When I recently dropped my foster kids off for their visit with their birth parents, my toddler was excited. He had a new doll he wanted to show his mother and father.
When his parents arrived, he ran to them and proudly showed them his new toy. His dad picked him up and showered him with hugs and kisses. The little guy kissed his dad back and then reached for me, saying “Mommy kiss!”
I paused, uncertain how his father might handle the situation. But his dad walked right over to me and said, “Of course you can give Mommy kisses, too,” and held his son as he planted slobbery kisses on my cheek.
This is what foster care should look like.
The little boy has no hesitation in showing love for his parents in front of me, but also no concerns in showing his love for me in front of them.
He loves all of his parents and expresses it with typical toddler abandon. But can this situation be hard for the adults? Absolutely!
This boy has been in my home 100 days now. I have tucked him into bed and kissed him goodnight 100 times. For 100 days this precious little boy has called me “Mommy” and I will admit that my heart aches a little watching him run from me to his first mommy and throw himself into her arms.
And although she has never said it, I am sure that it must be unbearably hard for her to watch her son kiss me and call me “Mommy,” too. After all, she gave birth to him and raised him for two years.
I cannot imagine what it does to her to watch her son love another mother.
Nevertheless, we are all making the situation work, loving this little boy together and allowing him to love us all, too. For his sake—and for the sake of his infant sister—we are all putting our own hearts aside and focusing on what is best for the kids.
My husband and I have been fostering or parenting children adopted from foster care for 13 years. Twelve children have called us Mom and Dad, seven little foster loves who were ours for a season before going home or moving on to another family member, one “home-grown” daughter, two sons adopted from foster care and our current two babies, who are our ‘for-now’ son and daughter.
Our experience over the years has taught us a few things about building positive relationships with birth families.
Why does it matter?
In Pennsylvania, the average time a child spends in foster care is 20 months. So you are probably going to be seeing your foster child’s parents for a long time. If the case transitions to adoption, you may well be connected to these people for many years to come.
I am not saying building a positive relationship is an easy thing to do. Depending on what led to the child’s being placed in foster care, it can be really hard to smile and be friendly to your child’s birth parents.
But foster parenting is all about doing hard things, and it is really important to build the best relationship you can. The first meeting with birth parents, in fact, can set the tone for the relationship, so I think it is very important to make a good first impression.
Occasionally, however, I will hear a fellow foster parent question whether it’s important to have a good relationship with your child’s birth parents. I believe it’s vital—for the following reasons:
• Your foster child’s parents, no matter what their mistakes, are people worthy of respect, kindness and grace. I think every human is worthy of this.
• Your child loves them. I have had foster parents argue this point, saying essentially that “this is the person who neglected/hurt/hit/left/and so on the child; how could they love him or her?” Years of fostering has made me understand that, no matter parents’ mistakes, your foster child loves his or her birth parents. Children will notice how you treat these people they love.
• If your foster child is reunified with his or her family and you have had a good relationship with the birth parents, you may well get updates on how the child is doing. I think one of the hardest parts of foster care involves loving a child who leaves your home and then never hearing how the child is doing. If you can build a good rapport, the child’s parents may send you updates; it always helps me to know the kids I have loved are doing well now that they are back home.
• Although we know reunification does not happen in every case—in fact, about 25% of foster-care cases end in adoption of the child, often by the foster parents—the goal of foster care is nevertheless reunification with the birth family. So keeping all relationships positive is ultimately in the best interests of everyone, especially the child.
(And, in those instances the case moves toward termination of parental rights, birth parents may be given the option of signing for termination voluntary. Some have when they know their child is with foster parents who love them, take good care of them and are willing to adopt. If your child’s birth parents perceive you as rude to them, mean or dismissive, they are not nearly as likely to agree to a plan in which you will raise this child you love.)
Now that we have established why it is so important to build good relationships with birth parents, let’s discuss how exactly you do that!
—Eleanor Delewski, Diakon Adoption & Foster Care parent
Continued in part 2, For foster families: Building positive relationships with birth families (to be published in two weeks)