Vol. 15, No. 1 • November 2010

Foster Parents Reflect on Parent-Child Visits

Fostering Perspectives asked the board members of the NC Foster and Adoptive Parent Association—all of whom are foster parents—about their experiences with parent-child visits and lessons learned. Though every child and family situation is different, their responses may confirm some of your own thoughts and perhaps give you added insight and ideas to help make visits a positive experience for children, birth parents, and others.

What does it feel like when a visit goes well?

  • It is an awesome feeling when you know that you are assisting a family in continuing to be a family. One birth mom asked to hide in the trunk and come home with us. She wanted to spend every available moment with her child. Another time we facilitated a Christmas get-together with the children and their extended family at our church. . . . Even though we were not sure that the family was appreciative, we knew that the kids really loved seeing them.
  • We’re gratified that the process works.
  • Visits are valuable to the treatment of foster children to let them know they have a complete team who wants to make their life better.

What does it feel like when a visit doesn’t go well?

  • [We were] upset with the birth parents for returning the child upset.
  • “Frustration” sums it up. Feeling that we went the extra mile and took the time and effort and birth parents could not do the same. I felt extremely awful when any of “my” children would scream in the presence of the birth parent. I’ve also had families act as though I wasn’t even in the room. Even when the child is doing really well in our home, sometimes a visit can certainly disrupt that for days after.
  • It is so hard on foster parents because we want things to go well for the child. It’s important to tell the child the truth, speaking to them with age-appropriate words so they will understand. Let them know you will be there to try and help them understand what is going on.

How do you and others behave during visits?

  • We have always encouraged visits, since reunification is the goal.
  • We all keep it as normal a conversation as possible. Our team has been pretty stable and we are comfortable talking to each other.
  • When it goes really well we act as friends. This is what building a relationship looks like. Children do best in this situation. When it goes fairly well we act as acquaintances and don’t really get as much accomplished as we’d like. But at least the children know that we can all be in the same room and respect each other. When it doesn’t go well at all, NO information gets exchanged. There is tension all around and the kids can feel it. I have had parents tell the social worker they won’t do another visit if I am there. Nothing good comes of it; it is extremely difficult to have a one-sided relationship.

What is the connection to shared parenting?

  • Visits are good for all involved to see whether the (birth) family has been able to care for their child and learn parenting skills. If foster parents are doing shared parenting they can help birth parents with these skills. Often in the beginning the family may not understand what shared parenting is, but with time and patience the birth parents will understand you are trying to help them have their child back in their home, not yours. It also shows when that is not going to work, too, and often helps families understand that reality.
  • Sharing skills between foster parents and birth parents can help make birth parents stronger, more knowledgeable, and also help the foster parents [in caring for] the children.
  • You cannot have true shared parenting without some mutual respect.
  • The birth mom is invited to team meetings and encouraged to participate in activities with the child. We work together whenever possible.

What advice do you have for foster parents and social workers?

  • All agencies need to understand how stressful visits are and have extra education for foster parents on them. Agencies need to have an agreement with foster parents that the truth will always be told. Foster parents should have the same [agreement] with the child. If a foster parent is upset over a visit they need to document it and give that to the agency.
  • It’s good to plan ahead to have things to share with the family. If the child is old enough, let them share, too. It makes visits go much better. Share things such as school work, information on what the child has been doing, and pictures for the family to keep. Talk with the agency before the visit to make sure [sharing] these things is OK.
  • COMMUNICATE!! Not giving the foster parents the information that is pertinent to caring for the child is inexcusable. The foster parents should ASK questions!
  • Share, be open, be real, and be honest.
  • I have been a foster parent for almost nine years and each child, county, social worker, agency, GAL, etc. is different. There is no cookie cutter answer for working with the system, you just need to be the best advocate for the child you can be.

Additional comments:

  • Team meetings only work when everyone is valued as a real resource and treated equally with respect.
  • We are mindful that everyone will remember the visits good, bad, or indifferent. We prepare by remembering that we are foster parents, no matter which direction the case is going. Then we let the child know this is a visit and that they are not moving back or to any other place. We want them to enjoy the visit and have fun. If the child is old enough we make sure a camera is there for them to use. We also hope the family has also been prepared.
  • One of the most important things a foster parent can remember about visits is that they are for the child and their family, not for the foster parent. Also how you act can and will have an influence on the child and maybe their family.

Thanks to Karen LeClair and the NC Foster and Adoptive Parent Association for contributing to this article.

Copyright 2010 Jordan Institute for Families