A Centacare reunification program has been recognised as a global leader in reuniting adolescents in long-term out-of-home care with their birth families.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Children and Youth Services Review, an evaluation of the Adolescent Reunification Program (ARP) by University of Adelaide’s Paul Delfabbro found the model has “few parallels anywhere in the world’’ and has “considerable potential’’ to see more young people exit long-term care if it is replicated.

Of the 36 families who participated in the pilot during the evaluation period between July 2017 and December 2019, 16 (two-thirds) returned home successfully for at least six months or longer.

The results defy national and international research trends that show reunification is highly unlikely if children do not return home within the first one to two years of being in care.

Statistics show there were 44,900 children in out-of-home care nationally at the end of June 2019, with around two in 1000 children aged under 18 years entering care each year.

“The Adolescent Reunification Program has provided a rare exit-point for young people in long-term care,’’ said Sam Carpenter, Manager.

“Many young people do not experience a stable family placement through their care journey, whereas birth families can be enduring sources of care and identity.

“By believing in and supporting families, we have been part of some incredibly positive changes for numerous young people, and for the child protection system itself.”

Among the 36 participating families were 46 children aged 12 – 17 years who had spent, on average, 7.3 years in care when the reunification process started.

Domestic violence, substance abuse and maltreatment including neglect, were among the most common risk factors contributing to the young person being placed in care. Parental mental illness and housing issues including homelessness were also common.

The ARP used solution-focused case management and therapeutic interventions to address intergenerational trauma in order to repair and strengthen the parent-child bond.

Each family was assigned one case manager who supported them for up to 12 months, or longer as required.

Important elements included drawing a link between past experiences of trauma and previous or current behaviour, therapeutic relationship repair and open communication between ARP workers, families and the Department for Child Protection.

“Because many families referred to the program experienced periods of separation, interspersed with trauma and loss, it has been important to look for opportunities to support families to reconnect and understand their journey together,’’ Sam said.

“The team is informed by our unit’s Therapeutic Framework and approaches families from a therapeutic, strengths-based perspective rather than simply supporting with rules and boundaries.’’

The ARP evaluation involved a mixed methods approach through quantitative and qualitative data. Interviews with 12 families and Centacare workers highlighted the program’s strengths-based approach which encouraged families to recognise the causes of their problems.

For example, a mother who began to draw a connection between her own substance use and how this affected her parenting and her child.

The strengths-based approach was also beneficial in cases where reunification was unsuccessful, with some young people becoming more assertive about what they wanted from their placements and the future, including preparing for independent living options.

The evaluation highlighted:

  • Reunification was aided by the foundations of good, existing relationships where contact was maintained throughout the young person’s time in care.
  • The flexibility and non-judgmental nature of ARP workers.
  • The ARP offered a responsive balance of practical and therapeutic interventions to families.
  • Effective collaboration and information sharing between services, which allowed for a multi-disciplinary, collaborative approach to problem-solving with families.
  • Consistent contact between families and ARP workers which fostered confidence and a sense of empowerment in parents.