Reunification Practice Framework

  • 09 November 2018
  • Posted in: Healthcare

Returning home to a parent or relative is the most common outcome for children in care, accounting for one third (32%) of cases where children leave the care system (DfE, 2017).[1] This can often be an incredibly important step in helping to rebuild families. But where a child returns home without sufficient support being put in place, there is added risk of recurring maltreatment and poor outcomes. One research study found that in a sample of 180 children, 90% of whom were thought to have been maltreated prior to being taken in to care, almost half  (46%) were abused or neglected in the two years after they returned home from care (Farmer et al, 2011).[2]

With ever increasing numbers of children in care, what can we do to protect children, support families and reduce pressures on the care system?

The financial and human impact of failed reunifications

Where the reunification of children with their families after a period in care is unsuccessful it can have a significant impact on the young person and their family, and can lead to further financial costs for local authorities. Among children who returned home from care in England in 2006/07, almost one third (30%) went back into care within five years (DfE, 2013).[3] The average annual cost of failed reunification of children returning home from care, which carries with it the negative impacts related to instability which are borne by the child, is £300 million. This is significantly higher than the cost of providing appropriate support and services to families where children are returning home from care, which costs on average £56 million a year (Holmes, 2014).[4]

Minimising the likelihood of failed returns home for children in care is therefore an important way to support children and families, and reduce pressure on the care system. Recognising this issue, the NSPCC has worked closely with local authority teams to test and develop an evidence-based framework called the Reunification Practice Framework. It brings together research insights, practical guidance and tools to support practitioners and managers to apply structured professional judgement to decisions about whether, and how, a child should be returned home from care, with the aim of improving outcomes for children and their families.

A structured approach that works for children and families

The Reunification Practice Framework has been in development since 2012. The original version – Taking Care – was delivered in partnership with eight local authorities and evaluated by Loughborough University to explore whether the framework and guidance could support decision making.[5]

For children and their families the evaluation showed some really positive results. Importantly, it suggested that use of the framework had a positive impact on the practice of returning children home, by helping families to feel that they played an active role in the process and that they were being listened to. Parents mostly described the decision about the return of their child as being handled sensitively and felt they had been given a thorough explanation for the decision.

A separate evaluation of the short-term outcomes of the framework by the NSPCC considered decisions made by professionals about 47 children who were returned home from a total of 226 children across the participating authorities. It was found that almost all children who returned home remained at home after 6 months, and after 6 months at home child protection concerns for many of the children had declined (Gill, C0,. 2016) .[6]

Providing solutions to a systematic problem

The total number of children in care in the UK has increased every year since 2010[7] and in 2016/17 the number of care order applications in England reached a record level. [8] In the 2018 Care Crisis Review it was identified that there was a lack of consistency in the way that good practice is used to support reunification. The report called for increased use of the NSPCC’s Reunification Practice Framework to support practitioners in their decision making about returning a young person home from care, to help them to understand what in the family needs to change and give the best chance for a successful reunification.

Supporting others to use the framework

The NSPCC’s Scale-up Unit has been supporting local authorities to implement the Reunification Practice Framework since 2014. We understand that sometimes implementing a new service or practice and ensuring sustained delivery of that service can be difficult to achieve, particularly considering the needs of local teams and the individual challenges they face. To support organisations to overcome these challenges we provides strategic guidance  to help senior leaders establish a clear path to full implementation, and licenced ‘train the trainer’ training to help practitioners successfully embed the framework within their local teams.

To find out more about the implementation support for the Reunification Practice Framework, contact


[1] Department of Education (2017) Children Looked After in England (including adoption), year ending 21 March 2017 (

[2] Farmer E, et al (2011) Achieving Successful Returns from Care: What makes reunification work? British Association for Adoption and Fostering (now CoramBAAF)

[3] Department for Education (2013) Improving Permanence for Looked after Children (

[4] Holmes, L. (2014) Supporting Children and Families Returning Home from Care: Counting the Costs (


[6] Gill, C.  (2016) Taking Care evaluation: the return home and short-term outcomes for looked after children. London: NSPCC.

[7] Calculation based on published statistics for looked-after children in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales for 2010-17

[8] Cafcass (2018) Public law data.  [Accessed 16/07/2018]

  • children
  • care system