Vol. 15, No. 1 • November 2010

Parent-Child Visits and Shared Parenting

Shared parenting is a practice in which foster parents cultivate positive, supportive relationships with birth parents. Shared parenting relationships are based on trust, while keeping the safety and best interests of the child in focus.

Parent-child visiting and shared parenting are a natural fit. As Kate, a mother whose child spent time in foster care, explains in the box below, contact between foster and birth parents—including contact during visitation—can sometimes blossom into relationships that help parents make the changes needed to reunify their families.

Shared Parenting: A Gradual Process
Shared parenting doesn’t happen all at once. Like most relationships, it usually develops gradually. After the initial meeting during the first week the child enters foster care, shared parenting often starts with low-level contact between the birth and foster parents—for example, through the exchange of a weekly journal documenting the child’s week and asking questions that only the birth parent can answer.

As everyone grows more comfortable, the relationship between birth and foster parents might progress, involving steps such as:

  • Recording the family reading a book and playing it for the child at bedtime
  • Going shopping with the birth parent for shoes for the child
  • Having dinner at the foster parent’s home.

Visit-Related Shared Parenting
Here are suggestions for engaging in shared parenting in and around parent-child visits:

  • Discuss the family’s expectations about contacts and visits within the foster home, birth home, and community. Are visits doable with everyone’s schedule? Can the child call the family whenever he wants or just at certain times of the day?
  • Welcome the child’s family into your home, and set boundaries with both the parents and child about any areas that are off limits (usually bedrooms). Or go with the child and the family if the child wants to give a tour of the whole house.
  • Encourage regular contact between parents and children, as approved by the placing agency. Help make parents feel comfortable visiting in the foster home, or work with the family to find a neutral spot where everyone feels comfortable (school, a mall, library, restaurant, etc.).
  • Reassure the parents your job as a foster parent is to keep the child safe and provide temporary care. Remind them you are not a replacement for the child’s parents.
  • Send the child to visits with art work, school work, or even homework they can work on with their parents.
  • Send the child to visits dressed in clothing that the birth parents have provided for them.
  • Write down important information such as milestones, illnesses, new food choices, and updates in a journal and send it with the child to visits.
  • Try to arrange the child’s schedule so that the birth parent can feed the baby a bottle or give their child a snack during the visit.
    (Sources for these suggestions: Foster, 2009; Buncombe Co. DSS, 2009)

What Shared Parenting Accomplishes

  • Child’s relationship with the birth parent is maintained
  • Foster parents form a realistic picture of birth parent’s strengths and needs
  • Both birth and foster parents have more information about the child
  • Foster parents model appropriate behavior and parenting techniques
  • Birth parents develop an understanding of the child’s needs
  • Smoother transitions back into the birth parent’s home
  • Ongoing support for the family after the child returns home
Working Together to Help Darren Return Home

Excerpted from A Family’s Guide to the Child Welfare System by McCarthy et al. (2005)

I visited Darren a lot while he was in foster care and worked hard to get him back. Even though I had two relapses, I went to school full-time and worked part-time. I lived in a shelter some of the time, and I got TANF. Although I wasn’t told where Darren’s foster home was, I knew because some of the forms that I got from the doctor after Darren’s appointments had the foster home address on them. I did not go to the foster home, but it was comforting for me to know where he lived...

After our visits, I always took Darren back to the agency where his foster mother would pick him up. For about a year, I never saw her. One day the agency worker had to leave before the foster mother arrived, so she asked if I would stay with Darren until his foster mother came. When we met, we were both very stiff, sizing each other up, and didn’t think we would like each other. But we were cordial. Shortly after this, Darren’s foster mother, Sally, called to tell me that Darren was going to be in a pageant at her church, and she invited me to come. Sally began to invite me to go on other outings with her and Darren. Gradually, we got used to each other, liked each other, and started working together to help Darren return home.

Getting to know Sally is what “did it”. . . . Sally helped Darren and me gradually become a family again.

Kate, Darren’s Mom, and Sally, His Foster Mom,
Reflect on their Success

Kate: Darren is the one who has benefited the most from the way that Sally and I work together. Sally never tried to replace me in Darren’s life. She told him that he couldn’t be with me because I was sick and was trying to get better. She let me become very involved in Darren’s life while he lived in her home, and she came to every court hearing with me. She didn’t let him call her mom, it was Mom Sally or just Sally. Now that he is living with me, he calls her Aunt Sally.

Darren has been home for 5 years. He is now 10 years old, and Sally is still a part of our lives. Darren has ADHD and goes for a lot of treatment and doctor’s appointments . . . .

Sally: Kate allows me to co-parent Darren, even after he returned to her home. We have the benefits of co-parenting without having to go through a marriage and a divorce. Darren goes with me on my summer vacation. . . .

Kate: When Darren lived with Sally, we tried to have the same rules for him so he wouldn’t be confused. When he came to visit me, I tried to keep the same routine and rules that Sally had established. The three of us went to counseling together. This helped ease the transition for Darren. Now that Darren is older, we are more flexible....

Sally: This story is about Darren, not about us. As Kate said, Darren is the one who has benefited the most from our working together. He has not had to leave behind any of the people that he has grown up with. He has a larger extended family than he would have had. He was a troubled little boy when he came into foster care at two and a half years old. He had hearing and speech problems, night terrors, and couldn’t be contained for a very long period of time. But he was always loving and smiling. . . .

Kate: I always knew that Sally had Darren’s best interests in her heart and that she was working with me and not against me. I knew what I had to do to get Darren back home. Sally didn’t make me do any of these things, but she supported all of my efforts.