SCIE Research briefing 42: Returning children home from public care

By June Thoburn, Julie Robinson and Beth Anderson

Published: October 2012

Key messages

  • Returning from public care to live with a parent is the most likely ‘permanence option’ but, for maltreated children, the least successful. There are wide variations between local authorities in terms of the resources allocated to decision-making about reunification, and the quality of practice.
  • This briefing identifies that, although there is still much to learn, there is consistency in research findings. Specifically, we are able to identify some of the essential components of the social work services and practice most likely to improve decisions about which children can safely go home; and, to safeguard and promote the welfare of those who do.
  • For families with complex needs, highintensity, relationship-based social work and multidisciplinary team-around-the-family approaches, provided for as long as needed, can help motivated parents to meet the needs of children returning home from care.
  • Specialist, speedily provided, reunification services have been shown to be more likely than ‘services as usual’ to lead to stable placement with birth families, and quicker placement with alternative families if return home is unsuccessful or inappropriate. There is an evolving evidence base on decision-making, planning and managing the transition back home that can lead to improved outcomes for children.
  • Well-planned ‘respite’ and short-term placements with foster carers trained in working towards reunification can increase the chances of parents with complex problems meeting their children’s long-term needs.
  • Although parents and children sometimes understand why court-mandated removal is inevitable, they argue that negotiated entry to ‘voluntary’ care is less distressing and leads to a more collaborative service for their children. It follows that local authorities should provide the same quality of needs-based service and support for parents and carers when children are accommodated as they do when care orders are made.


Making decisions about whether or not to return children home from public care is a critical part of social work, yet very little empirical research has been conducted specifically on reunification, especially when compared with the other placement options of adoption and long-term foster care. While there have been some valuable additions to the literature in the United Kingdom (UK) in the last few years, there remains very limited data on the processes and outcomes of reunification. This research briefing gives an overview of research evidence to date.

Before we proceed, a note on terminology. The terms ‘looked after’, ‘accommodated’ and ‘in care’ (to denote that there is a court order) are used in England and Wales legislation, guidance and much of the research and practice literature to refer to children in public out-of-home care (including those in care under a care order but placed with a parent). However, since the terms ‘looked after’ and ‘accommodated’ are not used outside the UK, and much of the research referred to in this briefing was undertaken outside the UK, the more common terms ‘in care’ or ‘in out-of-home care’ are used. It should also be noted that, in direct quotations from studies in the United States (US), the term ‘foster care’ usually applies to all children ‘in care’, including some in residential care.

About the development of this product

Scoping and searching

Scoping began in January 2012 and was completed in March 2012.

Peer review and testing

Authors combine research and topic expertise. The briefing was peer reviewed internally and externally.

About SCIE research briefings

SCIE research briefings provide a concise summary of recent research into a particular topic and signpost routes to further information. They are designed to provide research evidence in an accessible format to a varied audience, including health and social care practitioners, students, managers and policy-makers. They have been undertaken using methodology developed by SCIE. The information on which the briefings are based is drawn from relevant electronic databases, journals and texts, and where appropriate, from alternative sources, such as inspection reports and annual reviews as identified by the authors. The briefings do not provide a definitive statement of all evidence on a particular issue. SCIE research briefing methodology was followed throughout (inclusion criteria; material not comprehensively quality assured; evidence synthesised and key messages formulated by author).


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