As a foster parent, I know people often look at a foster youth and think “those poor kids.” That thought, although maybe well-intentioned, breeds contempt for loved ones who are fighting things like poverty, trafficking, abuse, neglect, incarceration, generational trauma – the list goes on and on!
Families do not set out to put their child in foster care. They are simply in a situation that makes it untenable to maintain parenting safely and confidently. Sometimes that happens because a parent has passed or has an illness with no other family members to help care for the child. There are hundreds of situations in which a child enters care and shouldn’t always be thought of as “their parents must have done something terrible.” This is not always the case.
When we reframe the way we look at why a child has entered care, we can be better equipped to care for the youth. When a youth is in my home and their birth parent is struggling, I do not offer any words of judgment or criticism but words of encouragement and compassion. It is not my place as a foster parent to speak ill of the journey of their parents. It is important to consider the youth’s love and adoration for their parents regardless of the circumstances that may have unfolded. These moms and dads will always be just that: MOM AND DAD.
Ideas on How To Walk Alongside Birth Families
Navigating a healthy relationship between yourself, the youth in your care, and the youth’s birth family can be tough. Here are some examples of how to walk alongside birth families and offer trauma-informed guidance:
- If the child is an infant, offer the opportunity to read stories or sing to the baby, even if over video or phone. A parent’s voice is vital to the child's development and eventual reunification.
- Ask the family about receiving personal items such as a t-shirt or blanket so the child has the familiar smells of their family to comfort them.
- Never speak ill of birth families. Your personal feelings can hinder the reunification process. Your most important role as a foster parent is to heal, and healing starts with kindness and understanding.
- Work to understand that birth families are like everyone else, trying to find their place in the world while working through obstacles that come their way. When you speak with birth families, be encouraging, be thoughtful of their culture, and understand that they also need to be listened to. Ask for their feedback on appropriate hair care, cultural activities in the area, inclusion in events that are important to their families, and requests for specific diet and food preferences. Doing this helps to include the parent in a vital way that helps the parent feel involved – even if from a distance.
- Include birth families in holidays, birthdays, sporting events, school plays, etc., if it is safe to do so. They are working hard to earn back the trust of their children, and this will go a long way.
- Keep records in a keepsake box. Save all the child’s art, pictures, projects, school progress reports, and anything else that they complete while in foster care. If they have a clothing item they absolutely love and wear several days a week, keep it, and write about how the child loved it once they outgrow the item. This gives the family a chance to feel engaged and relive some moments.
Although we care very much for the youth who come to our homes, our goal is always to build the family up and bring them back together! There is no better feeling than seeing the excitement in a youth who is returning to their loved ones. There will be heartache and tears but pat yourself on the back – a family has overcome, and you were the glue that held it together along the way.
I will never regret walking alongside a birth family. Although not every situation will go the way you want or hope, it will always be worth trying. The effort will be seen and appreciated. Keep fighting for reunification – it’s not just for the child, it’s for an entire family. I will be fighting right beside you.
This blog article was contributed by Christina Santini, Office Coordinator at Nexus-PATH 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 outpatient/community mental health services, foster 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. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org