Providing “reasonable efforts” to help parents reunify with children removed due to maltreatment is one of the fundamental responsibilities of the public child welfare system. Surprisingly little is understood about the nature and effectiveness of these services (Wulcyzn, 2004), despite their importance in improving child and family well-being. However, a growing body of research examines the role of services in reunification: studies suggest that service compliance (Smith, 2003) and use of services matched to parental problem (Choi & Ryan, 2007) increase the likelihood of reunification for substance abusing parents. However, some reunification services such as counseling and parenting classes are not targeted to specific problems such as mental health issues, substance abuse or domestic violence, but instead are commonly ordered to most parents. It is not established that these “general” services aid parents in resolving their problems and reunifying. It is possible that for families with complex and multiple problems, these services add to the “service burden” without substantial benefit, and hinder rather than facilitate reunification. Therefore, the objective of this study is to explore the effects of parents' full utilization of counseling and parenting classes on the likelihood of reunification. The research questions were: 1) Does full utilization of parenting and counseling services increase the likelihood of reunification? and 2) Does the effect of these services vary by parental problems of mental illness, substance abuse or domestic violence? It is hypothesized that the benefit of these services varies by the nature of parental problems: parents with these problems will benefit less than parents without them.
This study used a correlational research design with statistical controls. Observations consisted of 225 parents of a random sample of 140 children entering foster care in 2004, in one large urban county. Data were collected from court reports and court orders; variables included services ordered, parents' characteristics, and service use and case outcomes after 3 years. A multivariate survival analysis was conducted, incorporating interaction terms and techniques to address the lack of independence in the observations.
Full utilization of the general services of parenting and counseling was not consistently beneficial. Full utilization of parenting classes was associated with an increased likelihood of reunification for all parents (no interactions were found to be statistically significant); however, the effects of counseling varied: full utilization of counseling services increased the likelihood of reunification for parents without a substance abuse problem, but did not do so for parents with a substance abuse problem.
Conclusions and Implications
The lack of effect of counseling services on the likelihood of reunification for substance abusing parents suggest that these parents may be better served by case plans incorporating fewer, more highly targeted services that allow them to focus their energies on the primary problem of substance abuse. Overall, well-coordinated, integrated, co-located, or otherwise tailored service plans are recommended for parents with complex and multiple problems. Further research on the optimum amounts and kinds of services best serve reunifying parents suffering from diverse problems is still needed.