Vol. 10, No. 1• November 2005

Shared parenting benefits everyone—especially foster parents!

by Janine Russell and John McMahon

North Carolina is working hard to increase the amount of contact between foster parents and birth parents.

Agencies are encouraging face-to-face meetings between birth and foster parents within the first week of placement. Social workers are urging foster parents to call birth parents on the phone, to request pictures of the child’s family to display in the child’s room, and to take other steps to bring the presence of birth parents into their homes.

The point of these activities, which are all inspired by an approach to fostering called shared parenting, is not just contact between birth and foster parents, but the development of an actual partnership focused on the well-being of the child.

Certainly, the well-being of children is a strong selling point with foster parents: they care very deeply about children, and few would hesitate to take any action they believed would make the children in their homes healthier, happier, or more secure.

Yet in their efforts to convince foster parents of the value of shared parenting, social workers and others sometimes fail to describe the benefits of this approach for one of the most important players in the world of child welfare: foster parents themselves.

We would like to correct this oversight by exploring with you some of the ways we think shared parenting can make the lives of foster parents better. We will begin by looking at one of the most powerful influences on the behavior of children in out-of-home care: the birth family.

Problems with Family Roles
Most of us would agree that the job of parents is to nurture children, teach them, and raise them to be healthy adults. Likewise, most of us would agree that the child’s job is to grow, learn, play, and behave like a child.

In most families, the line between these two jobs is clear. However, during times of stress and crisis this line may blur. If the stress is severe enough, for example during a parent’s struggle with substance abuse, the child may begin to assume parents’ roles and to act as an “adult” in the home.

However, children—especially young children—aren’t equipped to worry about health problems, money, substance use, domestic violence, marital conflict, etc. Of course, children rarely tell us in words that they can’t manage adult stress. Instead, they do it through their behavior: some withdraw, others act out.

Continued Confusion
When children in this position are placed in foster care, they often have a hard time simply being children. Foster parents offer a safe, stable, loving environment, but the overwhelming responsibility these children have shouldered—caring for mom or dad, caring for a sibling, taking care of themselves—continues to press upon them.

Until the child can trust that someone else will assume this responsibility, his or her ability to do the work of a child—growing, playing, learning—will be undermined, as will the child’s well-being.

Sorting Out Roles
One way foster parents can help children let go and become a child again is by working in partnership with the child’s birth parents. When children see harmony among the adults in their lives, they relax and begin to return to the child role. They worry less and spend less time trying to “fix” the adults around them.

Seeing their birth and foster parents working together can change the way children function. Indeed, when they feel supported, birth families will sometimes work with foster parents to give the child “permission” to be OK in the foster home. Over time, it becomes less important to children to defy foster parents so they can prove their loyalty to their birth family. By reducing that division of loyalty, foster parents can gain valuable ground with the children.

Other Benefits
Birth parents can also give foster parents precious information and insights about the child. With this information, foster parents may find they can meet the child’s needs earlier in the relationship, and more effectively. This, in turn, can ease their own anxiety and frustration.
How many foster parents have been criticized after getting a child’s hair cut? Through parent-to-parent visits and other shared parenting strategies, foster parents can prevent many misunderstandings and potential conflicts over daily issues.

When they feel supported by the foster parents, birth parents may even back them up. For example, a child who complains to his birth mother about being put in a child role (e.g., having consequences enforced) may not find such a sympathetic ear if his mother knows the foster parents are taking good care of the child. Shared parenting can give foster parents allies in what may have seemed to be the least likely places.

Finally, shared parenting can sometimes create a bridge between the two families. When the family recovers and the child returns home, lines of communication sometimes remain open. In this way, the foster parent and the child remain “family” despite living in different households, having separate ancestry, and having different blood ties. Isn’t being family what most of us are really looking for?

Foster parents who don’t make children choose their parents will never risk not being chosen. And though they may not verbalize their appreciation, the children will not turn away from you.

Just as parents have love for all of their children, children have love enough to give all of their parents.

Shared Parenting:
Potential Benefits for Foster Parents

Creating supportive relationships and sharing information with birth parents may:

  • Enhance child development, learning, and well-being by encouraging the child to return to the child role
  • Decrease children’s defiant behavior by reducing the children’s desire/need to demonstrate loyalty to birth family
  • Provide information and insights that enable foster parents to meet children’s needs earlier and in a more effective way, thus helping children and reducing foster parent frustration
  • Reduce conflict with birth parents over various issues (e.g., grooming)
  • Increase birth parent support for foster parents by reassuring them their children are being well cared for and that foster parents do not seek to replace them
  • Create a positive connection between the foster parents, the child, and the child’s family that will not have to end, even if the placement does

Janine Russell is a foster care and child welfare trainer for the NC Division of Social Services in Raleigh. John McMahon is editor of Fostering Perspectives.

Copyright � 2005 Jordan Institute for Families