Yesterday, The Imprint reported on a pilot program in New York City that will use a co-parenting strategy to improve the odds of reunification of children with birth parents. Following is a column from our sister publication, Fostering Families Today, on the virtues of co-parenting.
When children are removed from their homes, they still have parents who will rightfully remain part of their lives. In fact, when children are safely returned to their birth family, this is the best possible outcome for the child. According to federal data, the majority of children placed in foster care return home with their parents. If this is the best outcome for children, how can foster parents develop a healthy relationship with birth parents to increase the likelihood of success when children go home?
Several foster parents with more than 100 years of combined foster parenting experience have provided some advice for successfully working with birth families. Their experiences, as well as the experiences of several birth parents whose children were in care, are shared below.
The most consistent key to success identified by these families was of communication. Children and families will have service, visitation and reunification plans at a minimum. With all this formal communication going on, sometimes the informal communication between foster parents and birth parents can suffer the most.
“One of the reasons that birth parents and foster parents get off on the wrong foot many times is that the rules are not clear — or the expectations,” said Sherry, a birth parent of a child who spent time in foster care. “It would help if foster parents and birth parents were given an opportunity to sit down and talk to each other about what their expectations are, what the rules are, and discuss any questions that each may have.”
Birth parents often are not sure what to do during visits. That is a chance for foster parents and/or caseworkers to take initiative to ask respectfully if birth parents have questions, fears or concerns.
Respect is a vital key to communication. Birth parents often have strong emotions when their children come into care, and oftentimes these emotions come out as anger that can be directed toward foster parents. Foster parents, on the other hand, know the worst times of the family.
“When we hold, love and tend the physical, emotional and mental wounds it is very hard not to ’demonize’ the parent,” said Tara, a foster parent of 12 years. “We absolutely shouldn’t, but it often happens when you watch 24/7 what these kids go through.”
Several foster parents pointed out that communication should be handled as it is with divorced couples. In fact, one foster parent felt that what helped them develop useful skills was reading several books on divorce. It is important that foster parents lean on professional/personal support systems to help them navigate the early parts of this relationship, and deal with the strong emotions they face from birth families, as well as deal with their conflicting emotions.
Knowing that relationships between foster and birth parents can be shaky in the beginning, as well as other times like holidays or important events, it is important to have ways to build that relationship. Both birth parents and foster parents felt that it took a lot of work with a constant awareness of attitudes and keeping attitudes as positive as possible. The relationship works best with an attitude of cooperation rather than one of adversity.
“It is key to keep the focus on their child,” said Brett, a foster parent in New Mexico. “We (foster parents) are there to keep their kids safe and help them be able to bring their kids home in a safe way. We both have the same goal to make their family safe.”
Foster and birth parents identified several ideas for building relationships:
• Support visitation (i.e., be on time and be polite to one another).
• Be prepared for anger. Show compassion and do not get angry in return.
• Share information about your family and background.
• Assure birth parents that you are not trying to replace them and you will do your best to keep their child safe.
• Include birth parents in meetings, and make them an active part of the team (i.e. school, medical visits, sporting events, church).
• Ask for input from the birth parent on what they want their child to wear for school pictures.
• Ask birth parents questions about what the child likes and dislikes.
• Answer any questions the birth parents have for foster parents, such as where their child sleeps, whom they interact with, and how they are doing in school.
• Find creative ways to increase contact between visits (i.e. email, letters, private Facebook page, Skype, etc.).
• Help prepare the foster child for visits with his/her birth parents. Talk positively about them and get there with a positive attitude.
• Take photos during visits; have copies made for the parent and the child.
• Brainstorm with the birth parent on ideas for visits. If problems develop, ask the birth parent to help solve them.
Children come into the foster care system at the lowest point of a birth parent’s life and their family history. The primary goal for that family will always be safe reunification. One role that foster parents can play is as a mentor for birth parents once a therapeutic relationship is established.
“We (foster parents) need to help birth parents change their view of the system from that of a system against them to a support system to help them find ways to best use the system to their advantage to get their families back together,” said Bonnie, a foster parent in Kansas.
When birth parents trust that the system is not there to keep them from their children but to help stabilize the family situation, it will benefit the children.
As a mentor parent, the following may be skills birth parents need:
• Ways to keep a child on a schedule/routine and setting priorities.
• Ways to work with mental health/school on meeting the needs of the child.
• Help to learn appropriate ways to ask for help in times of need and/or crisis.
• Help in learning how they can find and utilize community support.
• Help to brainstorm ideas that make visitation a successful relationship building time.
• Help to learn appropriate ways to build new positive connections with children as well as support systems (i.e., extended family, community supports).
• Model positive parenting skills (i.e., praising children in front of parents and praising parents for their positive behaviors and actions).
• Help to understand key developmental tasks and how they can work with their children in achieving those developmental tasks.
• Help to understand discipline techniques that have been successful with their children.
When foster parents establish a positive therapeutic relationship with birth parents:
• Relationships between birth parents, foster parents and child are less stressful.
• Building support systems increases support for the child and family.
• There is a greater chance of a quick, successful reunification.
The relationship between foster parents and birth parents can play a key role in a successful reunification. A child’s successful reunification with birth parents is more likely when foster parents are engaged in the process.
Dr. Stan Waddell is the national director of specialty training for Centene Behavioral Health. He has worked with at-risk children and families for 30-plus years.