Friday, August 12, 2011

"Foster Friday" - Birth Family Relationships

When I first started fostering, I had high hopes of being able to develop close relationships with my children's birth families that continued even after my babies returned home.  Six placements later, I've learned that every case is different, and I gauge my level of contact and the extent of our relationships carefully.  However, I know firsthand that those close relationships are possible in certain situations.  Today's "Foster Friday" touches on the relationships between foster/adopt and birth families.

aka. Mimi -

(Ring, ring...)


"Hi, Tammy!  I come yours house?!?"

"Hey, Booger!  :-)  You want to come to my house?"

"Yeah, I do!  I miss you's.  I want to come yours house.  Oh!  And I went pee-pee standing up!"  :-)

This was the beginning of a thirty minute phone conversation that I had on Wednesday night with Booger Bear and Heaven.  A surprise phone call because Booger wanted to talk to "his Tammy" and learned how to use his Mommy's phone...  If anyone were to ask me what I thought the ideal after-foster care relationship would be like, I would answer in a heartbeat...  "I have it.  It's my relationship with Booger and his family."

I know that most foster parents don't ever get the opportunity to make one of their children's birth families a true part of their own.  Most foster parents aren't FB friends with their former foster kids' parents, grandparents, and great-aunts.  Most foster parents and their extended families don't have regular playdates and babysitting opportunities with their former children and haven't been invited to birth family gatherings.  Most birth families don't respond with "they're cousins" when asked if their children and my niece and nephew are related.  Most foster and birth parents aren't close enough to have inside jokes and secret smiles when someone asks who's who.  I love it when people ask if Heaven is my daughter.  We both just smile and say, "Well, sort of." just to confuse them.  :-)  I know that I am unbelievably blessed to have the relationship that I have with Booger and his family. 

I know that I will probably never develop the same kind of relationship with any of my other children's families.  But that's okay.  With each placement, I try to open the lines of communication by sending photos for my babies' parents in their diaper bags during visitations.  Almost all of my kids have transporters who take them to and from visits, so I rarely (if ever) get the opportunity to see their parents face to face.  Depending on how receptive they are to the photos and communication, we might send notes back and forth in the diaper bag.  I have had cases where the birth parents were absolutely against any communication at all.  I've had parents who welcomed opportunities to meet me and talk to me.  I've even had relationships with parents where everyone was comfortable enough to exchange phone numbers and meet for outings where I supervised instead of CPS.

For me, the key is to read my children's birth families carefully.  Not to force communication, but to subtly initiate it and gauge their reactions and willingness to develop more...  While I would love for all of my kids to leave my home with me still being a part of their lives, at least I know I've given their parents the opportunity to get to know me if they want that.  As far as I'm concerned, a person can never have too many people who love them.  But even if I never see my babies again after they leave my home, I know that their parents have photos and keepsakes to pass on to them from the time they were apart. 

Foster care is hard.  While there are TONS of manuals on "Minimum Standards" and more rules and regulations than anyone can possibly remember, there is no manual on how to foster relationships with your children's birth families.  Ultimately, it's up to each family to decide what is right for themselves and to work together to make each relationship (or lack of) become what is best for that particular situation.

Kylee - My family's relationship with birth families has always varied on a case-by-case basis. With most of my foster siblings, especially in our early years of fostering, my mom would drive the kids to their parent visits as opposed to having a caseworker come pick them up. This allowed weekly contact with the parents in a very minimal amount. It was a good time for my mom to meet the parents(s), learn more about the case, and sometimes take pictures with the mom and her child. That was primarily all of the contact we had with birth families during the actual time of placements. Our agency was one to advise against exchanging numbers, so as far as I know, that was never done. I know many people have positive experiences with that, but it was never what was right for us.

We did have one little girl, however, who was with us over the holiday season. Her mom and grandparents wanted to badly to spend Christmas with her, so my mom was able to set up a little bit of time on Christmas afternoon to allow them to see their baby girl. I was about 14 at the time and went with my mom to that visit. It was so special for me to see this family love on their girl and smother her with hugs and kisses! 

Each time (as in, 90%) a child left our home, my parents would send a lifebook with them, along with a letter which included contact information. Several times this led to further contact from the bio family, adoptive family, or relative. We have had contact with several of our children, which typically involved babysitting the kids or meeting for lunch. Primarily, this contact took place in the 6month-1year time frame after reunification, while helping the child's "two worlds" become intertwined. Other than this, or becoming facebook friends with several parents/relatives, there are currently only one or two children that we are still in contact with.

I'll end with this: Our very first foster placement was a 3-month old little girl. Our whole family fell in love with her and cried buckets of tears when she left our home. We sent contact information and her aunt called us a couple of times. Earlier this year, after not having heard from them in about 7 years, "our" little girl was looking through her lifebook, found our phone number, and decided to call. Ten-years-old now, and in 4th grade, she was able to talk to my mom on the phone. Such a special moment!

For us, minimal contact during the time of placement worked best. However, sending our information allowed the family to evaluate if they would like to remain in touch. We always loved it when they would call or e-mail, but understood if they decided not to.

