fbpx Family (Dys)Function: Navigating Family Dynamics in Foster and Adoptive Care
Authored by Nexus Family Healing on May 2, 2024

Same mom, different dads. Same parents. Two kids in your home with no relation whatsoever. No biological family contact. Biological family contact that is court ordered. Court ordered contact with one parent, but not the other; one grandparent, but not the other; two siblings, but not the third. 

In the world of foster care, you will encounter more family dynamics than you even knew existed. This isn’t always because these families are broken, sometimes we distance ourselves from family members who have emotionally or otherwise harmed us. Once a youth is in foster care, each family relationship is dissected for its positive or negative contribution to the child. And sometimes those family members have done unbelievable damage to a child. Now there’s a court order or social worker suggestion for maintaining or severing relationships.

This is enough when you have one child in your home, but you may end up with multiple kids at one time from entirely different families. How do you navigate all of this? How do you help them understand why another foster sibling gets to see family, but they don’t? How do you honor the love they still have for family members, even those family members who have hurt them?

No Biological Family Contact

Please do not pretend their biological family does not exist. I don’t think we do this maliciously as foster parents, but when we try to tiptoe around triggers or help them forget the terrible things that have happened, we may inadvertently neglect to talk to them about their families altogether. No matter the age, the kids are thinking of their bio-families, sometimes constantly. If a parent was on drugs, they are worrying if they’re okay or still alive. If siblings got separated, they’re missing their siblings who were with them through it all until now. Whether they come from a safe family or not, they love them. It may surprise us just how much they love and miss someone who abused or neglected them. Let them feel it and honor those feelings with them. There is a place for both/and. They can love their parents and start believing they deserve something better than abuse or neglect. We can love their parents and hope for their healing because that is in the best interest of the children in our care (even if our children are in a closed adoption).

I have helped my kids color pictures, gather photos they like of themselves that they’d want to share if mom or dad get well, write letters, and even gather comfort objects that remind them of the good parts of being with bio-parents. I double down on this for sibling contact, and I’ve also sought sibling contact with all safe siblings.

Yes, we consider the triggers. For example, I learned the Milano cookies reminded my daughter of good times with her bio-mama. Sometimes we would get them for movie night, and we would talk about those good times. But then I would notice one to three days of very triggered and backsliding behavior. The cookies didn’t just remind her of the good, they also brought back some bad. So, I suggested we try a different “memory snack” instead, and we found Vitamin Water brought back good memories, and, for whatever reason, didn’t trigger her. It takes some trial and error. You may also ask your child’s therapist to help you navigate this and see when your child is ready to talk, color, write a letter, and so on.

Court Ordered Visits

If possible and safe, be the one to drive your kiddo to court ordered visits with biological family. The sense of safety and stability you bring cannot be overstated. Ask the county or your agency to help with transportation costs, if necessary.

However, sometimes it is not safe or practical for you to bring them to visits, and the county will provide transportation. Just be sure to have a transition into and out of the visit! For example, I would welcome them back with an activity like a movie, popcorn, and coloring books (kids can often be fidgety after a visit) or we would grab a snack and then go to the park. For teens, it can be as simple as going somewhere they love to eat after a visit and then doing movie night with an uplifting or funny movie. With our current foster daughter, we make a long transition where her dad and I meet at a fast food place that my foster daughter likes, and we all eat and hang around for a while until she gives the signal she’s ready to go. He is a safe person and a great dad, so this is a rare but beautiful example of how we can all work together to make it easier on the child.

Even if you are faking it, be excited for them to have their visit. Be excited on their way into the visit and when they come back from the visit. Show them you care about their family, that you are happy for them to have contact. BUT do document it if things sounded like they went wrong or if bad behaviors escalate after visits. Listen and watch with an open mind and heart.

Limited Contact with Select Family Members

When there is limited contact with certain family members, follow the court order. Answer the kid’s questions as honestly as you can, in an age-appropriate manner. We have used words and phrases like “safe,” “not safe right now,” or “getting help to be better and safe.” For example, “Big sister is safe to herself and to you, so you get to see her! Mom is working on getting safe for herself and for you, and she has lots of people helping her. They will let us know when it’s time.”

Again, involve the children’s therapists in this, and you may follow some suggestions from above about making an album, coloring pictures, writing letters, etc. 

Placements with Different Family Scenarios and Court Orders

Perhaps one of the hardest things is when one of your foster/adoptive youth gets to see bio-family, but another does not. We have this scenario in our home, and it’s hard not to feel heartbroken for my son. It’s easy to think that our kids can’t or shouldn’t have to handle these big conversations, but I would rather them know the truth because they’re often thinking the worst. My son knows the others get to see family because the court has allowed it and that family is making safe choices.

He knows that the choices of his biological family members would not keep him mentally, emotionally, or physically safe – and that is NOT his fault. 

Do your best to be attentive to the child who doesn’t see their family while the others get to have their visits. A lot of times, just some one-on-one time is enough, even with the teens. I let therapists know ahead of time so they can process this in therapy, and I ask the therapist what I can do to help ease worries or hurt.

The biggest thing with multiple children with differing court orders or biological family relationships is to keep it open and honest. It’s fair to kids to know the truth, whatever part of the truth they can absorb at their age/developmental level. No one likes being lied to, and kids in care have often been lied to a lot. This damages trust.

I openly admit I’ve approached these things imperfectly in the past, especially when visits were given to parents who had committed terrible abuse in the past. If my heart is perpetually set on family healing, then I need to hope and pray for my kids to have parents and family who heal and grow. Of course, don’t stop advocating for the safety and well-being of youth, but we need to also remember that our kids will always have a place of love for their families, so we must do our best to honor their hearts. It will look different depending on the safety of family members, but honor and respect for the sanctity of first families is always the right move.

You’re doing a great job. I hope you know that. This isn’t easy, navigating family dynamics and caring for hurting kids. Keep loving and growing, and your kids will see that and follow in your footsteps, and they will be blessed for it.

This blog article was contributed by Cherie Johnson, Foster and Adoptive Parent at Nexus-Kindred Family Healing.

Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for community mental health servicesfoster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 50 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Access more resources at nexusfamilyhealing.org/resources.