Well, I hadn't planned on doing this post quite yet - but sometimes things have to be addressed out of order right? I've had a lot of requests for this topic, and with the extra urging from Mashell, I decided to go ahead and post it. This one is less about "protocol" and more about "practice". In other words, I'm going to tell you how things have worked for me and give you just my perspective as a social worker. I have a unique point of view, namely, I get to see both sides - up close and personal. I usually can see exactly where the foster/adoptive family AND where the birth family is coming from all at once. And one of my biggest frustrations is that I can't give others that same viewpoint.
Some people that become foster parents do so with the plan to work with children returning home. Others, like many I have read here in bloggy-land, are struggling with this situation as they had planned or would also like to adopt the children in their care. So, while I hope that. what I can tell you is helpful, I want to try to be mindful that you are seeing things from a very different perspective. So, please feel free to tell me if I need to be reminded!
*********Working with Birth. Parents towards Reunification*******
First, let me say that I am giving this information/advice from the perspective of someone who has never been a mother - foster, adoptive, or biological. However, I would hope that you have picked up on how I feel about some of the cases I have worked on and know that I do take my role with these kids VERY seriously. For some of them, I have been their one stable person. And, as their caseworker - I got the numerous school phone calls (usually to come get them when they were out of control), I had to help them pack all their things and help them meet the new strangers they were going to be living with, I sat by their bedsides in psych hospitals when they broke down, I spent hours on end in meetings trying to make the life-changing decisions for them, and I stood in front of a judge and tried to convince him of what I thought was best. Now, I never expected to be these children's caseworker forever - the way that some of you may hope to parent the children in your homes forever - but I do know a little about having to support a child through a situation that you wish wasn't happening to them. I know that sometimes you'd like to stage a protest and refuse to go along with the system on principle. I did too! But more often than not, those protests will go unheard - its a miserable truth. But also, sometimes our plan is not God's plan - but if we risk putting ourselves out there, the rewards are huge! I promise!
Second, let me say up front that the things that will make a transition easiest for the children, are the things that are often hardest for the adults. There have been a number of times that I did not want a child to return home (or sometimes stay in a particular foster placement) and yet, I knew that I had to do whatever would make this situaton easiest for the child.
This was no easy feat and there were times I didn't do it well. It is possibly the very essence of "putting another's needs before your own" and "making the best out of the worst" situation. So, I will tell you what I believe are the best things that can be done - but will also understand if some of these things are just not possible for you (and your family) to do. Some of these things may be too hard emotionally, some may not be encouraged or allowed by your agency, and some birth parents may be resistant to doing. In these situations, it helps me to remember that I can only control my own behavior and choices and that God is the one who is truly in control. (What a relief!)
Third, I want to acknowledge the feelings that you have towards the children in your care. Despite not being their "birth mom", you have cared for them as if they were your own. Especially those of you who have cared for your foster children since birth or for very long periods of time - I can tell that you are struggling with them "returning home" because you have been their primary caregiver for such a long time, some since birth - which naturally makes you feel a strong sense of "entitlement" towards them. (Entitlement may not be the best/right word - but I am hoping you understand what I mean!)
It is very easy for us to say "don't get attached" or "remember they aren't yours yet" - but I know it is not easy (or really even possible) to do this while still providing such intensive care for such a long time. And, being at the whim of a judge and a system that quite likely has never laid eyes on the kids is tough to swallow - it goes against our deepest held beliefs about "justice" and "fairness". I don't ever want to minimize your feelings about this process, but at the same time I want to give you as much information as I can so that you can do whatever possible to make this transition easiest for the children. I have had cases turn out beautifully because the foster family, birth family and agency could all work together.
The number one thing that I can tell you about working towards a return home is to work on acceptance. Unfortunately, "doing what's best" doesn't always feel the best - because "best" is a relative term when it comes to foster care. The foster family obviously believes that they are the "best" choice for a child because of many varied reasons. The birth parent believes that she is the "best" choice for them because she gave birth to them and has been working (at least from her point of view) to change her life so that they can return to her. And the system, fundamentally believes that that the "best" choice is for children to return home.
