How agencies can (and should) support children and resource families when placements end

Foster care placements are temporary—they are meant to end. This is made abundantly clear in recruiting materials and in foster parent pre-service training. In court and in ongoing meetings there are frequent reminders of this fact.

Nevertheless, the ending of a placement can be particularly hard for the children and resource family. Fortunately, there are things child welfare professionals can do to help resource parents and children achieve closure. Helpful steps agencies can take include:

1. Talk with the Children. It’s important to allow children the chance to express any feelings they may have about saying goodbye, which can include feelings of abandonment, sadness, anxiety, or unworthiness. Some children might act out around this time, so agencies should help resource parents prepare to provide extra support as needed. Don’t let feelings of guilt or stress lead the adults to minimize or avoid talking about negative feelings (Bostic & Shadid, 1996). While ideally this process could happen before a child leaves, in reality it might be the new caregivers who give the child this opportunity.

Agencies can reduce trauma to children when placements end by teaching resource parents to anticipate child reactions and by suggesting activities that help everyone reach closure.

2. Talk with the Resource Parents. Foster parents and kinship caregivers also need a chance to express their emotions, which may come out gradually. While they can share feelings of sadness with the child, there may be other feelings (such as relief or fear for the child’s future) that cannot be shared with the child but need a safe outlet.

Resource parents may still need support AFTER the child has left the home. Agencies can sometimes help families process their feelings—and avoid burn-out and turnover—by asking them to reflect on the experience after a week or two. What were their expectations when the child arrived? What was it like while the child lived with them? What are their hopes for the child’s future?

3. Pictures and Letters. Families and children can write letters or draw pictures for each other, depending on the child’s age. This can be done either in preparation or after the fact, by mail. Resource parents should also consider spending time with the child updating his life book so the child has something to help him reflect on his time in the home. Make sure resource parents understand how important it is for them to tell the child he will be missed. Parents may also want to share something special that the family will remember or has learned from the child.

4. Reinforce Strengths and Lessons Learned. Families can also use time before a placement change—or the letter they send after the move—to reinforce and acknowledge the positive changes or successes the child has had, even if they were small steps. They can also help smooth the way for the new placement by asking the child what she’s learned during their time together and what should be shared with the new placement providers about what was helpful or not helpful for her.

5. Assess Resource Parent Supports. When a child leaves is an excellent opportunity for workers to reassess with the family what informal or formal supports, information, or training might be helpful. Resource parents can use the change as a positive opportunity to make new connections, learn new skills, or simply think about how they might handle similar situations in the future.