Family Bonds

GSSW's Maluccio and Warsh say even the most troubled families can rebound, given the chance

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Social workers and other human services professionals often find that blood ties are stronger than the forces that work to tear families apart, says Graduate School of Social Work Project Director Robin Warsh.

Warsh noted a recent case of a 16-year-old Massachusetts boy who, having been placed in state care because of his troubled family situation, ran away from a host family to seek his birth mother. He hadn't seen his mother in four years and the state had no idea where she was, yet the teen managed to find her.

Such cases demonstrate the resilience of even the most troubled families, Warsh said, and the corresponding need to support such bonds.

In their latest book, Reconnecting Families: A Guide to Strengthening Family Reunification Services , Warsh, Prof. Anthony Maluccio (GSSW) and University of Connecticut Social Work Professor Barbara Pine provide a framework for public child welfare agencies to evaluate their effectiveness in restoring links between children and parents separated by state intervention.

GSSW Project Director Robin Warsh and Prof. Anthony Maluccio (GSSW)-"In the majority of cases, we have found it is possible to reunite kids with their families, as long as they have community support," said Maluccio.

Maluccio and Warsh said their book accompanies a widespread change in approach by state social service agencies, which are seeking to maintain some connection between children in state care and their birth parents, rather than keeping them apart.

"We have seen in case after case that biological ties are exceedingly strong," Warsh said. "When we have teenagers who grow up in foster care, apart from their biological ties, they reconnect with their biological families as soon as they come of age and leave the system."

"There was a time in history when the emphasis was on separating kids from their families and keeping them separate," Maluccio said. "In the majority of cases, we have found it is possible to reunite kids with their families, as long as they have community support. Where possible, these kids should be reunited with their families, as long as we provide support to families so they can do an adequate job of caring for their children."

"Kids want to be connected with their family in some way," Warsh added. "They may not be able to spend 24 hours a day, but they must be given the opportunity to have some connection with their birth family. We're talking about a deep, primitive longing in all of us. The best way to protect children is to protect their connection with their families."

This is accomplished on a case-to-case basis, Warsh said, with child welfare professionals required to make the best of bad situations as they attempt to repair family ties frayed by abuse or neglect. She said approaches to family reunification may include regular visits by birth parents to the child in foster care, or "cooperative" adoption in which the biological family enjoys regular contact.

"The best hope is for kids to be returned home and parents rehabilitated," Warsh said. "Short of that, agencies must try to foster strong relationships between foster parents and biological families, to encourage them to stop seeing each other as the enemy, and to realize it takes a lot of people to raise a kid."

Warsh cited the case of a battered mother of three whose husband regularly struck their children, even during a supervised visit after the youngsters had been removed to a foster home. The woman stayed with her husband, Warsh said, but visited her children daily in their foster home, where she developed a friendship with their foster mother.

"We can absolutely call this a reunification," Warsh said. "She had ongoing contact with her children, even though she couldn't have them in her home. Some years back, policy would have dictated that all contact be terminated between this woman and her kids, and it would have been thought for the best."

The goal should be to look beyond the deficits of troubled families, Warsh and Maluccio say, and reinforce their positive qualities.

"I am amazed by the strength of the human spirit," Warsh said, "and by people's capacity to do the best for their families against tremendous odds, some of them created by policies that fail to recognize the strength of family ties."

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