Building a positive relationship with birth parents
by Donna Foster •
Tips to help you engage, motivate, and support birth parents as they learn to parent their children in healthy ways.
Foster parents are taught about the things children feel when experiencing loss. We are taught in MAPP about the grief cycle and how to help children through each stage. Yet we are not always taught that birth parents go through their own grief cycle. This is critical information—before we can hope to build a relationship with the birth parents we need to understand how they are feeling.
To give foster parents the tools they need to build more constructive relationships with birth parents, I’d like to share the following suggestions, which are organized according to Charles Horejsi’s ideas about the cycle of birth parent grief (see box below).
At this stage of the grief cycle birth parents need to know their children are being taken care of by kind people who are not trying to replace them. No matter what caused their children to be placed outside their home, parents still care about their children and feel they should be in their care. Foster parents can help by meeting the birth parents face-to-face when children are being placed with them. If a meeting is not possible, call the birth parents after the children are placed. During meetings and phone calls foster parents should:
Start the conversation. Do not say “I understand how you are feeling.” This could anger birth parents who feel no one can understand how they are feeling. A better approach would be to introduce yourself by saying, “Karen, I am Donna. I am taking care of your child until he can come home to you. He is missing you. I felt you wanted to know who was taking care of your son.”
Be ready for serious anger. Do not let angry words stop your compassion. The birth parents have lost control over their child. They are at a loss as to how to fight for themselves. Demonstrating that you understand this frustration is a first step in the development of trust between the adults.
The birth parents may let the foster parents know in no uncertain terms that they are their children’s only parents. They may threaten the foster parents not to harm their children. This is a method of trying to maintain control. Here are some ways foster parents can strengthen their relationship with protesting birth parents:
Assure birth parents you will not harm their children. Birth parents benefit from hearing these words from the foster parents. They may have heard or read scary stories about foster parents.
Be humble. Let the birth parent be the knowledgeable one when talking about their child. Example: “You know your child better than anyone. How do you want me to care for your child while he is here?”
Understand the birth parent’s anger as an expression of grief. Do not show your own anger. Instead, show compassion. This can be difficult if the children have been neglected or abused. Your feelings are your own and should not be overlooked. But as foster parents, you must remember the child loves his or her parents. The plan is almost always reunification. Use your own feelings to motivate and support the birth parents as they learn how to parent their children in healthy ways.
Use Reflective Listening. Birth parents need to be heard, not judged. Reflective listening is the practice of repeating or paraphrasing what the person you are talking to has just said, reflecting back the emotions you are hearing. Example: “I hate that my children are staying with strangers!” Reflective response: “You sound worried that people you don’t know will not know how to care for your children.”
Foster parents’ role is to listen and to provide creative ways for the birth parents to actively parent their children. When they do this, shared parenting is taking root.
Don’t sell yourself as wonderful, superior, or the child’s salvation. Birth parents may feel embarrassed or threatened by the foster family’s home. Birth parents may believe foster parents are in it for the money. Birth parents need to hear from foster parents that they are here to help families reunite. Birth parents need to hear again and again that their children need them and that material things aren’t important.
After birth parents feel recognized by the child’s foster parents they become more open to being involved in the parenting of their children while they are in foster care. Here are some specific ways to communicate to birth parents that they are included in their children’s care.
Ask birth parents what questions they have for you. Birth parents may want to know: Do the children have a room by themselves? Who bathes them? What do you tell them about why they are in foster care? How do you let them know we love them? When can I talk to them? Are you going to change them so that they are more like your family? Do you want to keep our kids?
Ask birth parents about their children. Ask questions such as: How do you want us to take care of them? What do your children like to eat? What allergies do they have? Are they allergic to any medications, mold, animals, etc.? What fears do they have? What do you do to calm them? What do they need with them at bedtime, such as special blankets, pillows, stuffed animals? What are their school needs? Are they close to any teachers, bus drivers, or other family members? Who are they? What do you want the children to call us?
Develop an action plan for parenting the children together. When questions are answered you can, in collaboration with the children’s worker, develop an action plan that might include phone calls, family-oriented visits at the agency, at parks, and in time, at the foster home. Birth parents can join their children and the foster parents at medical appointments, school activities and meetings, church functions, community activities, birthdays, holidays, and summer activities.
When the birth parents are attending these functions, foster parents should introduce them as the children’s parents and ask doctors and school personnel to discuss their children’s needs with the birth parents. This helps the birth parents practice parenting and allows foster parents to play a supportive role.
If shared parenting is practiced, the self-esteem of the birth parents is heightened and a positive, ongoing relationship with the foster family created. After reunification the birth parents will most likely desire a continued relationship with the family who cared for their children. The foster parents can offer to take the roles of aunt, uncle, and cousins. They can offer to give respite to birth parents by occasionally caring for the family’s children.
Reunification is stressful. The support of the foster parents can help the family succeed in staying together. Staying involved after the children return home also helps foster families with their own emotions.
A slow transition is healthy for all of the children and the adults who love them. Everyone wins!
Birth Parents’ Grief Process
Shock. Parents are in disbelief. The words people are saying don’t sink in or make sense. Parents feel like they are sleepwalking. The only thing on their mind is that their child is gone. Behaviors of parents may include: shaking, screaming, crying, or swearing. They are overwhelmed with worries about their child. Parents may promise the agency anything without understanding or remembering what they promised. Parents may be in denial and are sure the child will return tomorrow.
Protest. Grief shows itself more physically. The parents may feel sadness or anger and the symptoms could be upset stomach and low or no appetite. Parents may have headaches, insomnia, and exhaustion. They may be angry at everyone. The parents may make demands or threats. They may swear or cry for no apparent reason. It may be easier to blame others for the situation than to accept their responsibility. This could be a way of coping with despair and depression.
Adjustment. In this phase things start to settle down. Adjustment occurs sooner if the parents have an ally, such as the social worker and foster parent. The parents do not worry about their children’s safety or loyalty if trust in the foster parent has developed. The child becomes the focus of the team. Those assisting the birth parents can be the social workers, foster parents, guardians ad litem, therapists, and other community resources. The parents build their parenting skills and actively participate in co-parenting their children with the foster parents. The child welfare worker, foster parent, and birth parent develop a strong shared parenting team. The parents fulfill their obligations and meet the case plan goals.
Content in box adapted from Charles Horejsi’s “Working with Biological Parents”
Reprinted from Fostering Perspectives vol. 13, no. 1 (2008)