When families in the child welfare system who have been separated finally come together after the extensive reunification process, most people –including the child welfare system– view that as the end of the road. What they fail to see is that once reunified, families still have a long journey ahead of them. Challenges such as re-establishing family connections and norms or obtaining mental health services still persist.
When I was eight years old, myfive siblings and I were removed from our mother’s care. Being separated from my mother at such a young age was a shocking experience. At the time, I had no idea what was going on and no one working on my case ever sat down to explain the situation or ask about what I knew or wanted. I was forced to grow up really fast. Even before entering care I was fending for myself and my siblings, and by the time I was reunited with my mother I had grown accustomed to doing adult tasks. Worrying about the bills and making sure my brothers and sisters stayed out of trouble had become second nature.
After a little over a year in the foster care system, my siblings and I were reunited with my mother. Despite the year of hard work and amazing progress my mom had made, it wasn’t a smooth reunion — us children were not prepared for our “new normal.” Stepping back from the responsibilities I had taken on wasn’t easy for me, and it wasn’t until my mother told me, “Kodi, you’ve got to be a kid,” that I realized the burden I was carrying. From that point on, I was able to focus more on being a kid and less on taking care of others.
Through the adversities we faced as a newly reunified family, the child welfare system was entirely absent. Following reunification, support services are discontinued and many families hesitate to reach out for the support they need out of fear they will be separated again. Most parents would rather struggle on their own than re-enter the child welfare system, and more often than not the system does not create safe spaces for families to seek support. Similar to my journey, young people who are in foster care often go unacknowledged or are silenced when sharing what they or their families need. In turn, this creates a sense of resentment and loss for the affected children and further fosters a sentiment that the system is untrustworthy.
My experience is the reason I am committed to helping other families navigate the child welfare system, and what motivates me to advocate for systemic change. Post-reunification services like therapy and family counseling should not be discontinued when they are still needed, and youth and parents should be included and have their voices heard every step of the way to determine what support would be valuable. I like to simplify it as “no meeting about me without me.” In Iowa, youth and family engagement is required by law. Ensuring other states adopt and practice this policy would dramatically reduce confusion, heartache and the challenges youth and parents experience while in care and planning for reunification. This Reunification Month, it’s past time we acknowledge that youth need to have a seat at the table, and families should have the resources they need to thrive after being reunited.
Kodi Baughman is a Breakthrough Series Collaborative facilitator, certified Family Team Decision Meeting Facilitator and a Youth Transition Decision-Making Team Facilitator for the Children & Families of Iowa/State of Iowa. He is a member of the Foster Care Alumni of America. He is a co-leader of the National Policy Committee. He is a former member of the National Foster Care & Alumni Policy Council where he developed policy recommendations to change the child welfare system for foster youth across the nation. He is also involved with assisting the Building a Better Future Training while advocating for youth, parents, frontline workers and foster parents to work more effectively together to create better outcomes for children and families. Baughman is a member of Iowa Cultural Equity Alliance, Community Partnership for Protecting Children, and he has worked extensively with Youth Policy Institute to elevate the youth voice across multiple systems. Baughman earned an associate’s degree in human services at Des Moines Area Community College and a bachelor’s degree at Upper Iowa University.