When people ask me how I have been able to develop and maintain such good relationships with my children's birth families, I always have to stop and think about what I might be doing that could be different from the "norm." Here's what I've come up with:
Advocate for parents who are doing well - As foster parents, we've seen time and again how children become "lost" in the system. The same is true for their families. The wait between court hearings can take 3-6 months, and when you see parents who are clearly working hard to bring their children home with little to show for it from the system it's so important to become a voice for those parents as well as the child in your care. Parents need to know that you are on their side. What better way to demonstrate that than to advocate for them?
Become a role model - It's important to remember that children who come into care are so often victims of a cycle of neglect, poverty, abuse, and dysfunction. Many birth parents have come from the exact same sets of circumstances that their children find themselves in. These cycles don't just break themselves. Parents need role models. They need a support system. They need encouragement. Become that person for them. Bug's birth mother has told me many times over the past two years that being able to see Bug and I together is showing her how it's supposed to be. While she still struggles, she's doing better than she ever has before, and she is forever thanking me for showing her how life can be.
Compliment their children - One of the very first things (if not the first thing) that I say when I meet my children's parents is usually something along the lines of "It's so nice to finally meet you. Your son is a joy!" That one statement usually goes a long way towards establishing a relationship. By immediately acknowledging that the child in your care is their son or daughter, you quickly begin to alleviate any fears they might have regarding how you view your relationship to their child.
Declare your intention - Let them know that you are there to partner with them, to support them, to help them... One of the biggest fears that most parents have is that you want to "steal" their child. Alleviate that fear early on by letting them know your role as a foster parent is to help their family.
Focus on the family - Remember that the goal of foster care is to reunite families whenever possible. That can be very difficult to do if you are adoption-motivated. I learned that the hard way. Try to enter into each placement with a family focus and make a concerted effort to maintain that.
Help birth parents build their confidence by supporting their efforts - This goes right along with giving praise when it's deserved. I know one foster mother who regularly visited her child's birth mother in rehab. If you are parenting the child of a teen parent, attend their graduation. Find ways to support your child's parents in their efforts.
Include parents in outings or special occasions whenever possible - Always check with your caseworker, but with their permission, find ways to include parents in special occasions. With Booger Bear, I got permission to invite his dad to join us on Booger's first trip to the zoo. After that outing went well, we would occasionally meet for dinner or to go swimming. By the time he started getting longer, unsupervised visits, he came straight to my house to pick up and drop off. Include birth families in birthday parties or extracurricular activities. By participating in activities together, your children can see that all of the people who love them are working together. Children don't feel as pressured to "choose" between parents because they are presenting a unified front.
Know your limits and stick to them - When it comes to supporting birth families, know what you are and are not willing to accept when it comes to behaviors or situations that might come up. Boundaries are necessary in most cases, and it's advisable to maintain them. With Bug's birth family, sobriety is a must for direct contact with him. You might want to help parents by providing contact information for resources, but feel strongly that you won't make the calls for them. You might want to provide your cell phone number for calls with your children, but feel you need to have a scheduled time. Know your limits.
Listen intently and follow their lead - Keep the tone light and friendly unless they want to have a more serious conversation. Most of my parents have initially been hesitant and uncomfortable around me. I very quickly try to put them at ease by treating them like long-time friends. It's difficult to be afraid of or intimidated by someone who will laugh with you about your child's funny moments or talk about your pets. Pay attention and try to follow their lead when it comes to the more serious conversations that come up. All of my children's parents have needed something different from me at different times. Learn to recognize when they need a sympathetic ear, some lighthearted conversation, or just someone to reassure them.
Never go back on your promises - Trust is vital to successful relationships. In a foster care situation where birth parents often feel like they are fighting a losing battle, trust is especially important to maintaining a good relationship. Never make a promise that you aren't certain that you'll be able to keep.
Open and honest communication regarding their children - I take tons of pictures that I send to every visit. I make monthly photo books for my kids' parents that talk about milestones and funny stories. I pass notes back and forth in the diaper bag. When I am able to see the parents in person, I answer each and every question they might have as well as offer information about their little ones. A picture speaks a thousand words, and seeing their child smiling and happy goes a long way towards reassuring their parents that they are safe, loved, and doing well.
Provide resources - So many times parents become overwhelmed with everything being asked of them. They are often given a list of things they need to complete, but no guidance on how to go about achieving them. I've always said that foster parents are probably the most resourceful people on the planet. We can find anyone or anything when we set our minds to it. Being able to provide contact information to organizations or agencies that can help in the areas that birth families need assistance is one thing that can be easily accomplished. Whether they choose to use the information or not is up to them, but your willingness to help shows them that they're not alone.
