When Your Heart Can’t Support Reunification

“I think we’re on opposite sides when it comes to reunification.”

My new friend is a seasoned foster mom. We got together recently for coffee and she spoke to something I’ve been wrestling with.

While reunification is the stated goal of foster care, sometimes it is not in the best interest of the child and the system places the goal above the child’s needs. At least from a foster parent’s perspective, you just can’t support it.

I’ve been a foster mom for 17 months, she was a foster mom for nine years. She has seen far more than I have, and sometimes what she’s seen has been painful.

I’ve been vocal about supporting reunification and I probably have not been sensitive enough to the hearts of foster parents who express negative feelings toward it. When I dig deep and become really honest, this comes from a few places.

1. First/Birth Mom: I’m a first/birth mom; in the adoption world (even international adoption) relationships with first families are a huge priority for me. The difference with foster care is that sometimes (not always) children have been severely harmed by their first families and need protection from them. The idea of a child returning to their care is very frightening to the foster parents who have come to love the child.

2. Foster Youth: As a former foster youth and the foster mom of a teen, birth family relationships are very important no matter what has happened in the family resulting in the children being removed from the home. The thought of severing those bonds, especially through adoption, is difficult to consider.

3. Fear: And this is perhaps the most significant one of all – I’m not afraid for my foster daughter because I’m reasonably sure she will call me if she needs me. She knows we love her. I know her family and I believe in them. They relocated and live less than two miles from us. This gives me a lot of hope and peace about reunification. If she were a young child, the situation was unstable, and I feared for her safety and well being, I would feel differently. A vulnerable toddler is much different from a teen with a cell phone.

I know a young foster mama who lives in another state. She has had her foster daughter for seventeen months, straight from the hospital. She loves this baby girl with all her heart. The plan seemed to be moving toward adoption, and knowing what I do, it seems that any wise person would move that plan forward. But despite the caseworker’s recommendation, the judge changed the goal to reunification, so on it goes month after month, and this little one lives without permanence.

Her foster mama adores her and gives her heart away more and more, all the while knowing she could lose her in a moment should a judge say so. From time to time she tells herself to hold back, but she is too far gone and in love with this baby.

What is in the best interest of the child? How do we fix this system that holds children in uncertainty for months and years? Children deserve permanence, whether it’s reunification with their parents, or through adoption by family members, foster parents, or other adoptive parents. It should not drag on for years.

I don’t have answers, but I want to be sensitive to the realities of reunification. We have a beautiful thing happening in our family with Zoe*, but it doesn’t always work this way.

Foster moms, I need you to know that I hear you and God sent my friend with a cup of coffee today to remind me of some hard realities. More than once, she apologized for her strong words and opinions, and more than once, I thanked her.

We must remain open-hearted toward one another as we walk through the hard stories of foster care, loving with as much grace as possible while holding our hands wide open.

It’s no easy task.  I honor you for the hard work you do every day, friends.

What are your experiences with reunification – the good and the hard? Please share them with us.

encourage one another,


This post may contain Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Elizabeth
    November 13, 2017

    Not every foster care system works towards a binary like this. In New Zealand, adoption is pretty uncommon, especially adoption from foster care. Most children who can’t be with their parents are cared for within the ‘whanau’, the extended network of friends and family, with our social services supporting this. When children do go to foster care, it’s ideally supposed to be an extension of a whanau – extra bonds being made rather than existing ones broken. Even if a family can’t be the primary carers of a child, they are still considered the family.
    We have a cultural concept of ‘whangai’, or foster child; kinship care is culturally very common here and doesn’t have any particular stigma to it. Instead of adoption, we have a concept of Guardians for Life; where a foster parent or kinship caregiver can be granted legal custody.
    Like many colonised countries, we have issues with poverty, addiction, generational trauma and family violence. Acknowledging that even unsafe parents usually love their children deeply, and that breaking family bonds can often lead to further trauma of a whole community, sometimes exists in tension with making sure all children are safe.
    In its best form, this extension of kinship-style care can work really well, whereas the reunification/adoption dichotomy is usually going to leave someone or everyone traumatised.

    1. Brianna Robbins
      November 13, 2017

      This is beautiful and what so many of us would prefer to see happen in the U.S.

  2. Marlene
    November 13, 2017

    The dear child in our care languished in the system for 7.5 years with several trial and failed unifications. I can’t help but be angry about all of the “damage” that was done to his sweet, sweet spirit at the hands of social services along with his first family that was simply unable to parent this precious child, even with support. There must be something better for our children.

  3. Jen T
    November 13, 2017

    My husband and I have been blessed with 7 children that we have adopted through foster care. We have two groups of siblings and two children that have siblings that were provided permanency before their arrival. Every one of our children has a different story that has to be respected and prayerfully continued. Three of our children share a birth mother that asked us to adopt them. Each one of them has processed her unselfish regard for their future differently. We are able to remain in contact with her, and it is a safe relationship. The other four have no contact with their birth families at all. We have unsafe birth mothers, a safe one, and one that just vanished. As for the latter, I believe it was very painful for her to face watching him grow up with someone else and I respect her decision. All of our children know that we love their birth mothers…. and I have found myself in the position of defending them many times. No matter what they have done…. they gave my children life. I stress this to them, and encourage them to love the gift they’ve been given. God has taken our broken children and made something beautiful! Hardship defines us. Faith defines us. Love defines us. As the one that has been given the responsibility of guiding our children though their journey I will absolutely protect them from contact with anyone that isn’t safe. Including biological family when necessary. I can assure you, there are times when it is absolutely necessary. Every adoptive parent should prayerfully consider each child separately before making that decision. The question of contact with biological family through foster care is not a simple yes or no answer.

  4. Sarah
    November 14, 2017

    Lisa I always appreciate your heart, your wisdom. We have had a child from birth who is now 18 months old and yes I love him dearly. I can’t hold back, and it couldn’t be good for him if I did. But his future is uncertain and that’s the system I knowingly entered into. I hate that it takes so long but there are SOO many reasons for this, some justified, some perhaps not so much. Thank you for expressing the very real struggle – that what works in one child’s life won’t work in another, so therein lies much of the diffuclty and tension, and so we wrestle and wrestle, and keep going…

  5. Catie
    November 14, 2017

    Lisa, thank you for your heart and humility. Too many words to write and process. After 9 years of being involved in foster care and more than 80 children walking through the revolving door of our home, there is so much grey, rather than black and white. Increasingly, I cry out for the wisdom of the Father. Our struggle is the reality that every single one of our past children, aside from a set who was adopted, has returned to care after being reunified. It is hard to fight the cynicism. So we keep falling at the foot of the Cross…

  6. Marilyn
    December 8, 2017

    “Children deserve permanence” is what I struggle with in our situation. We are raising the child of a single mom; she has been with us over half her life. I would be SHOCKED if we were ever given permission to adopt her, at the same time I don’t see her birth mom ever being able to parent her. And so it stays in limbo. She has accepted us as her family and we totally include her as ours. She has limited sporatic contact with her birth family. For the most part I think she is safe with them but she doesn’t like going by herself anymore. She likes one of the rest of our family to go along.

    Here is my question: when and how do you raise the question of maybe open adoption with them? The foster system is not involved at all–it is personal aquaintance. The mom already feels she has abandoned her child by asking us to raise her. It would have to be open adoption as much as we are in her life but I don’t really know how it works or how to present it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

I accept the Privacy Policy