Reunification: an evidence-informed framework for return home practice Helping social workers make decisions about reunification

Mother and son huggingFor 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 (DFE, 2013; Farmer, 2011Wade, 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 (PDF) 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 3 stages:

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

We’re also offering bespoke support to local authorities to help train practitioners to confidently implement the framework.

Local authorities can choose to purchase one of our support packages:

  • Strategic consultancy
    Strong strategic leadership is critical to driving a successful programme of improved practice. Our consultancy offer supports assistant directors, heads of service and other key managers to think through systems changes and to articulate your vision for improvement in your local area.
  • Train the trainer
    Skilled, informed and supported staff are proven to make all the difference to outcomes for children and families. We’ve designed a programme to support your practice leads to roll out a programme of learning and skills development to all relevant staff in the authority.

To find out more about our implementation support packages, please email

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:

See Annex 3 of How to implement the Reunification Practice Framework: a checklist for local authorities (PDF) 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 9 local authorities and evaluated by Loughborough University

This edition of the framework is based on a literature review on reunification by the University of Bristol and the findings from the Taking Care evaluation.

We have been supporting 3 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.

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."

"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."

"The framework has really raised the bar in the standard of evidence presented to the courts - barristers and judges in our area now expect to see this level of rigour on all cases."

"It's different from past assessments … a lot better … gives you more of a chance."

"The quality of assessment, care planning, recording and paperwork has improved significantly."

"My children got on really well with the social workers who definitely took account of their views."

Our reunification practice framework has been included in the National Institute for Health and Care Excellent (NICE) guideline, Children’s attachment: attachment in children and young people who are adopted from care, in care or at high risk of going into care, as a resource to improve placement stability.

Evaluation reports

Evaluation report on implementing the reunification practice framework

Evaluation of a tool to help social workers decide if a child should be returned home from care.
Find out more

Taking Care evaluation

Findings from an analysis of the case files of children who were returned home from care using the NSPCC’s Taking Care approach. Part of the NSPCC's Impact and evidence series.
Find out more

Taking Care: a practice framework for reunification: evaluation report

Report by Loughborough University about using the NSPCC Framework to support children to safely return home from care. Part of the NSPCC’s Impact and evidence series.
Find out more

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

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

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