Vol. 12, No. 1• November 2007

Griefwork in the child welfare system

by Deborah Weising

Wordless grief. The kind that goes so bone deep there are no words to express it, nor can anyone else say anything to comfort it. That grief is the expression of so many of those involved with the child welfare system: children, foster and adoptive parents, child welfare professionals, and of course birth parents.

Why does this system that seeks to offer hope for at-risk children and families end up being such a place of grief?

Children and Foster Parents
Foster parents enter the system with a dream: to provide a home and family for a child who is traumatized. Foster families frequently have a background that includes a childhood grief that allows them to identify with that painful, angry, lost look in the eyes of children in foster care. Some families hope to adopt and have been through the deep grief of infertility, or lost children through tragedy. But the common thread that links most foster parents is the desire to answer the grief cry of so many children.

Yet as foster families get more deeply involved with the child welfare system, they find it fragmented, with constantly changing workers and guardians ad litem. They face the daunting task of navigating their own emotions, the impact of fostering on other members of their family, and the stress to their own support system. It can be a confusing, angering experience. Fostering doesn’t come with an easy-to-read road map.

Deeper mysteries occur in foster families, too: the child’s grief and their own unresolved grief can collide into strange family dynamics. The child’s deep pain and loss of their birth family runs in waves through the child’s being. How can a child settle into a foster home when his or her identity and sense of worth are tied to the birth family? Children are not given a road map to foster care, either.

“Shared parenting” is the term used to describe the foster parent’s role of caring for children while supporting their connection with their birth parents and the goal of reunification. Yet when the child goes home the foster parents’ pain can be intense, particularly if they hoped to adopt the child or if they are concerned the child’s birth family is not equipped or committed to the child’s welfare.

What can foster parents do when they find themselves struggling after a reunification? Grieve with courage. Take solace in the fact that you make a difference in the lives of children and families. You have acted for the good of our most fragile children and families. Engage in the work of grief. Ultimately, foster parenting is the work of love and the decision to stand for the good of others in a very messy human system. It is natural to feel sad, angry, disappointed, and confused. That is the work of grief. It’s the soul’s process of seeing the truth. And the truth is that advocating for children and families can be a sacrificial calling that may never make sense to those who insist on avoiding pain. But as you work through the grief, also reclaim your strength, talents, goodness, drive, and charity. You are wiser and stronger now, and your heart has grown fuller.

Adoptive Parents
When children are adopted they bring their entire experience, heredity, and grief into the adoptive family. It can be a long, hard, costly battle for all members of the family to regain balance.

Unfortunately, adoptive families need more support and training than is available through social services, and frequently deal with children whose emotional issues are beyond the family’s understanding or ability to handle.

The good news is, you can often find the resources you need within the adoption community itself. Adoptive families have begun to organize web communities, support groups, prayer groups, and associations that genuinely tackle the deeper issues of adoption. But you have to be willing to reach out and connect! Be willing to share your experience and issues with other adoptive families. Be willing to strengthen your marriage, look at your losses, and reaffirm that adoption is a viable option for healthy families.

Grief, rage, depression, resolution: all these phases can help adoptive families reaffirm their identity, their own health and worth, and their desire to love children regardless of whether they ultimately adopt. And for those who do adopt, the pain involved is an invitation to press through those deep adoption issues that force us to relate to others in a real, non-defensive, vulnerable way. Adoptive family networks are places of healing, advocacy, help, education, and action to make a difference in our world.

There Is Hope
Ultimately, this is a message of hope. If you are grieving, dig deep. There is hope in the same heart that is motivated to help, love, build community, and validate the worth and dignity of human life.

Foster parents must acknowledge that their work requires a huge support network, deep abiding faith, skills to recognize when they need help, and the ability to accept that some important things connected with foster care are beyond their control. Foster families get involved, get a big helping of grief, and then have to decide if the lives and welfare of children are worth their own personal pain.

Of course children’s lives are worth it: but never underestimate the cost. Foster parents will hopefully build a support system with other foster and adoptive parents that is much deeper than social services.

Government cannot be our sole support system, sole source of training, and solution for the issues we encounter. We become the solutions by going much deeper, and refusing to let children be forever without a family or home. Foster families also have to gain wisdom about the needs of their own families, and understand and test their own motivations. A life calling is often a call to overcome pain in our early lives and become a helping hand to others.

Caseworkers quit in droves. But their skills are so needed. Dig deep. Creativity will come not from the top ranks of government, but from the grassroots workers who have seen firsthand the brokenness and needs of individuals and families. Rethink! Reinvent! Social services, more than ever, needs partnerships with nonprofits and faith communities. Have you considered writing about your experience, or organizing research and experimental models? Don’t throw away your insight and experience, get busy and use it!

What about the children? They count on all of us to rethink the idea that government solutions are effective apart from community solutions. The faith community in particular is most likely to tackle the breadth of issues affecting the destruction of families and children.

Where do we start? Start by wiping the tear from the face of an injured or forgotten child, or encouraging a single parent who is spiraling into homelessness, or lend guidance to someone with an addiction, or vote for those who are committed to life-affirming policies. Enter the depths of grief, and come out with a love that is tough, real, ready to allow for pain, and never gives up. The resolution of grief that has no words is the decision to love beyond pain. Look in the mirror: are you there yet?

Deborah Weising is a child and family advocate, nonprofit consultant, and motivational speaker. She can be e-mailed at [email protected].

Copyright 2007 Jordan Institute for Families