Returning children and young people safely home
Updated: 20 January 2023
What's important to us
The needs of children and young people are best met when they are settled in a safe home environment with people they know who love them and care for them. We need to ensure that when children and young people return to the care of their parents, they and their whānau or family are well prepared and provided with the supports they need in order to reach their potential.
This key information provides information about returning children and young people home — from making the decision to monitoring and review, and thinking about the future.
Update made to this guidance: the section 'Monitoring and reviewing after the return home' now states that the frequency of our visiting should be based on the assessed needs of the child or young person and recommends at least weekly visits for the first four weeks.
Before deciding to return a child or young person home
Returning a child or young person home is a significant decision, and a particularly vulnerable time for them. The decision needs to be based on a robust written assessment of the child or young person and their whānau or family's situation.
Complete the Tuituia assessment
The Tuituia assessment framework provides the structure for this assessment.
Involving the child or young person, their whānau or family, and professionals is critical. Compare the assessment with previous assessments, and ask yourself:
- Have the risk statements changed? If so, how are we addressing any new risks?
- Have the danger/harm factors been addressed? If not, how does the plan for the child or young person ensure their ongoing safety and wellbeing at home?
- Are there more strengths and protective factors?
- Is there now evidence of safety proven over time?
- If the child or young person has been offending, do their parents and wider whānau or family have the ability to support the child or young person to make better choices and change their behaviour?
- When family/whanau have been the victim of offending by the child or young person, do they still harbour anger or resentment towards the child or young person? How will this be dealt with so that the child or young person feels welcome when they return home and is given a fair opportunity to prove they have made changes?
- Do the parents or whānau or family support the offending behaviour by the child or young person or collude with the child or young person to protect them from having to face consequences?
- Have the underlying causes of offending (that relate to the whānau or family and environment) been addressed?
- Are older siblings in the home able to be good role models to the child or young person?
- How will younger siblings manage having the child or young person back in their lives if they have become accustomed to having their parent's attention to themselves?
Use the child/young person consult tool
Use the child/young person consult tool to guide your decision making and aid your analysis of the child or young person's:
- strengths and needs
- areas of vulnerability
- grey areas and complicating factors
- whānau or family's strengths and needs.
Observe interactions with the family
Spend time in the family home observing interactions and dynamics between the child or young person, their parents and other household and whānau or family members. This will help you to be better prepared and more knowledgeable about the types of supports the child or young person and their whānau or family need for a successful return home.
Vulnerabilities of different children and young people
Older young people (e.g. 14 years and older) may be more able to protect themselves than younger children, but they still need adults around them to make sure they are safe and give them encouragement, positive reinforcement, clear boundaries, guidance, age-appropriate responsibility and stability.
Particular attention needs to be paid to the vulnerabilities of children and young people who:
- are disabled
- are at risk of suicide
- have been the victim of sexual abuse
- have mental health issues.
Parental substance abuse and mental illness
Parental substance abuse and untreated parental mental illness need to be addressed before the child or young person returns home. Children and young people are vulnerable to the impact of this adult behaviour.
Talk with the child or young person about the impact these things can have on their physical safety and emotional wellbeing. Children and young people may appear resilient when, in fact, they have simply developed coping mechanisms and masking behaviour to deal with their worries and keep their true feelings secret.
Involve the child or young person
It is important that you talk with the child or young person and involve them in decisions and actions that relate to them. This means planning the next steps with them and checking in with them at various points to see how they feel.
Children and young people require well defined arrangements and consistent relationships to help them express their hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties. They need to know what is happening, feel comfortable enough to ask questions and know who to go to with their questions, and know that someone is listening to them.
Work with the child or young person to help them understand what returning home means. Discuss with them why they had to leave home as this helps them understand what has happened and what is happening now.
Use the Three Houses engagement tool to engage with the child or young person and help them articulate their feelings, fears and worries. Talk to them in a place where they feel comfortable — perhaps away from the office or their placement.
After deciding to return the child or young person home
Once the decision has been made to return a child or young person home, planning is the key to a successful transition.
A return home meeting will be held with the child or young person, their whānau or family and involved professionals before the child or young person can safely return home. This ensures that:
- the required supports are in place
- everyone knows what their role is in supporting the child or young person
- there continues to be a collaborative response that meets everyone's needs.
