Magazine article Policy & Practice

"Bonding" in the Child Placement Process a Psychological and Legal Perspective

Magazine article Policy & Practice

"Bonding" in the Child Placement Process a Psychological and Legal Perspective

Article excerpt

The term "bonding" is frequently used but rarely defined. Nationwide, more than 397,000 children live in foster care. (1) When a court decides where to place a child whose primary residence has been shattered, certain guidelines must be followed. However, the lines between blood and bond are not so clearly drawn when a foster parent files to adopt the child for whom they have provided long-term care, and a previously unknown blood relative emerges to challenge the placement. Whatever guidelines are used, the court must still understand the child's best interests. How does the court weigh the genetic relationship against the parent-in-place? When properly defined and understood, bonding merits serious consideration. In short, bonding matters. The unnecessary disruption of existing bonds can have devastating consequences.

What is Bonding?

For the child welfare system to give bonding the attention it rightfully deserves, the concept must be objectively defined and carefully explicated so that courts and departments of human services can implement it.

The following definition of bonding is proposed: Bonding is a significant reciprocal attachment that both parties want and expect to continue, and which, if interrupted or terminated, may result in considerable jeopardy to the parties involved.

Four practical means to evaluate the existence of bonding are proposed. Any one of them is sufficient to demonstrate that bonding has occurred.

1. Time. Bonding is possible after three months, probable after six, and overwhelmingly likely after 12 months of constant daily contact. This is a simple restatement of the research-based timelines contained in the Adoption and Safe Families Act.

2. Behavior. Research shows that bonding can be assessed by the way a child acts. Based upon this research, many bonding checklists have been developed. Two good examples are Keck's list of attachment disorders from the Ohio Attachment and Bonding Center (2) and the Randolph Attachment Disorder Questionnaire. (3) Kenny and Kenny (4) have summarized multiple bonding behaviors in their Universal Bonding Checklist.

3. Reciprocal Attachment. Measuring the interaction between parent and child is a third way to measure bonding. A two-way street, it can be measured by the strength of the parties' mutual promises and commitment. The bonded parent is the one who wants to raise the child indefinitely, through good times and bad, through joy and heartbreak. A daily journal kept regularly by foster-to-adopt parents can offer compelling documentation of this ongoing interaction and commitment. Such a detailed history of the time parents and child have lived together provides a practical measure of how connected they are. The child's willingness to respond to and accept that promise should also be considered. Depending on the child's age, the commitment may be expressed verbally or implied from the child's behavior. Stokes and Strothman (5) focus on this mutual interplay in presenting their structured dyadic interview to assess the strength of the parent-child relationship. Arredondo and Edwards (6) posit a "reciprocal connectedness," which they describe as a mutual interrelatedness characterized by reciprocity and developmental sensitivity.

4. Family Identification. The wisdom of the larger community attests to whether the child is perceived as a family member. The community knows who belongs to whom. To demonstrate bonding using the "family identification" criteria, the evaluator may wish to include statements from the extended family, teachers, friends, and neighbors. As Pollack (7) notes: "When a child is placed in a foster home it is the responsibility of the placing agency to evaluate the prospective home by considering its environmental, physical, emotional, medical, and educational benefits and hazards. Finding a compatible foster home is not just a question of finding the right foster parents. …

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