Diane – Relationships with birth families are often difficult, but very, VERY important for the children in our care.  I have had good, bad and ugly experiences with birth parents, as well as some very positive relationships with extended birth families.  Seventeen years ago, interaction between foster parents and birth parents was unusual at best, until a child was returning home.  Over the years, philosophies have changed and training now includes “bridging the gap” and other models encouraging foster parents to work with birth parents. 

When a birth parent participates in the case, I try to build a relationship.  At first it is usually just courtesy and interaction at meetings or court for the case.  If visits progress to unsupervised, I volunteer to transport to some of the visits to have more interaction with the birth parent in hopes of sharing information so the transition will go smoothly and the birth parent can learn more about what the child is used to in my home.  Now, I usually exchange cell phone numbers with the parent once unsupervised visits begin, but I set guidelines for when they can call.  In earlier days, I would only call them (from a blocked number) and/or give them a pager number to reach me.  Since I take very young children, the parent doesn’t call to talk to them on the phone.  I have always used my licensing agency as my scapegoat, saying I can give the parent information about where I live only after the court closes the case.  This is just my preference, in case the reunification does not succeed.

Bad experiences usually revolve around the frustration and roller coaster that plagues these cases.  When you deal directly with the birth parent, the reason the child is in foster care in the first place, your stress level goes up considerably.  Many don’t understand the meaning of commitment or keeping their word.  Time is variable and punctuality is virtually non-existent with some parents.  Some things you are told, you may not want to know, and your worry meter gets cranked up as a result.  Before foster care, I never interacted with this segment of the population.  In fact, I can probably say I didn’t know it existed.

Ugly raised its head when a birth mom took her 1 ½ year old daughter to the hospital during a visit claiming I abused her, because the daughter would point to her diaper and say it hurt and “mommie (me) do it”.  This led to a full investigation against me and a very strained relationship with mom.  The investigation revealed that the daughter was trying to tell her mom to put cream on to take away the hurt of the diaper rash.  Eventually this little girl went home to her mom and I saw her a couple times afterwards until mom moved away.

Good happens when effort is made.  I drove a four year old back and forth for weekend visits for weeks before she returned to her mom, building a relationship throughout.  The case closed a few months later, but I kept in contact through her kindergarten year, even having her spend the night a couple times.  When mom and new boyfriend moved several states away and abandoned her, the social service agency called me because mom gave them my information and told them I would help.  Although I was not able to have her return to me, I do think she ended up in a good adoptive home that could meet her needs.

Sisters I had for two years returned to their birth mom at ages 3 and 2.  I was devastated when the case plan did not proceed to adoption as planned, because mom cleaned up her act at the last minute.  During unsupervised visits, we developed such a good relationship, that I fully supported the girls returning to their mom and was able to help her in many ways.  I continued to see them on a regular basis over the next few years.  Today the girls are 11 and 10 and doing very well.  We are still in contact and mom sends me very nice texts on special occasions like Mother’s Day.

In an effort not to further take over Tammy’s blog, I’ll continue with my relationship with my current children’s families on my blog.  For the rest of the story, visit me at…

Rachel -

How much contact do you have with your children's birth families during and after placements?

Baby Man has been our one and only placement so far. It is *extremely* unusual to have your first foster placement be a fresh-from-the-hospital newborn, and it's even more unusual for that placement to most likely become a permanent member of your family.

How do you determine how much contact you will have?

I know myself. I know that I tend to attract needy people. (OK, that was the understatement of the year.) I was born with a sign on my back that says, "This girl has trouble establishing boundaries. Work her over for whatever you need."

I know that I am very sympathetic/empathetic, and it can be a curse when you're dealing with drug addicts. These people didn't get their child taken away because they gave him too many puppies. Because of this, both Scott and I decided early on that we would not have a close relationship with the birth parents. It's enough emotional upheaval bringing him to visit them every week; I don't need to bear their emotions as well. I just can't do it at this point in life. Also, from the very beginning, Scott stated that he was uncomfortable having contact with the bio parents. If we were going to do this foster thing, I would be the one with contact. He has never even met them, and it's fine with both of us.

How do you develop and foster those relationships? 

We don't. More than a few people have mentioned that maybe we should be "ministering" to the bio parents. I don't know how much more ministerial or loving you can get than to take a perfect stranger's child into your home and love him or her as your own, for an indeterminate length of time. This is how we have chosen to minister to the bio parents. It works for us.

Have you been able to maintain any relationships after your children have left your home or have been adopted? 


 If you could describe your "ideal" foster/adopt relationships, what would they look like?

I'm not sure! Ask me in about a year. ;)

1 comment:

SocialWrkr24/7 said...

Wow, just found your blog - and am so excited to read about foster parents having relationships with their foster children's birth families! As a social worker, I have seen the damage caused to children when their foster families and birth families refuse to have contact or when that contact is hostile. Thank you so much for showing that it can be positive and safe for foster parents to get to know the biological families whose children they care for - its an unbelieveable gift to the children for certain!

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