Thursday, August 6, 2009

Child Welfare 302: Working with Birth Parents - Part 2! EDITED

EDIT: MamaDrama brought up a good point. Often Caseworkers are hesitant to encourage/allow contact between parties. This is for a number of reasons - but it usually boils down to fear. Fear that the birth or foster parent will act inappropriately, fear that it will cause more problems, fear that it will cause more havoc in a case. This is very understandable given how high emotions can run on both the foster and birth parent's side of things.

Just continue to apply positive pressure - if in person contact is discouraged - request to write letters and send pictures, include stories and ask questions so that the birth parent may be encouraged to write back. Maybe even start a communication journal that goes with the child to visits. These little things can reassure a nervous caseworker and start to build that bridge to a birth parent even before meeting them!


I've had some questions about my last post regarding Working with Birth Parents so I've answered them below - feel free to leave comments or ask more questions!

Fears about Safety:

In my experience, most birth parents are not going to become dangerous to a foster parent. They may become defensive and angry - but not actually dangerous. And the defensiveness and anger will hopefully disapate as they realize that you are not working against them. (Which is actually another good reason to stay out of their other issues - keep the focus on their child, how you are caring for them, and how you can support their time together.) I'm not saying it never happens - sometimes parents are angry enough to actually become aggressive. Take the relationship slowly and be mindful of your limits. Even if you always meet in public and they only have a cell phone number - its still a connection.

Most agencies make it a rule that the parent can not visit if they appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol - so start off by attending visits that are being supervised by the agency if at all possible. Or ask to meet with the parent at the agency office so that you can exchange information - let the parent tell you what they know about their child: what they like/dislike, why they gave them their name, what they like about them, etc. (Not only are these easy ways to help the parent feel like they are still important in their child's life - they are good for you to know for the child's lifebook or to tell them when they are older and want to know about their birth parents and themselves.) Then share little things that you've noticed about their child - likes/dislikes, funny faces they make, sleeping patterns etc. Once that sense of common ground is established it will become easier over time to discuss what you both think is good for the child - including things like longer visits, structure, safety issues, or eating habits.

You can decide if you don't want them to know your last name or where you live. Keep visits/meetings with birth parents at the agency or out in public places. Over time, I've known foster parents who allow birth parents in their home (and vice versa) and even invite them to holidays and family events. This is great - but not neccesary if you aren't comfortable with it! If you get the sense (or info from the caseworker) that the parents are not making progress - keep the visits in a neutral location. As time goes on, if you want to allow the parents to be more involved - giving out your phone number, inviting them to your home, etc - then just be up front and honest with them about the rules. Explain that you WANT these things to happen - but you also want everyone to have appropriate expectations. Set them up on both sides - their responsibilites/expectations and your responsibilities/expectations. And explain what the result/consequence will be if those aren't met - no more phone calls/visits in your home. But make sure they know that you will continue to support their relationship with their child - don't use canceling visits as a punishment.

Concerns over getting involved with the birth parents issues.

Getting wrapped up in the birth parent's issues are almost guaranteed to burn you out - especially while also trying to care for the child(ren). Not only that - it creates a serious conflict of interest if it one day become apparent that they will not be regaining custody of their child. Be sympathetic to how hard it is for them to change their lifestyle, be understanding of past issues that lead them to seek out drugs/alcohol for relief, and be supportive when they are making progress (no matter how small!). I would encourage foster parents not to focus their support on the problems that the parents have or are working on. Rather, focus on supporting that parent having a relationship with their child. I hope that makes some sense! In other words, a foster parent shouldn't get involved in trying to help a parent manage their drug addiction or solve their housing situation - leave that to the foster care worker. But in supporting a birth parent towards having a meaningful relationship with their child you are doing very important work!

You are maintaining/repairing a bond between birthmother & child - this is important for a child whether they go home or not! It is also important because the relationship between parent/child can be a very big incentive for the parent to actually accept the help they need. This is not always the case obviously - but in my experience, if the parent can not make the progress needed to have their child returned to them, they are much more likely to voluntarily surrender their rights to a foster parent that they have known and who has been supportive of the parent's relationship (however minimal) with their child. They are more likely to act in their child's best interests if they have a relationship with the foster parents because they already know that the child is loved and well cared for AND chances are that an appropriate plan for future contact could be worked out. All of these things are, in my (and others!) opinion, best for children.

