to your extended family and friends, your church family, the child’s teacher and physician. If you are the foster parent, seek counsel and support from your fellow foster parents.

Finally, if serious issues remain and a decisive court decision seems necessary, find and hire a knowledgeable attorney. You need a compelling voice to help present your information and wishes before the judge. Don’t assume everything will work out the way you think it should. Your child is too important.

Part Four: Improving the System

Recommendations for Change: A Blueprint for Action

  • Change the practices
  • Change the system

Children remain unnecessarily parked for long durations in out-of-home care. Too many are emancipated from the system each year without a permanent home. A sense of urgency in attaining permanency for foster children should prevail throughout the foster care system.

The foster care system needs continuing reform. The desired outcome or goal is permanence for every child within a year. The recommendations for change offered in this chapter come from many sources and merit discussion. Hopefully, they will stimulate other promising ideas and the courage to act in innovative ways. Every child has the right to a permanent home.

More Resources

Resources for Change

Summary of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997

Summary of the Fostering Commitment to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008


About the Authors


Contact me anytime (24/7) for a free consultation.