Many people will say, "it takes more than biology to be a parent", and while I agree with that statement I want to caution everyone from thinking that even simply being the primary caregiver is what makes someone a parent. I can say, with certainty, that even children adopted at birth experience some amount of trauma at being "taken" or "given" away. Often these traumas are not evident when the child is young, because obviously they know no difference - but long term these children do have to struggle with the reasons why they could not live with their birth families the way most of their "normal" peers have been able to do their whole lives.
This is the very essence of the reunification debate - when do the short term struggles outweigh the long term benefits?
While seperation is and will undoubtedly be difficult for children when they are young, a successful return home will be a great benefit to them as they grow up because they will not have to have those struggles. Whether this makes you feel better or worse, think back to when you were a year old, or two years old, or even five years old. Chances are that those memories are very few. The same will be true of the children in your care when they transition back to their biological parents.
One of benefits of the return home happening now is that they will likely not remember very much of it and, with the right supports, not suffer the more detrimental effects. Having a "long term" focus rather than a "short term" focus will be extremely helpful during this process. In the same way that we hate doing things like discipline, we know that if we do it when children are young it will benefit them when they are adults - we must do these difficult things during this transition so that they have a better chance when they are older at having healthy relationships.
In child welfare we talk a lot about "protective factors" - these are things that will "protect" or lessen the chance or impact of negative circumstances. And the great part for some of these young children in the system is that they already have had one of the best "protective factors" imaginable - YOU. Studies have proven that as long as children have ANY KIND of secure attachment in their early years - they are likely to be able to form secure attachments in adulthood. Whether that attachment was to a birth parent, grandparent, foster parent, or daycare provider - the benefit was the same. These children could grow up and have healthy relationships with other people - friends, spouses, and their own children. So, for all of you out there that have cared for and loved these children as your own - THANK YOU! You have already given them a firm foundation to build their lives on! And even though trials will come, that foundation will hopefully hold strong.
Reminds me of a great story I heard as a child... (Matthew 7:24-27)
That all being said, the transition will likely be tough - on the children and your family. Here are some things that I would suggest. Again, these are likely going to be hard in the short term - but more beneficial in the long term.
First and foremost - form a relationship with the birth parent(s)! Ask for a meeting with her - if the agency insists on being present, fine. But if everyone is okay, take her out for coffee or lunch - at first it is probably best to meet without the children. In fact, don't focus on the children at first. Get to know the birth parent and her thoughts and feelings about this situation. You can let her know that you are doing this because you want what is best for the children - it will hopefully make her happy to know that they have been so well cared for - but mostly I would encourage you to focus on how you can support HER during this time. This may sound crazy since you may already feel like she has the support of the whole system - but here is why it is important.
If/when the children return home, she'll be the one in charge of providing for them both physically and emotionally. You won't be able to have direct access to THEM on a daily basis - but if you can provide support to HER, it will directly benefit them. This is probably the most difficult change of perspective to make. It is easy to be child-focused! They are little, helpless, and blameless in this situation. She has made poor choices which brought harm to the children you care for and about, and this makes it extremely difficult to feel empathy towards her.
But chances are, if she is in this situation, it is because she has not had a wealth of supportive people in her life. I encourage you to look at the children in your care, at their bad choices and negative behavior, and ask yourself if it is possible that their birth parent acts out because she once was abused, neglected, or not cared for properly. I got into social work because I wanted to help children. I started out usually feeling angry and judgemental about birth parents who had harmed and abandoned their children. Until I ran my first parenting group and a parent piped up to say, "No one ever stepped in and stopped MY mom when she was hitting me". Every parent in the room agreed. That was when I truly understood the generational cycle of abuse. And although I do sometimes still want to yell, "grow up already!" at some of the parents I work with - I try to remind myself that perhaps they never had someone to teach them how. And maybe that person can be ME now.
