Vol. 12, No. 2 • June 2008

Helping Children by Engaging Their Parents

by Donna Foster

Kim was 12 years old and had been in foster care for some time when she came to live with us. As we got to know one another, I asked Kim why she left her other foster homes, where she had been placed with her sisters. She was very clear: “I wanted to see my Mom and my sisters hated my Mom. I wanted to go home with her and I felt no one there (at the foster home) would help me.”

After hearing her viewpoint of her past life and future plans, I understood why Kim voiced her demands from the start. She wanted to see her Mom, talk about her Mom, and one day, go home to her Mom.

What she didn’t know about me was that, as a foster parent, I believe the stronger the healthy connections are between a child and her birth family, the more resources I have available to help the child.

I never discourage children from talking about their birth families. Understanding their families aids me in understanding the children. If I want to do my part in helping children understand their situations and plan for their futures, there isn’t any room for judgment. Who they are is where they have come from. The people who take part in the growing years of a child make an imprint on the child’s life; they all become a piece of who and what the child becomes.

Engaging Kim’s Mom
Kim’s mother was very angry at me and at DSS. She resisted the Judge’s orders: parenting classes, therapy, stable employment, and adequate housing. She had a job and was ready for a larger apartment if the children could come home. But she felt she didn’t need to do the other things.

When I first met her she was forceful and angry. But when I acted in ways to build her trust in me, such as sitting behind her in court to support her and giving her updates on Kim’s daily developments, she mellowed. In time, she did all she was ordered to do. Kim’s mother had a personal disaster which lengthened Kim’s return, but throughout the years, she showed her love to Kim. Kim and I wrote a letter to the Judge stating our strong support for reunification and listed the factual proof of Kim’s mother’s involvement with her.

In the five years Kim lived with us her mother and my husband and I shared in parenting Kim. Her mother attended all of Kim’s school events, meetings, and church activities. She and I developed the house rules and consequences and we enforced them together. She chose to use the same discipline plan with Kim on her visits home.

Kim’s grandmother stepped forward when Kim’s mother needed a support person to help her raise Kim in her teen years. In the end, Kim, her mother, and her grandmother lived together for two and a half years until Kim went out on her own.

Kim needed this time to reconnect with her family. There were hard times (raising a teen is difficult for any parent) but the good times were wonderful. Kim regained her relationships with her siblings as the years passed. I felt instrumental in aiding Kim on her adolescent journey and we will be there for her throughout her life.

An unexpected benefit to being a foster parent for Kim and working with her birth family was that our two families became one. Kim never felt she had to choose one family over another.

Not all children have happy endings. There are birth families who don’t want to cooperate or are dangerous to their children and others. There are absent parents. There are children who don’t want to reunite.

Even so, there are ways to help children gather information about their families and understand their situation. Time spent helping children fill in their life’s gaps through talking and creating a life book builds a stronger relationship between foster parents, social workers, and the child. In the end, the child wins.

Donna Foster, an author, national trainer, and consultant, lives in Charlotte, NC. This article has been adapted from “The Voice of a Child,” in Fostering Perspectives v. 4, n. 2.

Copyright 2008 Jordan Institute for Families