Bonding - What's Love Got to Do With It?

In relationships, we can simply sing with Tina all about “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” In foster care, we must start asking ourselves, “What’s Bonding Got to Do With It?” Because it matters. Bonding matters. 

Decades of research have repeatedly illustrated the effects of a disrupted attachment in young children. The most vulnerable among us have indisputably higher rates of childhood (and adult) psychopathology relative to their same-age peers. They have higher rates of poverty, addiction, crime, and homelessness amongst a whole host of other significant interpersonal brokenness. In every metric, we see a significant statistical decline that can be directly correlated back to broken bonds in childhood. 

In response, many states like Georgia and Alabama have begun passing legislation that encourages the court to consider the bond when deciding the best interest for a child in care. Accordingly, knowing what we know, it can be rather tempting to simply advise judges, lawyers, caseworkers, and guardian ad litems to just follow the bond: find out whom the child is bonded to and let that be your guide. And that’s good and just and valuable and necessary, but as we all know, child welfare is just not that simple. 

Because, though we draw our sword and fight mightily for restoration, when that is not possible, we find ourselves walking that thin line of balancing what we know to be true about the value of biological ties with what we know to be true about a bond. Essentially, the question becomes: how do we move away from a psychosocial construct wherein the foster parents, the relatives, the bond, and reunification all stand in opposition to one another and move toward a clarion voice that trumpets unity as we walk in lockstep beside these very young, very vulnerable children.  

And I think the answer lies in the beginning—in that 72-hour shelter hearing. I think the answer lies in relatives being sought out and vetted within the first three months of a child coming into care. Not 13 months. Not 30 months. But three. This is both reasonable in the scope of practice and also falls within clinical bonding timeframes, which— as a general rule of thumb—state that bonding is likely after three months, probably after six and almost certain after twelve. If we can somehow move from a culture of complacency, blithely tumbling from one permanency hearing to the next and instead, with a spirit of intentionality, purpose to seek out viable relatives before a child has bonded with a substitute caregiver, then we are in fact changing the game. And this is how we move the needle toward healing and permanency. 
If you lean in and really listen to these warrior child welfare workers on the front lines of this fight, one of the common themes you will hear is that they struggle to compel birth parents to produce names and contact information for extended family members. Whether that is tragically born of shame, misplaced guilt, or deceit, the result is often the same: we all collectively blink, and 12 months have gone by, and there has yet to be any vetted relative resources. Moreover, we have a child in care that is now significantly bonded to his foster family and has no relationship with that aunt from two states away that would have been an incredible caregiver to the child had she been notified. 

This is where the battle begins. The foster parents are now wholly vested in maintaining a relationship with this child they have poured into for a year, we have a child who is reciprocally vested in that parent/child dyad, we have requisite legal timeframes for filing to terminate parental rights, and we have the aunt that {finally} heard about the baby on social media and has availed herself to the Department seeking custody. One of my favorite judges has found a way to subvert this cascade of chaos, and it costs him approximately two minutes of the court’s time at that 72-hour hearing. He produces the relative resource list directly to the parent in open court, allows them to take out their phone, and waits while they fill it out. There simply is not an option to refuse or delay or not disclose. I cannot underscore enough how impactful those two minutes become. Two minutes that may very well save a child from having formed and then being forced to break yet another bond. 

Bonding matters. These precious birth families matter. These vulnerable children matter. May we all be found to be the helpers when tragedy falls and posture ourselves in a manner worthy of the noble fight of being a voice to the voiceless. Sometimes, all it takes is two minutes.

Lifeline Children’s Services’ mission is to equip the Body of Christ to manifest the gospel to vulnerable children. Whether through adoption, foster care, orphan care, or education and counseling, the mission is accomplished when churches begin to live out James 1:27 in their communities and to the ends of the earth. Lifeline assists families with international adoption in all 50 states, each of the U.S. territories and with U.S. citizens living abroad. Lifeline also serves women in unexpected pregnancies and families through domestic adoption. Lifeline trains prospective foster families in AL and SC, engages in family reconciliation throughout the United States, and engages in strategic orphan care in more than a dozen countries. The ministry accepts no state or federal funding. For more information, visit