Returning Home – The Reunification and Therapeutic Family Time Program

The young mother from Hamden knew all about being in foster care. She grew up in foster care herself until she was adopted. As an adult, she struggled with unaddressed mental health issues and traumatic experiences in her own home. These factors resulted in her son requiring protection, and placement into foster care, eventually finding permanency with his maternal grandmother.

Tragically, the grandmother died when the boy was eight, leaving him without a legal guardian and resulting in his placement back into state custody. At the time of the death, this young boy’s mother had a four-month old and a two-year-old. She was not capable of caring for another child. It was highly questionable as to whether or not she could ever reunify with her older son.

What would it take for the siblings to live together? Could reunification occur? How would this happen?

This is where the collaboration between the state and community partners came into play.

The Department of Children and Families had arranged for mother to visit with the boy at the ‘r kids Family Center in New Haven through a program known as “Reunification and Therapeutic Family Time.” Randi Rubin Rodriguez, the executive director and co-founder of ‘r kids Family Center, said the adoptive grandmother’s death hit mother hard. “She was dealing with her own loss and grief.” The plan for the boy was complicated. However, the therapeutic family visitation – which unfolds over 12 weeks and is called “Therapeutic Family Time” -- opened up a different perspective of mother and her capabilities.

“The Department has become very creative in finding ways to achieve permanency,” said ‘r kids program director Enna Garcia. “The mom did very well in the visits.” That gave the Department the opportunity to reconsider the permanency plan for the 8-year-old as they witnessed that mother actually could care for her son with some support and help provided by the program.

That led to a formal assessment and reunification services that culminated with the boy being brought back home to mother just last month – just in time for the holidays!

“Mother needed to feel that people were really rooting for her, and she needed to know who her supports were and realize that she didn’t have to do it all on her own,” Ms. Rodriguez said. Melanie Vitelli, a senior social work case manager who worked most closely with mother, said the careful assessment proved that mother was ready. The assessment includes interviews with professionals and natural supports like friends and family, a home assessment, a budget plan, and a gradually-increasing level of visitation.

“She was very engaged in the boy’s school life and his therapy,” Ms. Vitelli said. “Everything went very smoothly.” And Ms. Vitelli was a real support as well -- even responding on a weekend to a medical emergency involving the baby that required someone step in with the older boy to transport and secure care for him when mother was with the baby at the hospital.

“Melanie became a fixture for this family,” said Ms. Rodriguez.

This family is just one of many who have benefitted from the Reunification and Therapeutic Family Time program, which started statewide in early 2015 and has the capacity to serve as many as 914 families annually.

The focus of the program is children who have been placed into state care and for whom the Department’s plan is to return them home. But it also serves children with a variety of activities including supporting visitation and improving parenting in a variety of different circumstances. The service can be started immediately upon removal or subsequently at any time after a child is in foster care.

Jenny Vesco, a program supervisor with the Department who oversees the program, said the program consists of three service types – the reunification readiness assessment, reunification services, and “therapeutic family time,” which uses coaching to improve parenting skills. (Therapeutic family time incorporates the “Visit Coaching” model, which represents a promising practice in child welfare.)  Families may receive one or more of the services depending on their needs.  The permanency goals of the children referred to the reunification readiness assessment as well as the reunification services must be reunification.  The therapeutic family time service, which lasts up to 12 weeks,  is made available for families regardless of whether the plan is reunification or not.  All the families receive the “therapeutic family time”  as it is embedded as part of each service type.

Department social workers refer a family for the reunification readiness assessment, which takes 30 days and helps to determine if reunification is safely possible. The assessment also recommends what the parent may need to work on in order to have their child reunified. If the assessment recommends reunification, then the families can be referred to the reunification service that includes a case manager whose role it is to connect the family to a variety of community-based assistance to meet identified needs. These services can include counseling, filling basic needs such as housing and food, and anything else the family may need to prepare them to re-integrate the child back in the home. Those resources can be a community organization to help with basic needs or connections to other informal supports that can readily help a parent in times of need, Ms. Vesco said

Visit Coaching focuses the parent on meeting the needs of the child, Ms. Vesco said, and the coach and the parent will talk about strategies and techniques for meeting those needs prior to the visit. The coach then observes how well the parent implements the strategies and may help redirect the parent during the visit. When the visit is done, the coach and the parent will talk about what worked well and what can be improved. “It’s about  teaching parents to be focused on responding to their child’s needs during visitation,” Ms. Vesco said.

The reunification service spans a total of four to six months for families whose plan is reunification.   Ms. Vesco said the actual reunification – placing the child back with the parent -- typically occurs two or three months after beginning the program. The services can continue for an additional two month period as needed. Overall, a family can receive a total of six months of services under the program.

Ms. Vesco says it is vital to connect the family to community services that will continue to help the family after the program ends. “This way the family has a good foundation when the provider steps out because there are always a variety of challenges that evolve along with the development of the child,” Ms. Vesco said.. “The provider is trying to find those kinds of natural connections and supports within the community so the child doesn’t come back into care when the provider steps out.”