The choice to become foster parents is an amazing commitment for a marriage and a family. In addition to being a licensed therapist and registered art therapist, I am a foster and adoptive parent with my husband. We have had the opportunity to foster sibling groups that have had various intensities of abuse or neglect that have had equally diverse outcomes. Each foster family has strengths that they offer their foster children. Our strength lies in our knowledge of children’s grief, minimizing losses for the children, safety, and advocacy for their needs.
There are facets beyond raising children that are vaguely discussed during the foster parent training. The foster parent can help manage relationships in hopes to reduce grief and loss experiences for the foster child(ren). Some relationships are necessary for meeting the children’s needs such as social workers, therapists, attorneys, and court advocates. Other relationships are full of mixed emotions for foster parents and the children such as in the birth parents, siblings and grandparents. All of these relationships have their own importance and the foster parents play an integral role in maintaining those familial connections.
What happens in the foster care arrangement
Each foster placement has a unique situation of neglect or abuse. Since the initial and primary goal in foster care is a unification of the birth family, foster placements may be a short or long term. Birth parents are given support to improve their life circumstances that led to the foster placement and develop parenting skills with a goal to increase safety and provide an environment appropriate for child rearing. All parties: the foster care professionals, birth parents, children and foster parents, will all have differing views regarding that neglect or abuse. While the parents are rehabilitating in the necessitated manner, there are “family visits” or designated times when the children and birth parents spend time together. These visits can vary between a couple hours of supervised time to an overnight without supervision depending on the goal status and birth parent progress. The fact remains that foster parents are parenting the children a majority of the week. This can create a sense of loss for the birth parents. Children can have confusion due to multiple caregivers and differing rules.
William Worden’s writes about tasks of mourning in his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy that can be easily applied to children, birth families and foster parents. Worden’s tasks of grief include recognizing the loss actually occurred, experiencing intense emotions, developing a new relationship with whom has been lost and investing attention and energy into new relationships and activities. As foster parents and adoptive parents, we can recognize these tasks and help these children in ways that are appropriate for their situation.
My husband and I utilized a number of approaches to facilitate openness with each of our foster placements and found an abundance of benefits. The birth families were receptive and participated based on their level of comfort. Our intention remains to acknowledge loss that is within foster care, support children to cope with intense emotions, encourage shared knowledge regarding the children to improve relationships and identify ways to include the birth family in a healthy and safe manner.
Ideas to help facilitate healthy relationships
1. Read books with the children
Emotional education helps children develop trust with the foster family. They begin to learn how to manage the tough emotions of being in foster care. Normalize different feelings the children may experience throughout their days and weeks through books like My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss and How are you Peeling by S. Freymann and J. Elffers. Depending on the age of the child, further discussion can include when they may have felt an emotion or what can help. The Invisible String by P. Karst and G. Stevenson can help children cope with distance from family members. Zachary’s New Home: A Story for Foster and Adopted Children by G. Blomquist and P. Blomquist addresses issues of living in a new home with parents that are very different from the child. Maybe Days: A Book for Children in Foster Care by J. Wilgocki and M. Kahn Wright helps children explore the uncertainty of the future. Foster parents are encouraged to openly share they are also living the “Maybe Days” since foster families receive very minimal to no information about the birth family situation and progress.
2. Try to open lines of communication
Open communication meets three goals. First, notes about milestones, food preferences or dislikes, state of health of the child, any new information about interests or new activities help the birth parents care for and interact with the children. Second, the children may maintain healthy connections to their birth family more frequently through your inclusion of their family culture and history. Additionally, little tidbits of how the child may be similar to their parents can be shared if the foster family is able to learn about the birth family through asking safe questions such as the parents’ favorite type of music or music artist, color, food, family traditions, and children’s past behaviors. Keep in mind the unique aspects of past neglect or abuse, and avoid topics that may seem benign in nature that may actually trigger painful memories. Finally, the team approach reduces the allegiance issues with which foster children often struggle as they adjust to the foster family.
3. Send snacks and drinks
Each family has different financial situations and ability to plan. Suggested snack ideas are granola/cereal bars, goldfish, pretzels or other items that can be portable and/or saved for another day. The intention is for the child to know they are cared for at all times more so than if the food is used. The hope is the birth parents begin to take on this role. Though, foster parents may wish to continue to provide snacks due to variances in birth parent progress.
4. Exchange photos
Send pictures of activities and experiences of the children. The birth parents may like to have these images as time continues. If you think the birth parents are open, send a disposable camera for them to take pictures as a family and send the duplicates on the next visit. You can frame those pictures you receive to place in the children’s rooms or in a special place in your home.
5. Help children cope with stress
Each child will have their own needs in managing tough emotions. Learn how the children react to visits and observe any changes in behavior. If a child likes to kick or hit, try to set up after visit activities that allow for that type of releases such as karate or taekwondo. If a child is more withdrawn, create space for quiet activities such as crafts, reading or snuggling with a favorite stuffed animal or blanket as the child transitions while the foster parent remaining available for comfort.
6. Maintain a life book for each child
This is generally discussed in the foster parent training and extremely important for the foster child. This is part of their history while living in your family. These can be very simple books with some pictures of special events, people or milestones the child experienced. It is recommended that you keep a copy for your family history as well.
7. Help with placement or goal changes
If the child is changing homes, foster parents can be very helpful with that transition process. Sharing routine information, bed time preferences and even recipes for the child’s favorite foods or meals can help the next placement family or the birth family. If the goal has changed toward permanency through adoption, the adoptive parents have a number of options to consider regarding openness in maintaining the connection.
Nurturing relationships within foster care is a complex process. The loss is abundant for both foster children and birth families. Compassion and kindness on the part of the foster family can help minimize future losses that can compound through the duration of the placement. Use these suggestions as a launching pad for innovative ideas to support familial relationships that can be applied to unique situations. Expect to have different levels of cooperation from birth families. Your honest intention will have numerous benefits. Dedication to this process will hopefully help children develop a healthy worldview, sense of worth and personal identity.