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ItemFamily reunification : the journey homeJACKSON, ANNETTE ( 1997-07)Within the child protection system, children are separated from their parents in different ways and for different reasons. Family reunification following these separations, similarly occurs in a variety of ways and is experienced differently by those involved. Through a qualitative design, this study gathered together a range of perspectives regarding the experiences, emotions and beliefs of those involved in family reunification. By interviewing parents, protective workers, caregivers, family support workers, family preservation workers, health workers and others, the researcher hoped to capture their wisdom and insight. Overall, 38 people were interviewed in relation to five examples of reunification. Key concepts and categories were derived from the interviews in conjunction with descriptions of the cases. The researcher then developed a pathways tool which documented the journeys travelled through the process of reunification. Although all the children in these examples of reunification returned to their parents’ care and were still there up to two years later, there were different opinions as to whether or not the reunification was successful, and what barriers hindered and what strategies led to success. The different definitions of success appeared to be greatly influenced by the participants’ assumptions and perspectives regarding the role of state intervention in the lives of families. The findings in this research included a broader understanding of the emotional reactions of parents, caregivers and workers. The enormous sense of loss and other strong emotions felt by parents were often experienced prior to the children being removed, as well as during the separation itself. This therefore challenged the concept of filial deprivation being limited to physical separation of children from their parents and subsequently raised a number of practice issues. Many of the workers and caregivers also described feelings of powerlessness, lack of control and being confronted with limited options. Some of the workers, however, spoke of reunification as a more positive and fulfilling experience than other aspects of their work, even though it involved significant risk and difficult decisions. The principles under lying reunification practice, as outlined in the literature, were evident in aspects of the cases to a varying extent. Opportunities for parents to be actively involved in their children’s placements ranged from no contact with the carer, to visiting almost every day and being actively involved in all decisions. There were some principles which were absent in all of the case examples, such as none of the children experienced continuity of care due to being in multiple placements. There were descriptions of several service models involved at different times and stages along the families’ pathway through reunification, including different reunification programs. There did not appear to be any clarity regarding when a family would be referred to one type of service compared to another. There was also discussion regarding the influence of universal services, such as schools, on the family members’ experience of being included or isolated in each other’s lives. Dilemmas and challenges which arose through reunification included those which were common to many fields in social work, such as clashes of values and beliefs and needing to make decisions between limited and inadequate options. Some of the complex issues particularly relating to reunification were the impact of the separation on children and parents, and the experience of being a ‘parentless child’ or a ‘childless parent’. This was an example of the meaning of an issue being subjective and as important as the factual information. Some of the practice issues which arose through this study included: discussion regarding operationalising permanency planning principles rather than focussing on a parents’ rights or children’s rights dichotomy; developing a partnership perspective with parents, caregivers and workers; the importance of planning and preparation before reunification; whether to celebrate the day of home return or plan it to be as uneventful as possible; and the support and services required following the children’s return home. There were also a number of recommendations made for future research which could further inform practice in working with children and their families through the process of reunification.