Purpose of the return home meeting
Involving the child or young person and their whānau or family gives them the opportunity to take an active role in the plan as they have a vested interest in its success. Getting everyone together allows each party to hear others' information and to place it in a context of what is happening for the child or young person.
The more people that are committed to the successful return home of the child or young person, the more likely there will be a positive outcome. Remember, the supports need to endure long after Oranga Tamariki has left the life of the whānau or family.
Things that you will need to consider, discuss and plan for with the child or young person, whānau or family and professionals include:
- What will the transition home look like and how will it address the different needs of the child or young person who is returning home and those who are already living in the home?
- Does the whānau or family have adequate housing to accommodate everyone safely?
- Does the whānau or family have sufficient financial means to meet the needs of the child or young person? Are they receiving all their entitlements through Work and Income, Working for Families and Family Tax credits?
- Who are the key support people for the child or young person and whānau or family and do they clearly understand the responsibilities of their support role?
- How will day-to-day activities be managed, e.g. transporting the child or young person to school?
- If safety concerns emerge once the child or young person is home, how will these be addressed quickly?
- How will parents and the child or young person be supported to have a regular break?
- How will everyone ensure that younger children are not forgotten in the sibling group?
- What types of support are in place to deal with high stress times, e.g. school holidays?
- Are key health and education services in place for the child or young person, e.g. a regular GP?
- What monitoring is required from the social worker and how often will they visit?
- Who will visit the home and how often? Are there people who should not be visiting because they pose a risk to the child or young person?
Remember, one plan does not fit all — we need to work with the child or young person and their whānau or family to make sure the plan fits well for everyone.
Research by Malet, Mcsherry, Karkin, Kelly, Robinson and Schubotz (2010) about returning children and young people home to their parents highlights the need for social workers to go beyond simply checking the child or young person is safe, and to provide support in areas including respite care, parenting advice, housing and financial assistance, and practical help.
When the plan is to return a child or young person home, we should arrange regular and frequent contact between them and their whānau or family while the child or young person is living away from home. This will help to maintain attachments and reduce the sense of loss or abandonment which children and young people often experience.
As the return home date approaches, contact between the child or young person and parents needs to increase in frequency and duration and include unsupervised day long, overnight and weekend visits. Structure visits around different routines such as school, recreational activities and regular appointments so that parents become familiar with the routine of the child or young person.
Increased contact also serves to test the return home decision: What are the most stressful times and how well are these managed? How well are the parents responding to the needs of the child or young person?
Keep checking in with the child or young person, the caregiver, parents, wider whānau or family, and support people to make sure you know how things are going.
Managing family dynamics
Returning home after time with a whānau or family caregiver can be more or less complicated depending on the whānau or family dynamics. Some whānau or family maintain strong, positive and supportive relationships throughout the placement while others, for a variety of reasons, have conflicting relationships.
When whānau or family are working well together, the transition from a whānau or family member's home back to the parent is likely to occur smoothly, be more in tune with the needs of the child or young person, and be led and owned by the whānau or family. Talk to the whānau or family caregiver about giving the child or young person positive messages about going back to their parent, and about how they will manage the change in role from being the parental figure to being a supportive whānau or family member.
Conflicting whānau or family dynamics can make the transition emotionally distressing for the child or young person and challenging for all the people involved. It is important that everyone, including the child or young person, feels they have had an opportunity to be heard and contribute to the plan. Feelings of confusion and guilt can impact on the willingness of the child or young person to talk with people if things are not going well.
Keeping in touch with the child or young person is extra important during this time. Consider who else is around that the child or young person can talk to — they may need your help to identify someone outside the whānau or family circle who they can go to if the adult conflicts become too hard, e.g. a trusted teacher, sports coach or family friend.
Managing the changing roles of caregivers
Planned transitions home should, wherever possible, include a ‘goodbye' celebration. Encourage the caregiver and child or young person to think creatively about who they would like to say goodbye to. Taking photos to remember the occasion is a good idea. A book with photos and notes of their time with the caregivers can help children contextualise the changes in their life and help them to move emotionally as well as physically.