If the birth parent feels that you will be truly supportive, then this will do two great things for the children:
- One: It will decrease the risk of relapse for the birth parent. Caring for the kids full time will be stressful (as you well know!) and it is often our fear that this stress will cause the parent to return to the negative behaviors that brought their children into the system to begin with. But support - someone to talk to, someone to lean on, someone who will build her up and encourage her - will hopefully help prevent this from happening and causing more harm to the children.
- Two: If the time comes when the birth parent feels that she is slipping, even just a little - she will have a safe person, who the children already have a secure attachment with, to turn to for childcare.
So, it is important that the birth parent feels that you are supportive of her and the plan of reunification. I know that deep down this may not ever be your first choice, and that is okay. But these things are not always in our control and we have to do the best we can. I too have been at the whim of the system when it came to the futures of children I cared about deeply. Being able to look at the long-term has never failed me and often ended with results beyond what I ever imagined. Faith is a HUGE player here too - it is hard for me to relinquish control! But I have learned that, in the end, it is God who will care for and protect the children I love.
Once you and BP have spent some time together, try to have parent/child visits with both of you present. I would encourage you to invite her to your home. I know, I know - CRAZY IDEA. But I have seen it done and it worked. I had an AWESOME foster mother who even gave out the keys to her house so that the BP and child could come home after school and do her homework together - BP would stay all the way until bedtime some nights! And this was no ordinary home - it was literally a mansion, we thought she was nuts! Turns out, she was an ANGEL for every child placed in her home.
If this is just not possible, then another location that is neutral but familiar to the kids is a good alternative. A park that you go to often, a favorite play place, even church if there is a space that they would allow you to use that the kids would enjoy (such as the nursery room if they are familiar with it).
The children may have difficultly with this at first. If they are young it is because it is out of the routine for them. As crazy as it sounds, they're used to that time being separate from you. When I was a teacher in a toddler classroom, we often encouraged parents to come and spend a morning with us in the classroom. However, occasionally we would get a child that just could not tolerate it! They just didn't know what to do with Mommy or Daddy hanging around so long! It threw off their day and made Mom or Dad feel terrible! But toddlers only really understand their routine - no amount of explaining goes very far! So, having a visit together outside of their usual "BP" visit time may be easier for them. Older children may struggle with "loyalty" to either you or their BP - which is where this next part comes in!
During these visits, let the children lead when it comes to who parents them at first. And make that plan known to the BP. Chances are that they will come to you most of the time because you are who they are used to caring for them. However, as time goes on, encourage them (and BP) to take on this role more and more. When one comes to you asking for a snack, get it out and pass it to BP to dole out. Or, ask her to bring a snack to give them when they are hungry (remember that your idea of a good snack and hers may differ! But don't criticize unless it is dangerous - like a choking hazard - not if its just not as nutricious as you'd bring). If there is more than one child it should work well that you can each push one on the swings, or have one each to sit next to to eat, etc. Make sure you switch it up, but if one needs more time to adjust that is okay.
The biggest thing is to acknowledge these issues with the birth parent - even though it may feel awkward at first. If a child refuses to take a snack from her, or cries to be held only by you - do it, he need to be reassured. But let BP know later that you understand that it must be hard for her and that you will work together to make him more comfortable. Let her know that by letting him go to you, but staying nearby and supporting his feelings, she is building up his trust in her. She will be reassured that you aren't trying to make her feel inadequate (which is often a feeling many bio-parents have anyways) and strengthen her trust in you as a support.
You can use these visits to model some of the techniques that you use with the kids - such as how to help a child when they become disregulated. Be careful that it doesn't come off as lecturing or instructing - just do those things as you do naturally and she will probably notice and hopefully pick them up. If you were taught those things by someone else, it might be easy to say, "His doctor said we should do this..." or "Their therapist/specialist showed us this trick and it works pretty well for them". Those are easy ways to get specific things across, while not being the "expert" which might make her feel defensive.
