High Five: 5 ways to support bio parents

Sometimes putting the child first means putting their parents first, too.

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If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that we believe part of fostering is also providing that support to birth parents when safe and possible. Ideally, there would be open communication and reciprocal kindness and respect.

Our first baby’s parents really helped us set the tone for who we want to be as foster parents. They were kind, responsive, and treated us with the utmost respect (and still do). They are the kind of people that are so easy to treat well. So as we navigated this first foster-bio relationship, we came up with some concrete ways that we want to be intentional around interactions with bio parents. We may not ever have the kind of relationship with other bio families that we have with our first, but that doesn’t change how we want to conduct ourselves. There will be parents that frustrate, challenge or upset us, but there are some basic things we do to make sure we are still honoring their place as parents. 

This list is less about the parents noticing what we are doing, and more about making sure my head is in the right place, that I am being diligent and intentional about respecting these families. 

Each of these suggestions has been tweaked for each case, so these are just general guidelines, to be met when safe and appropriate. Obviously, if one or more of these is considered unsafe by a caseworker, then we won’t do it. Thus far, that has not been the case. A quick note about that: Some parents are physically aggressive and serve as a safety risk for both children and adults. However, most children enter into foster care due to neglect as opposed to physical or sexual abuse. Just because a parent is being investigated by CPS does not mean that they are inherently unsafe for you to interact with.

1. Meet them!

I was surprised to hear how uncommon this is.  Upon having our first visit scheduled for Sweaty Spaghetti, I had a caseworker offer to have a case aid come get the baby out of the car so that I wouldn’t “have to” see his parent. When I replied that I would come in and I was happy to meet his parents, the worker was obviously surprised. Several social workers and visitation supervisors also mentioned that as being uncommon.

It is important to us to meet the parents because we are strangers to them too! They have also heard horror stories, and I would rather take some of the mystery out of it for both sides by having an intentional meeting. This also gives an opportunity to view the parents as human, not solely as a person responsible for a bad thing. We also had one of the therapists involved in one of our cases tell us that this is important to do, whenever possible, as children learn so much from how we react to bio parents (similar idea to step parenting, or effective co-parenting). If we bristle when we see them, are short, or refuse to meet them and limit how we talk about them, we are sending the message to children that they have to choose who to love, or that their time with their parent is something to be dreaded. Again, in some cases the parent isn’t a safe person to be around, but if they have been granted visits, this will help ease the transition for the child as well.

2. Send updates and pictures

With Sweaty Spaghetti’s family, I sent about one email per week with pictures and an update of new skills learned, successful doctor’s visits and a video or two as he became more interactive. Correspondence with Little Rascal’s mom was limited because he was with us such a short time and his mom didn’t have access to phone or email. We did make contact on a conference call and she was able to give us a caseworker’s email and we were able to send her some pictures that way. Our current placement, Sweet One, is a little different. For this case, his mother and I exchanged phone numbers, and I text her updates and pictures about once a week. When he reaches big milestones, like when he began to roll over, I shared a small video with her the day he started doing it consistently.

Deciding how openly we want to communicate with families is a process of trial and error, but so far each parent has been respectful of any boundaries we put in place. They have not harassed us, threatened us, or otherwise made us uncomfortable. That said, we chose to give our phone number because Sweet One’s mom had been communicating with his short-term foster home that way and for them it was successful. While Sweet One’s mom has been respectful (not texting us at all hours, waiting for us to start a conversation, etc.) an unintended consequence of having our phone number out there was that they can search for me on social media. Everything that we have is set to private, so it’s not that concerning, but going into the future I’m going to be more aware of that.

Disclaimer: I know that bio parents we come into contact with in the future may not be as safe and well-intentioned as the parents of our boys. This particular decision was made knowing how mom had previously been interacting with other foster family, as well has the caseworker’s opinion and recommendation.

3. Ask for their input. 

This one might make you uncomfortable.  Just hear me out.