Staying involved when the birth parent isn't making progress/relapses.

Its so hard isn't it? To see someone take so many forwards steps - just to have to start back over at square one? Many people assume parents are lying or jerking their children around. The truth is that the couple of months/weeks/days before a child is reunified is when the whole thing is most likely to fall apart. Just like all of us - when a birth parent feels the most amount of stress - that's when they revert back to their base coping skills - which often are the negative behaviors that helped bring their child into the system such as drug relapse, increase in the symptoms of their mental illness, or other irresponsible behavior. Also, it is important to remember that we are often asking people to undo YEARS of bad habits and behavior patterns in a matter of about 18months.

Take drug addiction - which is a common issue I've seen for children coming into care. Everything from where you live - to your friends - to where you shop for groceries can be part of the vicious cycle. Rehab is often only a 1 week detox/30 inpatient program - its not enough time to change all of those relapse triggers. Most will ask a patient to follow up with outpatient treatment or NA/AA - but even this is not intensive enough for a lot of addicts. The best program in our area has a 90 day detox program, followed by a step down program where the patients continue to live at the facility for another 6-9 months while they do inpatient and outpatient and then they are eligible to live in the transitional living home for up to a year - each level is a little less structured and gives the patients a little more responsibility over their new lives. And I've seen them do amazing work- but that is a 2 YEAR program! And in my huge metropolitan area they are the only ones. Bottom line: It takes A LONG TIME to change all of those things - but it only takes a second to relapse. One slip means starting over all the way at the beginning.

As many of you know from working or living with children who have experienced trauma - the effects are long lasting, especially if they never get the help they need. I've yet to meet a birth parent who didn't have trauma in their backgrounds.

Maintaining contact after Termination of Parent's Rights.

The sad truth is that many, many of these families are not able to be reunified - at least not completely. The old cliche "you can't help someone who can't help themself" is very true. Realizing that no matter how much help you give someone, they may not ever change - is very important. Many children end up being raised by family members. Others are adopted or stay in foster care. My bottom line is that even these children need to know the reality behind why they aren't living with their birth parents. By developing a relationship with a birth parent - the child is able to see the reality of the situation. That their birth parents can not care for them - but do still love them. Hopefully - this will help the child not to feel abandoned, thrown away, or unwanted. Also, the child is less likely to blame the foster parents - instead the responsibility is placed where it should be - with the parent. Children do struggle with these feelings - but with the right support from foster/adoptive parents they do learn to cope and will fare better in the long run.

I hope this helps - please ask any follow up questions!


  1. I am so glad you are a social worker - I wish we had more of you in our state!!!! Oftentimes I feel like our state social service agency doesn't like it when we get along with the bio family...I think it makes some of the workers nervous. It is so important to the child to have everyone work together...for the child to know they are cared for - for the bio parent to know thier kid is safe so they can concentrate on whatever things they need to do to get custody back...It ultimately helps everyone. This weekend we are going to the birthday party of two boys we had for 10 weeks last year. Bio Mom still calls us regularly and we remain connected a year later. It truly takes a village. Thanks for your thoughtful posts.

  2. The first couple of times I met Simmy's birthmother, it was horrible- I'll just be honest. I was nice and never said a negative thing, but it was extremely difficult.

    And then one day I caught a glimpse of love for Simmy out of her- it was a dysfunctional love, but love none the less. That made all the difference.

    I would say that we have a pretty good relationship for foster parent/birth parent. I truly pull for her to get it together and I actually feel better about myself now that I do.

  3. Ah - that tiny glimmer of love! Its so hard sometimes because WE show our love in such positive and functional ways (usually) - but so many birth parents really do not know how! I'm also glad to hear you say that you feel better about yourself since being able to find some good in Simmy's birth mom. I think that often we get bogged down in being angry/frustrated/resentful about how their actions have affected their children - that we end up being bitter. And that doesn't help us at all! I try really hard to find that little spark of hope in each of the birth parents I work with - its not always easy - but it makes me feel better in the end.

  4. Thank you so much for that post. The two little ones just placed in our home were placed because of drug addiction. They were supposed to have the first visit w/ mom, but she didn't show. The sad thing is, before the visit, the oldest was crying because he didn't want to see his mom. We've decided not to tell him where we are going the day of the next visit. They have never even asked for her. It's so hard to understand.

    So, I love reading your advice. It's very helpful to us.



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