Vol. 11, No. 1• November 2006

A Social Worker's Heartfelt Tips for Foster Parents

by Jenifer Montsinger

The child welfare system is complex and often confusing, even for those who are a part of it. The vulnerable child for whom you are providing foster care has been hurt physically and/or emotionally by those he should have been able to trust. This makes yours one of the most difficult and critical jobs within the whole system: helping the child heal. To succeed, you must be able to help him feel good about himself, which also means feeling good about where he came from.

As a social worker in this system, I can appreciate the conflicting feelings this must at times create for you. I can’t change those feelings, I can only try to help you use them creatively to become a more effective member of the team serving the child in your care.

The more you know about what I need and expect from you as the child’s foster parent, the more successful we will be as a team. The suggestions and thoughts I have to offer will, I hope, pave the way for a stronger working relationship.

Trust me to give you accurate information as I know it
When a child needs placement, I often know very little about him. I will tell you everything I know that is relevant to his care, but we may quickly learn that our initial information was woefully inadequate. Please don’t assume I have tried to mislead you. If you are just learning from me about something important, it is because I’ve just learned it as well. In fact, since you are living with the child, you may find out before I do. If so, please share it with me in detail as soon as possible so we can figure out how to handle it.

Keep good notes
Write down what you observe and learn about your child. Keep records of conversations with teachers, therapists, doctors, family members, and anyone else you have contact with. This information will help us plan for the child. Share the information with me so that I have a clear picture of how the child is really doing.

Understand that child welfare laws both guide us and
place limits on us

There are things neither you nor I can do without permission from the parent or the courts. This includes everything from authorizing HIV testing to having ears pierced. I know this can be frustrating for you and for the child, but we must work within the framework of the law. If there is a valid reason for requesting permission for something (e.g., a non-emergency medical procedure), we will do all we can to get the proper consents.

Don’t make decisions or plans about services for the child without talking to me first
Remember that we are both part of the child’s team and we must be planning jointly. If your child needs a special service, I will need to figure out how it can be authorized and funded before we make any official commitments. If a specialized service is to be provided, it must be authorized in advance by the custodial agency (DSS).

Be empathetic, not sympathetic, toward your child
Sympathy implies pity and a lack of control over one’s environment. Sympathy encourages dependence. We want our children to develop self-confidence and an appropriate sense of control over their lives. Empathetic responses recognize and acknowledge problems, but they challenge one to find solutions. This approach gives the child a solid foundation for learning to solve problems.

Talk to me!
If I’m not giving you the support and guidance you need, tell me. You usually do your job so well that I may assume you don’t need much from me. I should be visiting with both you and your child regularly. If I’m not, remind me that we’re overdue for a meeting. You have a right to expect me to take time for a private conversation with you. Hold me to that.

In return, keep in mind that I need to be able to visit with your child privately to make an independent assessment of how he’s doing. Help me do this in a way that feels comfortable for him. My meetings with him are to strengthen the trust between the two of us, not to check up on you, so please encourage him to talk to me about anything that is important to him.

Remember your MAPP/GPS training
Be realistic about the child’s relationships and interactions. Children retain their ties to their families of origin throughout their lifetime, regardless of the treatment they might have received. No matter what your personal feelings about the child’s family might be, for the sake of his emotional well-being, you must respect that relationship.

Don’t expect the child to verbally express his appreciation for the care you have provided. Instead, look for the nonverbal cues—hugs, seeking you out to talk about something that is important to him, letting you comfort him when he is sad. These are his “thank you’s.” Your job is done well when the child’s foster care placement ends in a permanent placement that everyone can celebrate.

Licensing social workers are here to support, guide, train, and advocate for you!
If you are having difficulty communicating or getting things done, ask for help. Don’t let a misunderstanding fester. Most problems have a constructive, positive solution if they are addressed promptly. Your agency should have provided you with a handbook which gives you information about how your agency operates and who does what within the system. If you have questions about any of this, ask your licensing worker. Be sure you understand and comply with the requirements for in-service training, home visits, inspections, and medical exams in order to keep your foster home license current.

My commitment to you is that I will try to talk to you regularly, keep you up-to-date on what’s happening with your child’s service plan, find opportunities to tell you how much I appreciate the nurturing care you are providing, and include you as an equal partner in serving the child. If I have a concern about something, I will try to work with you in a constructive way to solve the problem. If you have a concern, please share it with me in a way that allows for constructive problem-solving.

Our needs, and those of the child, are best met when you and I have a mutually respectful relationship that is directed at the primary goal of achieving a permanent, safe home for OUR child.

Jenifer Montsinger is a social work supervisor at the Orange County Department of Social Services.

Copyright 2006 Jordan Institute for Families