Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Child Welfare 302: Working with Birth Parents - Part 3

This post is going to focus on the challenges of working with birth parents towards reunification with the added twist of being a relative foster parent. Overall, I think that these situations - where a child is placed within the family and is able to maintain contact no matter the outcome - are generally in the best interests of the child. However, sorting out all the feelings, boundaries, and roles in foster care is hard enough without the blur that actually being related brings to the picture!
For the most part I will be assuming that the foster parent is a grandparent, caring for her grandchild. However, if you are an Auntie, or a Godmother, or even an Uncle twice removed by marriage (or not related at all!) - much of this will still apply! Once you have cared for someone else's child - you are family - whether you like it or not! ;)

The number one concept that I wish people understood is this: In most relationships, love trickles down.

Love trickles down from a parent to their child, which trickles down to their grandchildren, and so on. And not just love – empathy, support, patience, grace, etc! In situations such as foster care, it may be hard not to make things all about the child – but remember that your love, support, and patience will "trickle down" through the parent to the child.

-How can I get my daughter (the parent) to understand that this transition (visits, etc) is difficult for her child?

One of the first things I always explain to foster parents (and even more so with relatives) is that the best way to help the bio parent to have empathy for their child is for the foster parent/relative to have empathy for the parent. The parent needs you to be supportive, nurturing and understanding of HER complicated feelings about all of the stresses that reunification brings - so that she can then be supportive, nurturing, and understanding of her child's feelings. We often think that the parent needs to "grow up" and "be the adult" - and while that may be true, it is not often helpful to the parent or the child. And, in situations where a grandparent is the foster parent, the parent will always be YOUR child and need her mom or dad to be there for her. This puts you in a very tricky position because you are also being her child's "mom"! And because her child is still a child - its easy to keep your focus on her. But the parent needs you to be her "mom" as well.

Although this is most important in relative situations, it also applies to non-relative caregivers. The parent probably has lots of people telling her what she needs to do and what she isn't doing right – the foster parent doesn't need to be one of those people. The foster parent needs to be the parent’s cheerleader - tell her everything that she IS doing well, sympathize with the parts that are hard, and remind her that you are going to be there for her throughout it all. The more that she trusts that you are not one more person "judging" her - the more she can relax and accept how difficult this is for the child.

-How can I make the transitions easier on the child and what are some things I can say to the child that she understands that she is moving in with her mom?

In many cases, the truth is that you can't make it easy for the child. And in some situations you can't really make a child understand what is about to happen. Often children are too young to really understand future concepts and all the adult reasons for what is happening in their lives.

However, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't explain certain aspects to the child or that you can not prepare them for what is to come - it just means that they isn't going to really "get it" until it happens and they have time to understand and become used to the change.

As far as how to help the child with visits - first and foremost, try to keep to a good schedule of when visits occur. Keep them on the same day and time if possible - if that isn't possible then start a really clear routine of what happens before and after visits.

For example: Tell the child shortly before its time to leave - no more than about 30 minutes - that it is time to go for a visit. Help her to pick out a toy or stuffed animal that she'd like to take with her on the visit. When/if she protests, empathize first - tell her you understand that is hard, that you know she's sad/mad/scared/etc. Be careful not to dwell on her negative feelings, but also watch that you are not dismissing them or trying to "talk her out of" them by saying things like "you always have fun at Mommy's" or "you'll hurt Mommy's feelings". Instead, focus on the routine and explaining to her that she will be coming back after her visit. "I know its hard to go for visits sometimes, things are different at Mommy's house than they are here aren't they? But we are going to go and spend some time with Mommy, (and Daddy, sister, Auntie, etc), you will have lunch there and play with your toys and then you will be coming back to Grandma's house".

When you get to the parent's home try to work it out so that you can stay a while. I know this may be hard if there is tension between you and the parent - which is why all that supporting (above) is important. Struggling with a loyalty conflict between caregivers is one of the most difficult issues children in foster care face – especially around the time of a potential reunification. It is important that the bio parent and the foster parent demonstrate (not just tell) to the child that they are on the same page, can make decisions together, and are working together towards the same goal. The more that the child sees you and the parent getting along and can see that you both care about each other and her - the better she will feel about this whole situation.

When the visit is over, see if the parent will help the child pick out a toy/stuffed animal/etc to take with her back to Grandma’s house so that she can begin to develop an attachment and sense of belonging at Mommy's house too. Have the parent help get her ready to go and be part of walking her out to the car and getting her buckled in - it seems like a tiny thing, but it helps demonstrate to the child that Mommy is part of this process - not that you are coming and "taking her back". Make sure there are pictures of the parents at your house and pictures of you at the parent's house so that the child sees that you are all part of her life no matter where she is - having a small book with pictures of all of her family that she can carry around is also a great idea.