If possible, include the whānau or family of the child or young person in the celebration. This provides the child or young person with an opportunity to see both their biological and foster family joining together to celebrate them. Children and young people also need to know that it is okay to miss their caregivers and that their caregivers want them to do well when they return home.
Often it's not goodbye, but rather a change in role for the caregiver. The caregiver may have cared for the child or young person for a period of time and a significant bond has developed between them. It is therefore natural that the child or young person and their caregiver will want to have an ongoing relationship. If this is the case, discuss how this could occur for the mutual benefit of all involved. It may be that the caregiver takes up the role of an honorary aunt or uncle and contact may be by informal regular visits or phone calls. It may be appropriate for the caregiver to become a babysitter for the child or young person and offer regular overnight stays.
Monitoring and reviewing after the return home
It's normal to expect a 'honeymoon period' when children and young people first return home. You need to ensure that supports do not drop off too soon and that the parents and the child or young person are provided with consistent, reliable, enduring and practical support while they all adjust to living as a whānau or family again.
Make sure you:
- visit often. The frequency of your visiting should be based on the assessed needs of the child or young person. Consider at least a weekly visit for the first four weeks so you develop a good understanding of how things are going and are able to spot and address any issues early. Regular engagement with the child or young person will also help you maintain a relationship in which they feel safe to talk about any worries or concerns they may have. A mixture of planned and unplanned visits in and out of the home will help you get a real picture of what is happening with the whānau or family
- talk to each member of the whānau or family so you understand their views
- bring the child or young person, parents, other whānau or family and the involved professionals together to review progress, celebrate successes and quickly address any concerns that may require attention. Remember to hold this meeting within four weeks of the child or young person returning home, and then regularly from this point to review the plan for the child or young person. If you believe you need to hold a meeting sooner than planned, do this. It is better to meet at an earlier point when there are a few signs that things aren't going well, rather than meeting when the situation is in crisis
- talk with the child and young person and their whānau or family about the supports that are in place, including the frequency of visiting, check that these are still having the desired impact, and adjust them if needed
- pay particular attention to younger children who have returned home — spend time with them, observe them with their whānau or family and talk to those who care for them
- spend time with older children both in and away from their home, and make sure they have the opportunity to talk to you in a place where they feel safe to speak about the things that are going well or perhaps not so well
- take opportunities to provide parents with advice, ideas and new skills that support them to parent safely
- use the Three Houses engagement tool to engage with the whānau or family and to review how things have progressed over time, celebrate what has been achieved and identify what will be useful for the future.
Support for parents of older children
For older children and young people, it's natural at their developmental stage to push the limits and boundaries set for them by their parents. The plan for the child or young person needs to include support for parents through testing times so that they don't give up.
Work with the parents to identify people in their wider whānau or family, peer group and community who can:
- help distinguish between normal and problem behaviours
- give advice about ways to avoid problems and negotiate difficult issues
- offer lots of practical ideas for dealing with issues as they arise
- take the child or young person or parent away from the home to allow some breathing space when needed
- be contacted if they want advice or information.
It will also be important to have some options available should things go wrong (e.g. the child or young person feels unsafe, or the parent feels unable to keep their child or young person safe). Ideally, one of the options will be a whānau or family member taking responsibility to act immediately to ensure the safety of the child or young person. Make sure everyone, especially the child or young person, knows about the available options and who to contact if the plan breaks down.
Ensuring support into the future
Before ending involvement with a whānau or family, it's important that we ensure there are enduring systems of support set up, and people who will continue to look out for the future safety and wellbeing of the child or young person.
When children and young people are safely living in the care of their parents, and the whānau or family is well supported, it is usually appropriate for custody orders to be discharged. Discuss this at your formal review meetings and keep the lawyer for the child or young person actively engaged.
Consider where and when other orders, such as a support or services order, could be used to meet any needs that cannot be met by the whānau or family and community support system. Remember, you don't have to wait for a formal court review date to begin the process of discharging an order if this is the most appropriate thing to do.
Malet, F.M., Mcsherry, D., Larkin, E., Kelly, G., Robinson, C. & Schubotz, D. (2010). Young children returning home from care: The birth parents' perspective. Child & Family Social Work, 15(1), pp. 77-86.