Reuniting families

Doctoral student Ashley Landers works with children and families through a sequence of changes

During the early weeks of Ashley Landers’s life, her maternal grandfather played a major role as a caregiver and attachment figure. He himself was the son of an orphan and understood the importance of the early connection between a child and caregiver.

Now, as a doctoral student in couple and family therapy, Landers works to reconnect children to their caregivers after child welfare removal.

“It’s not by chance that I study reunification in child welfare and that I value reconnecting children with their families,” says Landers. “My own experiences led me to this field and have contributed to who I have become.”

Reunification is a process that deeply affects every member of a family, Landers says.

“It isn’t just about the child and their caregivers, because the entire family—including siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other extended family members—are affected both when a child is removed and later if that child returns home,” she says.

Her focus is on the caregiver–child relationship, whether the caregiver is a parent, grandparent, or other adult. “That caregiver is instrumental in a child’s life,” she says.

Until recently, reunification has been defined in research literature as a static event, which either happens or fails to happen. As a child welfare case comes to close, children are either reunified with the family of origin or some other path to permanency occurs, such as kinship care, adoption, or guardianship.

Landers believes that reuniting children with their families is not a one-time event. Rather it is a process that encompasses the planning that occurs before the child returns home, as well as the adjustment and reintegration of the child when he or she returns.

Through her research, Landers hopes to develop a family intervention that will help families successfully navigate the reunification process. She looks at families in different contexts in order to better understand what services are needed to support them as they make the necessary changes to get to a better place and eventually reunify.

A focus on First Nations

Before starting her doctorate, Landers worked as a family therapist providing clinical services to underserved populations. Her work focused on complex trauma and violence within families. She specialized in providing trauma-focused therapy and reunification services to families in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

In the broadest sense, Landers’s research is about families in child welfare, but she has a particular interest in working with families in the American Indian community and their experiences in the child-welfare system. She long knew that families from minority communities were overrepresented in the child welfare system, but she did not set out to work with American Indian families.

Then, in 2013, she was introduced to Sandy White Hawk, the founder and director of First Nations Repatriation Institute. Repatriation means to go home again, to restore a person’s connection to their country of origin. White Hawk focuses on the repatriation of First Nations people who have been impacted by foster care and adoption.

“I have always said, ‘Where there is a need, I will go,’” says Landers, “but I have found there are many needs and only so many places that I can go. Working with the American Indian community has become more and more my focus, and deservedly so.”

First Nations children continue to be removed from their families in alarmingly disproportionate rates. Before the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, it is said that 25 to 35 percent of American Indian children were taken by both public and private agencies. When these children were removed, they were most often placed outside of their culture and tribal communities.

“The systematic removal of Native children was based on the belief that they would be better off raised in white families,” says Landers. Her long-term goal is to better understand the experiences of American Indian families in the child welfare system.

Support and opportunities

The doctoral program has afforded her many opportunities, Landers says. Two summers ago, for example, she was awarded a Waller Summer Fellowship that allowed her to spend the summer at a trauma center in Boston studying the impact of psychological maltreatment on children’s development. Last summer, she researched child welfare-related outcomes at the University of Chicago.

“One of the great things about the Department of Family Social Science is that it supports students in strategically developing a cross-disciplinary network of scholars and community partners,” says Landers. “They invest in relationships.”

Landers counts herself fortunate to be advised and mentored by distinguished professor Sharon Danes.

“Without my adviser’s support,” says Landers, “none of this would have been possible.”

Learn more about the doctoral program in couple and family therapy, the Department of Family Social Science, and the First Nations Repatriation Institute.

Story by Ali Lacey | February 2015