This is another one that will vary on a case by case basis. Our experience thus far, regardless of our relationship with the parents, is that they probably feel vulnerable, angry or confused, and very out of control. They are no longer with their child, and they have a host of strangers telling them what to do and how to behave. One simple way to give some of that control back to them (and in turn, begin to establish a rapport) is to ask them how they parent. This is the point in the case where I ask what their routine has looked like with baby so far. Do they read them a specific book or sing them a special lullaby? Do they address the child by a different nickname than we do? In emails or conversations, refer to them using the parent’s name for them. What brand do they usually bathe or lotion the child with? Does the child break out in a rash when you use a specific brand of diaper?

It’s easy to assume that because they can’t safely parent that they don’t know anything about their child. However, that isn’t usually the case. Parents can make unsafe choices and still know that their child is allergic to Luvs and they always sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” at bedtime. Not only do these conversations reinforce the fact that the parent and I are equals, but this consistency is so important for these children. Maybe the parent doesn’t have a preference. But this gives them the opportunity to have a voice and that goes a long way. Little Rascal was with us for days before we were able to talk to his mom about any of these things. The worker didn’t even know what formula he ate. All at once, his home changed, his laundry detergent and people smelled different, his formula and baby wash were different. We also found out later, upon reunification, that he even had special prescription strength lotion for his skin. Regardless of my opinions or feelings about the parents we interact with, knowing some of these things could have made the transitions a lot easier on our little guy. Sometimes putting the child first means putting their parents first, too.

4. Prepare the children’s bag for visits with toys, blankets or clothes that their parents provided.

This one is definitely more for me than for the parents. Part of my ritual for preparing our babies for visits is dressing them in an outfit their parents provided (when possible), and making sure that the extra blankets and toys in the diaper bag are ones the parent provided, if they have provided some. This is a small step, that will probably be overlooked by everyone but me, and that’s okay. This is a small way that I can take time to mindfully recognize the parents’ role in the child’s life, and honor the fact that they have been providing things for their child. It is easy, throughout the course of a case, to focus on the parents’ deficits and shortcomings. For me, these small gestures help remind me that these parents deeply love their children, and that we don’t have to have an antagonistic relationship.

5. Invite them to doctor’s appointments.

This one falls under the umbrella of “it’s great if this can happen” but doesn’t always work in practice.  I’ve been asked by workers to do this on a couple of occasions, for different reasons. From a practical standpoint, I completely understand why this is important. In cases where there are deficiencies in safe parenting, hearing about milestones, safe practices, and instructions about health and infant care from a doctor is likely to be helpful. For some parents, hearing things from a doctor will be better received than hearing it from a foster mom or caseworker. Additionally, if a child has any medical or developmental diagnoses, the parent will come to need that support as the child gets closer to reunifying.

On the flip side, I’ve had this go two, well really three, ways. One, you invite the parent and they don’t come. Similar feelings to a missed visit (which is a post for a different day). I have also had the parent come to the appointment late, interrupt the flow, and serve as more of a distraction (for the provider and myself) and not actually get questions addressed because the dialogue becomes a conversation between parent and doctor with me sitting there like… “Um, hello? They are with me full time so I definitely know that, but don’t worry about asking me…” And lastly, I’ve had parents come to appointments and have it go really well. I have seen both the provider and the parent balance the dialogue between all parties that are involved, both verbally and nonverbally recognizing that both myself and the bio parent are parents of this child, and we all have valuable input that needs to be heard (and actually listened to). I think when it goes well it’s also an incredibly valuable tool for establishing a relationship with the bio parents, because it’s going beyond what is legally required and showing them that, at least to some extent, you are rooting for them. Do I think this works in every case? Of course not. However, it’s something that I’m happy was initially asked of me, because if it hadn’t been, I might not have even known it was an option.

 

That was a lot to digest. Do you have questions? I’m happy to answer them. This list is just the tip of the iceberg, and I’m sure we will add to it as the years go on. But for now, this list serves as a guideline for our interactions with birth parents. That said, this is specifically about concrete ways to support bio parents. As such, I didn’t go into the ways we try to be intentional about the words that we speak, particularly about bio parents and our children’s cases. If you’d like me to write a separate post going into more detail about the language we use, please let me know and I can break down some of the words we use or avoid and our reasoning behind that as well.

