Overlapping and Continuity of Families Are the Keys to Positive, Stress-Free Transitions for Children
by Donna Foster •
News flash! After 17 years as a foster parent and 37 years as a trainer in foster care and adoption, I finally realized what the focus should be for foster parents: transitions!
So Many Opportunities for Loss
Think for a moment about the transitions a child in foster care goes through. The child is taken from his birth family to go to a foster home with strangers and then either back to his birth family or to an adoptive family. In most cases, the child has little knowledge or input into these changes. He is like a puppet on a string without a voice.
Every transition is an opportunity for loss for a child in foster care! Let’s consider some of these transitions and the losses that sometimes accompany them.
Initial Placement. The changes start when a child leaves his birth family to go to a foster home. This foster family is full of strangers with a different lifestyle and different ways of communicating. The child leaves everyone and everything that identifies him: family members, pets, teachers, where he sleeps, where he eats, what he eats. He leaves his possessions and routines. He is forced to leave his “whole life” behind.
A Changing Identity. While with the foster family, the child forms new attachments. Besides the foster family, he may gain new friends, teachers, pets, routines, and experiences. These become a part of his identity. So even if he had losses when he left his birth home, he may have made gains in his foster home. But will he lose these gains when he goes home?
Reunification. With this plan, the goal is for the child to one day leave the foster family to return to his birth family. This, too, is a big change, because while the child has been in foster care the birth family has changed to be a safer home for the child. That means that when the child returns home, what he once knew as the family routine may have changed. His possessions may be gone. His family may have moved. What he thought was “normal” in his birth family may not be normal now. It is likely healthier, but it is still a change.
Because he may have formed attachments in his foster home, moving back to his birth family can be joyful and painful. These and other transitions can cause lots of grief and mistrust for the child.
The Shared Parenting Team
The most important adults in his life need to help him make these moves with less trauma and grief. The best team to do this is made up of the foster parents and birth parents, with the social worker’s support. The team’s job is to make the child’s transitions less stressful and painful, both emotionally and physically.
This is shared parenting. Shared parenting creates the bridge for the child to cross over from one home to another, gaining safety and avoiding loss as much as possible.
Partnering with Birth Families
Foster care does not exist to punish the birth parents for not taking care of their children. Many roadblocks have interfered with these families’ ability to parent. Children enter foster care for safety reasons, so the birth parents can receive the help they need and learn how to care for their children.
While they are in foster care, children need and deserve ongoing opportunities to be nurtured by their birth parents. This continued contact lessens the trauma of separation and makes the move back home smoother.
Overlapping from the Start
Shared parenting—and the child’s transition home—should begin the day the child enters foster care. The foster parent should contact the birth parent as soon as possible. A phone call during the first 24 hours could relieve the child of feeling totally alone and know his parents are aware of his whereabouts. The call would assure the birth parent the foster parents are there to help them, not hurt them.
The call is a chance for the foster parent to ask the birth parent (assume in this example it is the mother) how she wants the foster parent to take care of her child. Asking this opens the door for the birth parent to “parent” her child while the child is in foster care.
After the call, the foster parent can tell the child she spoke to his mother, and that his mother wants him to have a nightlight, or to brush his teeth before bedtime and after breakfast, or to avoid drinking milk because it upsets his stomach. The foster parent may know how to parent a child, but this information from the birth parent helps the child to have a sense of his mother being with him while he is in the foster home. This means he won’t feel the loss of his birth family, or at least not feel it so acutely.
As the relationship builds between the birth and foster parents, more interactions can take place—for example, they can be together at doctor appointments, school activities, birthdays, and other family-oriented activities. Through this ongoing contact, without knowing it, the birth parent may learn more healthy ways to parent and how to live a positive life. In this way, the foster family becomes a support for the birth family.
Continuity at the “End”
When shared parenting is successful, when it is time for the child to be reunited with his family, the foster family and birth family make this happen together. The birth parents encourage a continued relationship with the foster family because the families have built a friendship.
Including the birth parents from the start keeps “home” close by, which is what we want for the child. We don’t want the child to feel he has to lose everyone and everything he knows when he enters foster care.
In this kind of transition the child keeps connected with his birth family when he is in foster care, and keeps connected to the foster family after reunification. With strong connections between the two families, the child never has to lose his identity. His identity grows.
During all of these changes, it is important for the child to be informed of all decisions and to have some power in how he wants his life to be. Being able to make even small decisions is important to a child’s well-being.
If adoption is the permanent plan, the process would be similar—the foster family engages the adoptive family as soon as they are known. The adoptive family interacts with the foster family while the child is with the foster family. When the child moves into the adoptive home, the foster family visits the adoptive family. This way the child can gain a permanent family without losing important people in his life.
Can you see how this can work? Overlapping and continuity of families are the keys to more positive and stress-free transitions. Children deserve this kind of commitment from the adults that make their life-changing decisions. Planned transitions make a difference for a lifetime.
Donna Foster is the author of “Shelby and Me: Our Journey through Life Books,” a national trainer, and a consultant who lives in Marshville, NC.