Vol. 8, No. 1• November 2003

The Power of Shared Parenting

by John McMahon

Bridget Emperador thinks too few foster parents realize how important and powerful they are. When she talks about power, the Buncombe County foster parent is thinking not only of foster parents’ capacity to nurture children, but about what they can do for families.

“Foster parents can bring birth families up or they can bring them down,” she says. “You may feel like low man on the totem pole in terms of the child welfare system, but you have a great deal of influence over what happens to these families.”

The Shared Parenting Perspective
Emperador is a proponent of “shared parenting,” a practice in which social workers bring foster and birth parents together during a child’s first week in foster care. The aim of shared parenting is to promote ongoing, positive inter-actions between birth parents and foster parents so that birth parents can be active members of the alliance focused on the welfare of their child.

Bridget learned about shared parenting because her county department of social services (DSS) is involved in a reform effort called the Multiple Response System (MRS). This effort calls upon North Carolina county DSS’s to use shared parenting and six other strategies to improve services to children and their families. MRS’s strategies will become the standard of child welfare practice in all 100 county DSS’s in 2005.

“The Best Way to Start”
In Emperador’s experience, the shared parenting approach is the best way to start a foster child’s placement.

“With my former foster son, whom we eventually adopted, we didn’t meet his birth mother until he had been in our home for three months. In retrospect, not having contact with the birth mother made things much harder.”

With another child, Emperador had contact with the birth family from the beginning. The child was placed in foster care at birth, but because of complications he was in the neonatal intensive care unit for a long time, and then in a “step-down” unit as he recovered.

During this time Bridget met the child’s mother. “We spent many hours together for four days straight while he was in the hospital,” she says.

With that foundation, it was easy to make regular contact a standard part of caring for this child. Indeed, Bridget was comfortable enough to share her phone number with the mother so she could call to check on her child.

Given the strength of this relationship and the extremely low risk to the child, DSS even allowed Bridget to schedule visitations; she and the birth mother would arrange the visit and then Bridget would call DSS to inform them of the plan.

There Are Exceptions
Bridget says there are limits to when the shared parenting approach can be used. She readily acknowledges that it will not work with all families. “I’ve known parents I would never want to have my phone number or my address,” she says.

The key, she says, is the emotional state of the birth parents: Emperador’s DSS has made it very clear that if the birth parents have a recent history of violence or there is a potential for violence, there will be no shared parenting meeting.

“Yet even if regular contact is not possible,” Bridget says, “I always send photographs of the children to their parents.”

Maintaining the Parent/Child Bond
Like other foster parents and social workers who’ve embraced shared parenting, Bridget understands that regardless of what birth parents have done, they care deeply about their children.

“As a foster parent, my job is both to advocate for the child and to help birth parents change and be reunited with their children,” she says.

To help get this message across to new and prospective foster parents, Bridget participates as a speaker during the “panel nights” offered as part of her agency’s MAPP training. “I tell prospective families, ‘The bottom line is, this is not your child.’ That’s where a lot of people have a hard time. Yet it is the most basic point if we are to succeed as foster parents.”

At some point, Bridget says, foster parents must consciously release control. When it comes to parenting decisions, “if the birth parent wants me to do it a particular way, then for the good of the child that’s the way I need to do it.”

Emperador admits that letting go can be hard. She recalls one time when a child had a cold on a day when he was scheduled to visit with his mother. In her heart of hearts, Emperador wanted to postpone the visit until the child was feeling better.

She knew, however, that the child was well enough for a visit. On an intellectual level she understood that the parent deserved to see her child, and the child needed to see his mother.

But on an emotional level? “At first, you have to make a very conscious effort.”

Yet the effort is worth it. As Bridget says, “With shared parenting, you can be the key to successful family reunification.”

Copyright 2003 Jordan Institute for Families