You Mean I Can Say No?

When I initially thought about foster care, I had a very specific idea of what I thought that meant. You get called at 2AM, with anything from an abandoned infant to a runaway teen, and you say yes. I think a lot of people have a similar idea when they think about the unpredictability of foster care. And yes, there are some families that are open to placements of every age and stage. But I think the majority of us are better equipped to handle different ages or needs at different stages in our lives.

Foster care is full of chaos and plenty of challenges to keep us on our toes, but it’s also full of opportunities to reevaluate and shift our boundaries as necessary. Stretching ourselves is a good thing, but pushing past what we are equipped to handle isn’t necessarily best for us, or the children. There are many factors that contribute to how a family chooses which children to have placed in their home.

For my husband and I, age has been the most important factor at this stage in our lives. For some people, age may be important when factoring in their other biological or adopted children, but for us it was our ages in relation to these kiddos. The minimum age for licensure in our state is 21, and while we passed that milestone years ago, we are still the youngest foster parents that we know. As we started out, we decided that we wanted to stay within the range that felt most realistic for us, so we decided on placements that are birth-3 years old. This allows us to start parenting these children at the age and developmental stages that we feel comfortable with, that we know a lot about, and that comes most naturally to me. It should be said that my husband relates to older children in a much different way than I do, and he could probably take on an 8 or 10 year old and do well. Because I’m not in that place yet, we kept our narrow age range. Infants and toddlers are time consuming and energy-zapping in a much different way than school-age children, but it’s my “sweet spot”. And, I’m inclined to think that God agreed with me in us needing tinies because all three boys placed with us have been infants.

In addition to having our age requirements, we also feel that we can best serve one child at a time right now. We both have a heart for siblings, especially when so many get split up during the placement process but also know that we don’t feel well enough equipped to take on multiple children right now.

Some people also choose to restrict their placements for other reasons, such as medical or developmental needs, the reason why the child is in care, or looking at potential behavioral issues in relation to children they may already have in their home. Others choose to accept “long-term” placements (anywhere from a few months to a few years), while others want to do “receiving care” (the first few hours or days of a child’s time in foster care).

This is where things get tricky. Is it bad to know yourself, know your boundaries and work within those? Well, no. So, it’s bad to stretch yourself and have an open mind? Also, no. Let me explain.

When you get that initial placement call, or paperwork, I can almost guarantee something will be wrong, or missing. And sometimes it is really frustrating. The reason the child came into care will be accurate, but usually incomplete. This can happen for many reasons. For example, a teacher (a mandated reporter) may notice a child being neglected, but have no idea what else has gone on in the home. So, maybe you say “no physical or sexual abuse” as parameters for yourself, and not know specific life events until the child has been in your home for months and they disclose more about their past, or a worker learns more about their case. Or, like our current placements former foster family, you say “yes” to a week or two, and two months later, the state has not been able to find another home for your kiddo, and you’ve morphed into a “long-term” home without intending to. This isn’t said to scare you off, but rather to help you prepare yourself, both mentally and physically, for the long road ahead.

Boundaries within foster care must be both firm, and flexible. Only you know what you can handle, what you’re willing to receive more training on, and what is out-of-bounds for you. We found that since we have such hearts to say “yes” to these children, working with an agency has been incredibly helpful. We give the agency our boundaries, and then they filter the placement referrals from the state/county office and only call with placement referrals that are relevant to our family. For instance, we won’t be called with a child out of our age bounds, or a sibling set when we are only licensed for one. We won’t be called for a child with trach and a ventilator, or for a child who is only expected to stay for 24 hours. And if we were, by some chance, called for these situations, we would say no.

It’s easy to feel guilty because there are thousands of children in foster care right now. But, as foster parents, we agree to put the child’s needs first. And sometimes that means that our first decision as parents is to say “no” to a placement that isn’t a good fit so that they can be in a home where they are able to thrive.