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Reunification: an evidence-informed framework for return home practice

Topics: Looked after children Safeguarding and child protection

Helping social workers make decisions on returning children home from care

For some children, returning home from care is the best possible outcome. But research shows that for many others this can result in further abuse and neglect, with many children ending up back in care (Department for Education, 2013; Farmer, 2011; Wade, 2011).

Whilst research studies paint a worrying picture, they also point to tangible practice solutions. We know that good practice and effective services can support children to return home safely.

We're working with academics, local authorities, practice experts and young people to improve support for children returning home.

Our reunification practice framework, created in partnership with University of Bristol, brings all of these research messages into one place, and provides practical guidance and tools for practitioners working with children and families. And with our support packages we can work with local authorities to implement local solutions.

Authors: Mandy Wilkins and Elaine Farmer
Published: 2015

What is the reunification framework?

The framework supports practitioners and managers to apply structured professional judgement to decisions about whether and how a child should return home from care.

It supports families and workers to understand what needs to change, to set goals, access support and services and review progress.

Who is the reunification framework for?

The framework can be used with all looked after children and young people up to the age of 18 who have experienced and/or may be at risk of experiencing abuse or neglect.

It applies to:

  • children on the edge of care and in pre-proceedings
  • children accommodated under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 (including cases where the child/young person and/or the parent end the Section 20 arrangement)
  • children subject to Section 31 of the Children Act 1989
  • children subject to Section 38 of the Children Act 1989
  • children who have recently become looked after, and those who have been looked after for longer, where the potential for return home is being considered.

The framework fits in with the existing care planning and family support work delivered by children's services departments and scrutinised by Independent Reviewing Officers.

The tasks will primarily be undertaken by the child's social worker and their manager, assisted by family support teams. Foster carers, residential care staff and schools all have a significant role to play in supporting children and parents throughout the process.

How to implement the framework

We’ve created a checklist for staff leading the implementation of the practice framework in the local authority. These are likely to be directors, assistant directors, heads of service and senior managers with strategic responsibility for looked after children, edge of care, family support services and workforce development.

The checklist is divided into three stages:

  • laying the groundwork for implementation
  • piloting cases
  • wider roll out of the framework and maintenance.

What are the costs and potential savings?

The average annual cost of a child re-entering care after a failed return home is £61,614, compared with supporting the child and their family on their return home costing on average £5,627.

We've created a tool which enables local authorities to calculate local costs and potential savings:
Providing support for children and families on return home from care - calculating the cost and potential savings.

See also Annex 3 of How to implement the Reunification Practice Framework: a checklist for local authorities for further information.

How we created the framework

We have been working with 14 local authorities and the universities of Loughborough and Bristol since 2012 to develop, deliver and evaluate the practice framework.

The original version, known as Taking Care, was delivered in partnership with nine local authorities and evaluated by Loughborough University (Hyde-Dryden et al, 2015).

This edition of the framework is based on findings from our Taking Care evaluation (Gill, 2016) and a literature review on reunification conducted by the University of Bristol (Farmer, 2018).

We have worked with 50 local authorities to implement the framework.

The University of Bristol has evaluated the implementation, and the findings from the evaluation alongside the views of parents, young people, local authority managers, practitioners and academics have informed this current version (Farmer and Patsios, 2016). We have also explored the facilitators and barriers to implementation of the framework with eight local authorities (Magilton, 2018).


Please cite the two reports as:

Wilkins M. and Farmer E. (2015) Reunification: an evidence-informed framework for return home practice. London: NSPCC.

Wilkins M. (2015) How to implement the reunification practice framework: a checklist for local authorities. London: NSPCC.


"This framework is exactly what we were looking for - gives an understanding of best practice and what should happen with a step by step 'how to' guide"

Principal social worker

"After what I went through I am so pleased that you are doing this work to help other children and young people returning home from care"

Young person


Department for Education (DfE) (2013) Data pack: improving permanence for looked after children (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE).

Farmer, E. et al. (2011) Achieving successful returns from care: what makes reunification work. London: British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF).

Farmer, E. and Patsios, D. (2016) Evaluation report on implementing the reunification practice framework. [Bristol]: University of Bristol.

Farmer, E.(2018) Reunification from out-of-home care: a research overview of good practice in returning children home from care (PDF). Bristol: University of Bristol.

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

Hyde-Dryden, G. et al (2015) Taking Care: a practice framework for reunification: evaluation report. Loughborough: Loughborough University.

Magilton, S. (2018) Implementation evaluation of reunification practice framework scale up: learning points for sustainable practice. London: NSPCC.

Wade, J. et al. (2011) Caring for abused and neglected children: making the right decisions for reunification or long-term care. London: Jessica Kingsley. 


Section 20. Children Act 1989

Section 31. Children Act 1989

Section 38. Children Act 1989