As far as preparing the child for the final move - that is a little trickier. I would suggest that you start talking about her whole "life story" - talk about the day she was born, who was there, that she came from Mommy's tummy, etc. Talk about how she lived with Mommy (and Daddy?) when she was a baby, but then Mommy asked you (Grandma) to help take care of her, tell her that you've loved taking care of her but that Mommy is ready to have her come back to live with her.

Explain that she will still see you and that you love her very much. Judge for yourself how the child reacts to this story - if she seems curious or has questions, try to answer them honestly (and age appropriately!). If it upsets her, pull back a little bit - but continue to focus on the positives - that you will still see her and continue to love her. Explain that all the adults in her life - you, mommy, daddy, auntie, etc - all love her and will take good care of her. (I've even had some foster parents make a small "life book" showing the child with their parents as a baby, their foster parents for a while, and them pictures of them (at current age) with their parents again to help them explain the full story to the child.)

3. When he is in her moms house full time how often should I visit so that he does not feel like I abandoned him?

If possible, I am a big fan of a transition like this (assumes that visits have been one or two hours with Mom a couple days a week)

-add one "full day" visit; from before lunch to after dinner (for about a month)
-extend day visits to overnights; from before lunchtime to after breakfast the next day (for about a month)
-extend overnight visit to include the entire following day (before lunchtime to after dinnertime the next day), (about a month)
-extend to two overnights, and then continuing on until the child is spending 5 days with mom and 2 with foster parent (this part usually take about 6 weeks).
During this last stage the child should be taking more of "his things" with him to Mom's house during each visit and leaving most of it there so that it becomes more like he "lives with mom" and is "visiting" the foster parent by the end of the transition.

Now, that is an "ideal" transition - they often don't happen that way for many reasons. At the very least I would say to begin taking the child's things over as soon as you know that a move is imminent. This reinforces what you have hopefully been able to explain and the child doesn't feel like he's leaving everything behind and that it all doesn't happen at once.

After he has "moved" I would recommend that you have a structured "visit schedule" for the first few months - usually about once a week to once every other week. At first, just visit at the parent's (or at least with the parent always present) so that he isn't confused about you taking him back to live with you. Make sure you tell him what the routine is - "Grandma comes to see you on Fridays" or have the parent help the child make a calendar or something similar. If you usually visit more often that is fine, just so long as the child always knows when he'll see you next - "Grandma will see you again in 3 days".

After about 6 months, assuming that the child has adjusted well and isn't having reactions after your visits, you can relax the schedule and not make such a "big deal" about your visits. Instead of telling him exactly when he'll see you again, just say "Grandma will see you again soon" or whatever you tell your other grandchildren. :) Again, during this time it is important that you are very supportive with the parent if she brings up that the child has a hard time before or after visits with you - he may tantrum more or have trouble letting mom comfort him. Tell the parent that you understand (perhaps the child has acted this way after visits with Mom?) and that you know its hard for her to see the child upset. Also tell her that you are sure it will get better, and that you want to make things easier for her (the parent). I hope some of these things help!

Please feel free to ask more questions or let me know if something I've said above doesn’t make sense or just doesn't apply to your situation. Each state, agency, family deals with these transitions differently so it’s hard for me to speak in generics! Most importantly is to remember that this transition is just that - a transition! And transitions are hard - for everyone! But it won't be like this forever - give a lot of leeway, the benefit of the doubt and lots of patience... including yourself!


  1. Transitions are so difficult. This is a great post. I wish that more people would take more care and put more thought into transitions. You know what happened with K and I think that was just cruel. J's wasn't much better.

  2. why do u call the parents bio parents or birth parents? this terminology is negative and implies these parents are merely breeders.just call them what they are, for better or worse, parents! they may not be great parents, they may even be flawed and deficient parents, but they are forever connected to their children and their children to them. this type of language serves to distance children from their natural families. get educated and stop using these terms. they're damaging to both parents and child.ask any child when something hurtful is said about their family,they will tell you it hurts them too.children dont see their family as birth parents. they see them as mom and dad. some parents raise their children, others require support and still others are abusive. but none of them are BIRTH PARENTS. they are not incubators. they are families.

  3. Lisa - Transitions were hugely important at my last agency, and thus I really didn't know any different. Now, I see kids literally being moved with no warning, even when a transition plan could be used! I hate it.

    Other Mother - I use the terms "foster parent", "birth parents", "first parents"and "biological parents" when I deem it neccesary in order to clarify it when writing. It is easy for things to become confusing for the reader when there are many different "parents" and caregivers in a child's life - as is the case with foster children. As you will notice in my post, I call the biological parent, "parent" for the rest of the post because I clarified it in the first paragraph. I think I made it obvious from the topic, which revolves around how to help a child have a healthy transition back to their biological family, that I have respect for all parents and believe that biological family is hugely important. However, in writing about children in foster care it is neccesary at times to use qualifying terms in order for the reader to understand. Thanks for reading and commenting and I hope you'll read more! :)

  4. It's a positively brilliant post, is what it is. I'm going to refer people to it. Thanks.


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