It is our natural instinct to be the experts of these children - but it is also important to remember that birth parents are already struggling with having to realize their short-comings as parents. Even though they may not show it, they are or have already beaten themselves up about it. We need to help boost them up, not to remind them (even inadvertantly) of their failures.
It is hard, very hard - I wish it wasn't! It helps me to remember a practical application that I was once given regarding "Law" and "Gospel" in my theology classes in college. (Did I ever mention that I minored in theology? No? Well, I did now!) The professor/pastor taught us that when a person refuses to acknowledge their sin (otherwise known as shortcomings or failures!) they need to hear the "Law" - i.e. they need to be told that they are doing something wrong! But once a person has heard this hard truth, it MUST be followed up by the "Gospel" - i.e. they must be told what can be done to fix their mistakes! If we do not tell a person the Gospel - they will become guilt-ridden and helpless. And most importantly, they will lose HOPE and perchance fall even further away from making good choices for their lives because there is no hope. In that same way, I believe it is imperitive that, once a person has seen their mistakes, we must immediately give them hope that they can change! I hope that all makes sense - I am not nearly as well versed as my professor! But, as a Christian, I believe that God forgives ALL sins and am daily grateful for this forgiveness. I can not even imagine how I would continue to face all the things I do wrong if not for my knowledge of God's grace! I would certainly have been swept up in my depression and would be so overcome by anxiety about every decision - I don't believe I could function!
Over time as reunification gets closer, the visits will likely progress to being longer and longer. Be open (but not pushy) about wanting to be a continued support to the BP and have ongoing contact with the children. While they may seem suspicious or resistant at first, it will be your actions that will reassure them and hopefully bring you closer together.
This is the really difficult part - when the "transition of power" really begins to take place. And, if the transition is going well - you will see it. The children will be spending more time at their BP's home than they are at the foster home. They will naturally begin to see BP as their primary caregiver, and this is so hard for those of us that have been "parenting" them for so long. It is especially hard when the children come back with stories (and often behaviors) that are not pleasant. I always have to spend a lot of time looking honestly at myself in these situation to discern what is worth getting upset over. I have often had children in situations where I didn't like the parent's neighborhood, relatives, housing situation, the way they disciplined (or didn't!) or their general attitude.
I always have to look at it the way the "system" will. If I know that the system won't do anything about it (i.e. they knew it when the kids were placed there!) then I try to accept it and focus on the bigger issues. If there is an obvious safety issue for the children (i.e. more abuse and neglect) then obviously I would recommend addressing it with BP first and then letting the proper people know. But the best case scenario is this - the children never have to wonder about their bio-family or why they were "given up" AND they get to have a wonderful extended family (YOU!) that is there to support and love them for their entire lives.
So, while all of these suggestions (supporting BP) will help the kids in the long run - here are somethings that will help them in the short term during the transition. First again, know that I recognize and in my own way understand how difficult it is to change adjust your role from primary caregiver ... to secondary caregiver ... to occasional visitor. But let me also encourage you by telling you what a joy it can be, once the children are secure and settled, to realize that you helped get them there. Also, let me again say that acceptance (and for me, Faith!) is the key to making it through this process.
The truth is that you can not make it EASY for the children. If it were easy for them to leave the family, home, and surroundings that they've had their entire lives we would be greatly concerned!! The fact that it is difficult shows that they are in some way attached!! YAY! Now, the key is helping them transition that attachment.
THIS is the hard part, because we don't want them to be less attached to us! I can't tell you how to move past this feeling other than to find supportive people (who really get it) to lean on, be honest with yourself about your abilities and limitations and spend lots of time in prayer. (That's how I do it anyways.)
For the kids - support whatever emotions they have about this process. When it is hard and they throw themselves on the floor because they are confused and overwhelmed, hold them and reassure them that you are there to help them. When they are angry, help them learn to express it and reassure them that you understand their frustration. When they are confused, explain things the best you can and reassure them that the adults will take care of them. Reassure, reassure, reassure!
