... let the Social Worker do it!
Which is exactly what I said today in a staffing.
I was leading a "pre-Reunification" staffing for a mother who has waited two long years for her daughter to come home. I've had a streak of reunifications recently and this one was by far the most controversial. This mother is very passionate and has no problem making her opinions known in past meetings. She also has had a number of setbacks which have drawn out the case. However, the staffing itself was actually very amicable - we've all worked really hard to satisfy everyone's concerns and demands!
One of the biggest concern has been that this particular child - lets call her Penny - has been with her foster home for two years. While Penny is desperate to return home to her mom, she is very attached to her foster parents and her foster sister who is her same age (10yrs old). However, the relationship between her mother and her foster parents has not always been very good. Penny's therapist and GAL have been adament that contact with her foster parents should continue if she were to return home. However, there is no way to legally enforce that recommendation. So, they have perpetually attempted to use it as a reason that she should not return home.
Now, let me say that I do agree with them. I do think that it is in Penny's best interests to maintain contact with the family she has lived with for two years. But here is the thing -
I believe that about pretty much every single child in foster care.
Just like I harp on and on about the importance of open adoption - I believe the same thing about children maintaining contact with their foster families after reunification. I believe that children should not have to choose between caregivers that they love. I believe children can never have too many adults that love them! I wish that adults could put aside their pride and ego and always put the child first. Sadly, I think contact after reunification happens even more seldomly than open adoptions.
Because just like with Open Adoptions - there is no legal way to enforce it. Parents (bio or adoptive) have the right to decide who their children will have contact with once the courts are out of the picture.
So, back to Penny's situation. One little girl. Three parents.
To give everyone credit - both Penny's mom and her foster parents have done a lot of growing over the past year. I have encouraged everyone over and over again to focus less on their differences and more on making this as easy on Penny as possible.
Mom doesn't like the way the foster parents let her dress? Keep a seperate set of clothes at Mom's house for her weekend visits.
Foster Parents think Mom lets her get away with murder and never disciplines her? Keep rules consistent when she is in her foster home and reserve restrictions to the weekdays.
Both sides have simply had to learn to grit their teeth and let a lot of things go without being addressed. They certainly bring a lot of their concerns and complaints to me. I encourage them to do so because I understand that sometimes you have to tell someone. But I've only passed along concerns that I felt were really worth rocking the boat over - and to their credit, they have let me be the final say.
While putting so much aside, they have managed to find a few places for common ground.
I nearly cried about a month ago when Mom told me that they'd worked out a system for doing Penny's hair. On her visits, Mom would get Penny's hair done in some form of braids. Two weeks later, Foster mom would spend a day or two taking it all down and conditioning it. Then Mom would take her back to have it done again. It seems so simple - but I saw it as a break through. Tiny baby steps towards a mutal understanding of eveyone's role in Penny's life.
But as we sat in the meeting today and prepared for Penny to return to her mom's care next week, there was still an uneasiness about how that tenuous relationship would play out. It was brought up in the meeting with the lawyers and Penny's mom stated that she didn't have a problem with continued contact. She said the foster parents were welcome to call Penny and request to come take her for a visit whenever they wanted. The foster parents stated that they would love to have contact and that Mom could call them anytime. Both made references to not wanting to step on anyone's toes. I knew that if left alone, chance were that neither one would ever pick up that phone. Too much pride, too much fear of rejection, too much risk.
"Well if you guys aren't willing to step on each others' toes... allow me to do it," I finally broke down and said, "Isn't that what us social workers do anyways?"
(Everyone laughed - thankfully!)
I suggested that we come up with a date in the future that everyone could commit to so that Penny wouldn't be anxious about when/if she'd see her foster family again. I reminded them that if they were this nervous about stepping on toes and hurting feelings - imagine how Penny must feel! I suggested that maybe about two weeks after reunification, a visit could be planned for all of them to get together in the community for a few hours.
The foster parents agreed immediately - they were willing to drive to Mom's neighborhood or anywhere she was comfortable.
Mom thought about it for a minute and then surprised us all -
"I think two weeks is too long" she stated hesitantly, "And I think Penny would feel better if she got to spend the night - maybe stay the weekend?"
A date was picked, transportation arrangements made, and the meeting came to an end quickly thereafter. Soon, only Mom was left in the conference room with the caseworker and myself. I praised her for all the progress she's made, especially with the foster parents.
"You know, I've really learned some things this year. Sometimes you have to humble yourself. I can't deprive Penny of people who love her. Plus, I can use all the help I can get!"
I'm so blessed to be a part of these small (and not so small) glimpses of true progress. I truly believe that we see the most progress when people are willing to put themselves in the most uncomfortable positions. I can't say enough how important it is for the social worker to be willing to faciliate those awkward situations. Sometimes toes need stepping on. Sometimes there is akwardness and someone needs to be the one to point out the elephant in the room. Delicately. Tactfully. Giving plenty of room for self-determination. Its not easy and sometimes it fails miserably...
But sometimes it works.
And those times make it all worthwhile.
(A judge still has to agree with all our recommendations and stamp the final order for reunification. I'm sure Penny and her loved ones would welcome all prayers, crossed fingers, and good thoughts next week. I'll be sure to update you all!)