Reunification in practice

05 September 2016

Image: Karen CheekKaren Cheek  

‘Despite return home from care being the most common outcome for looked after children; research suggests that significant numbers of children experience abuse and neglect when returning home from care.’ (Hyde-Dryden et al, 2015)

When a child is reunified by returning home from care to their birth family, it is hoped that this will be the best possible outcome for them; unfortunately many children will return to care, with some frequently moving back and forth between care and their family.     

It is clear from the evidence that better approaches are needed to assess whether reunification is possible, and can be supported in a way that will improve the chances of it being successful.

Research in Practice recently ran a series of  workshops looking at key messages from research to help guide social workers when making decisions on whether or not it is safe for a child to return home. It drew upon the NSPCC’s Taking Care: a practice framework for reunification as well as the Reunification: An Evidence-Informed Framework for Return Home Practice, which were written in response to findings that highlight the reoccurrence of maltreatment and poor outcomes from children returning home from care.

What are the key messages from research?

In 2015 over 10,000 children returned home to their birth family from care. This figure relates to approximately 39% of children; with reunification proportionally representing the largest outcome for children leaving care.  

Evidence shows that approximately 30% of those children who return home are back in care within five years, with almost half of the children (46%) who returned home from care being re-abused or neglected within two years. Further findings also highlighted that once abuse has occurred, there is strong possibility of reoccurrence. When assessing parental capacity to change, often the strongest indicator for future behaviour is that of previous actions.

Many of the statistics presented during the workshop proved to be thought-provoking and challenging to absorb. However, the majority of professionals attending the workshop resonated with them. They spoke of the challenges of repeated failed reunification attempts, also noting that they often recognised the same children re-entering care and moving back and forth between care and their families.

Success factors

Originally, reunification was thought to be more likely to be successful if it happened more quickly, for example within the first six months of entering care. However, evidence has found that although children are more likely to return home during this time period, reunification is not more likely to be successful. Practitioners agreed with this, with a few noting that they believed a thorough assessment and planning should be prioritised over reunifying a child quickly to meet timelines.

The workshop highlighted some of the factors associated with successful reunifications, including:

  • thorough assessment/s including a case history
  • preparation for return home being made for the child and parent
  • specialist support services being provided for parent/child
  • foster carers/residential workers working with parents and children towards return and being available for help afterwards
  • conditions being set before return
  • informal support from wider family, friends and communities
  • consistent and purposeful social work and monitoring
  • clear evidence of parental change.

Comparatively, it also highlighted factors associated with reunification breakdowns, including:

  • where children are over the age of 10
  • where children who have had previous failed returns
  • children who have behavioural or emotional problems
  • lack of parental change – either that the problem/s had not been addressed or remained unresolved or hidden
  • insufficient assessments or professionals lacking knowledge of the child’s history     
  • parental ambivalence about return
  • weak planning.

Practice guidance and responses

One of the tools featured within the NSPCC Framework and recommended for professionals to use when assessing whether to reunify a child is an analytical chronology. This draws upon research and the evidence base to present a chronological case history to help highlight significant events and themes within a family’s past. The focus of the document is to identify and analyse patterns of risk, as well as evidence of parental capacity to change.

Writing an analytical chronology involves gathering and analysing data from various sources. This could be from local authority case files, health and/or education services, including:  

  • previous assessments
  • parental history, including their own experiences of abuse and neglect
  • abuse, neglect and other adversities experienced by the child and siblings
  • risk factors and also protective factors that mitigate those risks
  • existing evidence of parental capacity to change
  • support and services that have been tried in the past with success or failure and how well the parent/s engaged with services
  • previous failed returns home and what went wrong
  • attachment of the child/ren to parents, foster carers/residential workers, step-parents, siblings and other relatives
  • any special needs of each child.

Practitioners at the workshop considered the analytical chronology to be extremely useful in establishing patterns and helping social workers take a step back from the case to objectively analyse information.

Two of the most important messages were to keep children’s best interests at the centre of decision-making and to reflect on a parent’s capacity to change. Most importantly, professionals need to focus on ensuring that when children do return home this is the right decision, taken at the right time, with the necessary support in place.

About the author

Karen is the Marketing and Communications Officer for Research in Practice. 


Hyde-Dryden G, Holmes L, Lawson D and Blackmore J (2015) Taking Care: Practice Framework for Reunification Evaluation report. Available online: www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/evaluation-of-services/taking-care-practice-framework-reunification-evaluation-report.pdf

Wilkins M and Farmer E (2015) Reunification: An Evidence-Informed Framework for Return Home Practice. Available online: www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/research-reports/reunification-practice-framework-guidance.pdf 

Radford L, Corral S, Bradley C, Fisher H, Bassett C, Howat N and Collishaw S (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC. Available online: www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/research-reports/child-abuse-neglect-uk-today-research-report.pdf


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