Question parents about their child - So much information can be gained from your child's birth parents when there is open and honest communication. When children come into our homes, we typically get no information. Are they allergic to peanuts? What kind of formula do they use? Do they have a comfort item? As you get to know their families, you learn so many things that you would never find out through CPS. I learned from Bug's family that he has four brothers on his father's side (rather than the two that CPS knew about). I learned that cancer runs on his mother's side of the family. I learned from Booger Bear's dad that he is ridiculously allergic to cats, which explained why Booger had a constant running nose the entire time he lived with me (which is also how he got his nickname). I learned from Monkey's dad that his birth mom's family has a great love of music and all sing, play instruments, etc. Every time I hear Monkey singing, I smile knowing where he gets that talent.
Recommend changes to visitation schedules as reunification nears - When it became clear that Monkey was going to return to his father's care, I pushed hard for extended and unsupervised visits. Monkey's caseworker admitted that the thought hadn't even crossed her mind because the one-hour visits at the office were going so smoothly. Because I made the effort to advocate for Monkey's dad, the two were able to spend more and more time together over the three months leading up to the final court hearing. Had I not stepped up, Monkey would have been returned without ever having spent a night in his new home. His dad would have been thrown into being a single father of a 1-year-old with nothing to go on except a one-hour a week visit at a CPS office. By recommending a visitation schedule that slowly increased the amount of visits leading up to reunification, Monkey's return home was easier on everyone.
Trust your instincts - Not all families will be open to connecting with you. Not all families will be genuine in their communication with you. Learn to recognize the "norm" for your children's families and trust your instincts if something doesn't seem right.
Understand that birth parents' anger is often an expression of grief - There are times when your child's parent might lash out at you in anger. As difficult as that may be, try not to take it personally. My pastor always says, "Hurt people, hurt people." Don't allow angry words or actions stop your compassion. Remember how angry and frustrated that you get with the system, and try to put yourself in the parent's shoes. They are frustrated by the same lack of communication and time tables and requirements put on them by the system as we are, but they are experiencing all of this while grieving the loss of their children.
Validate parents' concerns and feelings - Birth parents will naturally have fears and huge emotions throughout the time their child is in care. Fear, anger, frustration, grief... Take the time to really listen to them as they share those feelings with you. Acknowledge them. Validate them. Parents want to know they're being heard.
Welcome parental input regarding cultural traditions or differences and utilize their skills - I am absolutely willing to learn anything I need to learn when it comes to children of a different race or cultural background, but I'm the first to admit that I don't have a clue what I'm doing half of the time. One case in point would be the pronunciation of Monkey's last name. I taught him one way, only to find out two years later that it's pronounced completely differently! And how did I find out, you might ask. Well it wasn't because I asked. Monkey just happened to be telling me everyone's "big" names, and he proceeded to say his name the way I taught him and his father's name the way it's actually pronounced! I was mortified. To this day, my kid doesn't know how to pronounce his own name! Even now I have to remind myself to ask Monkey's father about things that might be cultural so I don't go out of my mind wondering what he's thinking. Our little ones' parents should be our "go to" people when it comes to cultural and racial differences.
X-tend grace, compassion, and understanding - I remember early on thinking how argumentative and desperate Monkey's dad was. He is completely different now. I tried to put myself in his shoes and realized that if my child were taken away from me, I would be just as desperate. I know that people make mistakes and poor decisions. Imagine making a mistake that cost you your child, and treat them the way you would want to be treated.
Zero expectations - Try to enter into these relationships with no expectations. Often times we go to a first meeting with our children's birth parents and don't even realize that we've already formed assumptions on how that meeting will go. Some might expect animosity or complete indifference. Some expect gratitude or an immediate bond because of the children. Many foster parents form opinions before ever meeting these families based on what little they know about why the child was removed or what a caseworker has mentioned in passing. Do your best to keep an open mind and to build the relationship based on your interactions with the parents. Don't be disappointed if a parent is distant or reluctant to open up to you, and don't push your personal expectations or desires onto the family.
Ultimately, remember that all relationships take work. All relationships have ups and downs. All relationships have struggles as well as moments of harmony. Remember that relationships between foster parents and birth parents have added obstacles and many things to overcome. Sometimes the relationships don't work out, and that's okay. Sometimes the circumstances of a case simply don't allow for contact or opportunities to connect, and that's okay as well. What matters most is the love that you all have for your children, and when parents (foster and birth) work together, everyone gains something they never had before - the potential to form their own unique "family."