June is National Reunification Month. A special month for “reunification” is an odd idea for most of us — unless you’re a family in the child welfare system. For them, that word has special significance in their lives.
When a child is removed from a family because of abuse and neglect, federal law requires the child welfare system to make reasonable efforts to reunify the family in a timely manner. Sometimes that’s not possible because of severe abuse — but over the past five years, approximately 40 percent to 75 percent of families in the Carolinas are reunified annually. This month, let’s recognize that the timely reunification of children with parents must be the north star for the child welfare system. Let’s salute the caseworkers, therapists, judges, guardians ad litem and others who work diligently in those critical efforts.
But just for a moment, imagine a world where designating a special month for this work is unnecessary. Envision a child welfare system that promotes policies and practices that address the historic inequities faced by individuals of color and those living in poverty. Imagine a system where all families, irrespective of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, can access a full continuum of robust, evidence-based services and interventions that promote a child’s healthy development, build nurturing relationships and increase family resilience. Consider a child welfare system that responds to social determinants of health such as inadequate housing and food insecurity.
In the Carolinas, this future may be closer than you believe. South Carolina is one of four initial sites selected for the national Thriving Families, Safer Children initiative. Through this innovative effort, the state aims to transform its child welfare system from a traditional, reactive — and often punitive — child protection system to one that supports child and family well-being, preventing child maltreatment and unnecessary family separation. Importantly, community voices and those with lived experiences are active participants. Addressing the historic racial inequities and harmful impact of policies and practices on families of color and those living in poverty are central to the work.
Prevent Child Abuse America is one of the national partners in the initiative. “This extraordinary moment provides an opportunity to shift the narrative from child welfare to child well-being,” says the group’s president and CEO, Dr. Melissa T. Merrick. “We must leverage this new way of thinking to develop and deliver effective and impactful community-based resources that assist families in ways which strengthen and help keep them together.”
South Carolina’s DSS Director, Michael Leach, puts it this way: “It’s time to change how the system thinks and serves children and families to create a structure that removes the stigma of seeking assistance and shifts toward a narrative that normalizes help. There has been no better time than right now to make this fundamental shift.”
We applaud the leaders of South Carolina as the state embarks on this journey for its families.