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Building a positive relationship with birth families

By Eleanor Delewski


The day has arrived, you have new little (or big) one's in your home and now it is time to meet their family. Whether you meet your foster child's parents are court, at a visit or at a medical appointment - barring some (pretty rare) extenuating circumstances you will be meeting them shortly after the child is placed with you.


This first meeting can set the tone for the relationship so I think it is pretty important to make a good first impression. In Pennsylvania the average time a child spends in foster care is 20 months - so you are probably going to be seeing your foster child's parents for a LONG time. If the case goes to adoption you may well be connected to these people for many years to come.


I am NOT saying this is an easy thing to do. It can be really hard, depending on what led up to the child being placed in foster care, to smile and be friendly to your child's parents. But foster parenting is all about doing hard things, and it is really important to build the best relationship you can.


Occasionally I will hear a fellow foster parent question if it is important to have a good relationship with your child's birth parents. There are a number of reasons I think it is vital to make every effort to build a positive relationship:


1. Your foster child's parents, no matter what their mistakes, are people worthy of respect, kindness and grace. I think every human is worthy of this.


2. Your child loves them. I have had foster parents argue this point too saying - this is the person who (neglected/hurt/hit/left etc.) them, how could they love them? Years of fostering has made me clear that - whatever their mistakes, your foster child's parents are their parents and your foster child loves them. They will notice how you treat these people they love.


3. If your foster child is reunified and you had a good relationship you may well get updates on how they are doing. I think one of the hardest parts of foster care is loving a child who leaves your home and you never hear how they are doing. If you can build a good rapport their parents may well send you updates; it always helps me to know the kids I have loved are doing well now that they are back home.


4. The goal of foster care is reunification, but we all know this does not happen in every case - in fact around 25% of foster care cases end in adoption of the child, often by the foster parents. If your foster child's case heads toward TPR their birth parents are given the option to sign a voluntary TPR. And many have - knowing their child is with foster parents who love them, who take good care of them and who are willing to adopt them. If your child's birth parents think you are rude to them, or mean, or dismissive they are not nearly as likely to agree to a plan where you raise their child.


So now that we have established why it is important to build a good relationship lets talk about how.


Introductions


I always introduce myself the same way every time I meet a new birth parent "Hello, my name is Eleanor, I am your son/daughter/kids Foster Mom. I'm so sorry to have to meet you like this, this must be a hard time for your family. Your son has (insert comment about a positive trait here)"


Let's break this down: firstly I use the words "Foster Mother" right away - I have had birth parents say things like "Oh you are the lady watching my kids" or assume this is a paid job for me - so I make sure to introduce the idea right away that I am the person who is mothering your children right now. We are going to be co-parenting these kids for the foreseeable future, lets be clear on our roles right away.


"I'm so sorry to meet you like this, this must be a hard time for your family". Whatever happened up to here, this is a hard time for everyone involved. Showing some empathy for the family makes you seem like less of an enemy.


"Your son has such an infectious smile!" - two things here - "your son" (while I want to be clear right away that I am mothering your child for now, I also want you to know that I am clear that this is YOUR child). "Insert compliment" - because really, what parent doesn't want to hear nice things about their kid, being friendly never hurt when meeting people the first time.


Photo album


The first time I meet parents I show up with a small dollar store photo album to give to the parents. I always ask the case worker first if this is okay - and if there are any safety issues I need to be aware of (if parents are violent I will not be giving any hints about where I live, if the kids were removed for sexual abuse I am not including photos of my own kids etc.)


I include a photo of our family (if safe to do so), a photo of our house (again, if safe to do so), a photo of the kids bedroom, our playroom, our pets.


I always try to get a few photos of the kids playing/eating etc. in the early days and include those and I work really hard to make sure I have at least one photo where the kid is smiling!