That being said, it is important that we remember that children (especially the littlest ones!) pick up on everything. Because they can't always rely on words, they pick up on facial expressions, posture, tension, and how we interact with others. And they hear everything! So, it is important that we NEVER talk about the birth parents negatively when they are (or even might be) in earshot. (Hypervigilant ears are super-sonic, so it may be better to make sure they aren't even in the same state as you if you need to vent!)
By the same token, it is important that we talk positively about their birth parents around and directly to them. You could ask for or take pictures of BP (with the kids would be great!) and then make sure the pictures are in different places that the kids can see. Put a couple in frames in their rooms, break them out at bedtime and make a Lifebook that they can flip through on their own, or with you. When you sit and talk around the dinner table or bedtimes, include BP in your conversation with the children. If you pray at meals or bedtime with the children - include BP in them! Refer to the things that they do with BP as often as possible so that the children get the sense that YOU think she is a okay person.
Just like with anything else, young children look to the people they are attached to when they need to know how to react to something. If they know you are nervous, unsure, or frightened - they will be too. Obviously, we will have those feelings sometimes but we need to be mindful of who is watching and listening! This is where having those supportive people around and taking care of yourself comes in BIG TIME.
When the MOVING DAY arrives - make sure you have talked about the future! If the children are young - try to have a "visit" scheduled for you to come to their house as soon as possible (within a week). Remember that these will likely be hard on you and them - but it will get easier! If the children are older, perhaps you can schedule out a few visits and then let the child know of the schedule. This will be familiar to them because they have been having "visits" for so long. It will likely help reassure them that they are not losing you with this move! And please, hard as it may be, CELEBRATE this day for both the child and BP! One foster parent planned for the move to happen in early afternoon - that morning she got the foster child up and took her to get her hair done at a local salon (she was 8 years old and thought this was AWESOME!) then foster mom, birth mom and child met for lunch and then got almost all the rest of her things. Most of her things had been sent home with birth mom over the course of the last few weeks of visits. But they left behind a few things that foster mom was set to bring when she came to visit later on in the week. It was a tangible link that reassured the foster child that the visit would happen.
Don't be afraid to show that you will miss the child! They will undoubtably be concerned that you won't! I've seen children have many emotions on "return home day"- being excited to go live with their birth parents, sad at leaving their foster parents, concern that they willbe missed, and also concern that they won't be missed at all! Its okay to show some tears! This will help children learn that feeling two (or more!) feelings at once is normal and okay! Goodness knows they have been feeling that way for quite some time! But tell them how proud you are of them and their birth parent for coming so far - everyone will love to hear it.
Lastly - I know this isn't just hard on the foster mother. Its hard on your whole family - husband, children, and any extended family that has spent time with the children. For your children - involve them with the transition as much as possible. They will obviously worry about where their foster sibling are going and who is taking care of them! So, the best way to help them is to give them as much information as is age appropriate. Bring them to visits with BP, talk with them about the transition and show them lots of pictures too.
For the extended family - let them know that while you are sad/frustrated/heartbroken and need their support, it is important that they help you support BP in this process too. Sometimes our loved ones are so sad/frustrated/angry for us and want to help - but, while its nice to know that our feelings are understood and shared, it can keep us from growing and moving towards another point of view. Let them know how you plan to handle this situation and ask them to help support you - even when you are having a hard time remembering why!
And see if their are foster parent support groups in your area - if not, start one! Or, just start a blog! ;) Finding people to continually support you is KEY in the foster care system!
I hope this is helpful to you. As I read it over I hope its not completely overwhelming! Either way, please don't hesitate to ask more questions, bring up specific issues that you need support to find workable solutions, or just vent! And feel free to email me if you want more specific thoughts or advice - remember that everyone's experience and situation is different, so I may be able to be more helpful if I'm not working with generalities. If nothing else, know that you are all in my prayers. I believe that, no matter what happens, this was ALWAYS God's plan for you and these children and that we are ALL are in HIS loving omnipotent hands!
(PS - if anyone knows of any blogs about foster parents working specifically or at least occasionally with children returning home, would you let me know? I haven't found many but would like to!)