I used to not include photos of the kids being held /cuddled by us (I always kinds of assumed it would be upsetting to see photos of your child being held by someone else) and then had one Mom tell me that she was scared her son was not being loved while we had him. I immediately showed her all the photos on my phone of him being held, cuddled, rocked and she felt much better so now I include those pictures too.


While kids are with me I keep printing photos and taking them to visits, I scribble notes on the back about what we were doing, what the kids have been up to each week...if my child wasn't with me I would wonder what their days looked like so I try to make sure parents know what their kids up to.



Crafts/Art Work


If your foster child is in preschool/school you have an abundance of craft projects coming home - I take one or two to each visit and give them to the parents. Kids love showing off their work!




Holidays


For Mother's Day, Father's Day, Christmas etc. I help my foster kids to make a small gift, or buy something small for them to give to their parents. Most parents are touched to receive something and most kids really enjoy giving gifts.


For the child's birthday and Christmas I normally take a small gift in my bag to the visit that falls closest to the holiday - if the birth parent did not bring anything to the visit I let them know I have something in my bag for them to give their child if they would like to. I have had birth parents burst into tears at this point because they just didn't have the extra money to buy anything for their child and are so happy to have something to offer their child.


I once had a fellow foster parent tell me I was enabling the birth parent : I disagree - most birth parents have all kinds of enormous tasks to complete - find housing, get a job, complete rehab, attend parenting classes - finding money and time to buy their child a gift can be just one too many tasks for the week. It doesn't take much effort for me to pick up one more small gift and sometimes a little kindness goes a long way.


If you have the kind of relationship with your foster child's parents where you text or message a quick "Happy Mother's Day!" can mean a lot on a holiday that is probably hard for them. I still send these messages to my two adopted son's birth parents - just to let them know I am thinking about them. Every year my son's birth father calls me back and thanks me and tells me it means so much to him.


Don't take it personally


Every birth parent I have ever worked with has at some point, critiqued the way I was caring for their child. One didn't like the brand of diaper I was using, another insisted I must be neglecting to change her son since he has a (slight) diaper rash. One Mom got upset that I had juice in the diaper bag for the child, another that I didn't have juice on hand for her to give her child. I figure it's not about me. This parent has almost no control over their child's life - so they seek it where they can. I am sure it doesn't feel good watching your child leave in the arms of another Mom so sometimes they nit-pick. I smile, tell them I hear them, but I don't rush out and buy totally new diapers, or run to the store for juice boxes - it's normally not about the diapers or juice anyway.


Ask the parents about their child


Parents know a lot about their kid, how they go to sleep, their favorite show, what they like to eat - ask! Firstly you will learn important information about the child you are parenting , secondly you are acknowledging this person's role in their child's life. They are probably not feeling amazing about themselves or their identify as parents right now, acknowledging that they know a lot about their kid and can teach you about their child can be validating.


Boundaries


Sometimes maintaining a positive relationship means setting some good, firm boundaries. If parents are given my phone number , or manage to get hold of it and start texting/calling constantly I politely but firmly tell them that I am busy caring for their child and we will talk at the next visit. Your social worker can help you with setting boundaries if you need to but I often find that having a frank, polite chat solves (many) problems.


It has not always been smooth sailing with every birth family we have interacted with but for the most part we have been able to build positive, respectful relationships with our foster and adopted kids parents, grandparents and even extended family. It has not always been easy and has sometimes involved a lot of tongue biting on my part but it has been 100% worth the effort.


(Note about language: for a child who has been adopted the commonly accepted terms are 'parent' for the adoptive parents and 'birth or first parents' for the child's original parents. For a child in foster care , typically 'parent' refers to the original parent, with 'foster parent' being used for the Mom(s)/Dad(s) caring for the child while they are in foster care. For the sake of clarity sometimes the term 'birth parent' is used in this blog to refer to the foster child's original parents but I fully recognize that while a child is in foster care the original parents are still the legal parents of the child). Also - not everyone agrees on what language should be used for which parent, but that is a debate WAY beyond the scope of this blog post)

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