Foster care was created as a temporary arrangement. It does not meet a child’s or family’s need for permanency. Foster parents have a very important job that can be rewarding and challenging. When a child welfare agency removes a child from his or her biological family, the agency assumes legal responsibility for the child’s care. Foster parents provide the child’s everyday care. Biological parents retain their parental rights unless/until the court determines the child will be unable to return home safely. Generally, the agency, the foster parents, and the biological parents become partners in addressing the needs of the child in foster care.
In most cases, your job as a foster parent is meant to be temporary. You are often faced with developing a relationship with the child while also helping the child maintain a relationship with his or her biological family, or preparing the child for an adoptive family.
If the plan is for reunification, part of your job is to help the child and parent maintain an attachment with each other.
You should not expect the children in your care to deny the attachment they have to their biological family. The child cannot “shut off” the attachment while he/she is with you and turn it back on when he/she returns to his or her family. However, the child cannot maintain a “virtual attachment” with his or her family. Children in foster care need contact with their family in order to nurture the attachment.
At the same time, parents cannot become better parents without opportunities to parent their children. When children and families are separated, they miss the opportunity to adjust to each other as they grow and change. The relationship is like a muscle that will begin to weaken if it is not exercised.
Helping the parent and child to maintain a connection:
- Shows the biological family you are committed to helping the family reunify;
- Helps the biological family to feel supported and less threatened by the child’s relationship with you;
- Helps children know you support their relationship with their parents;
- Helps children know they do not have to choose between you and their parents.
When children in foster care are unable to return to their biological family, the agency looks for a family to adopt the child. In many cases, a child’s foster family will adopt the child. If not, the agency works with another family for the purpose of adoption.
If the child in your care will be moving on to an adoptive placement with another family, there are some things you can do to help the child and the adoptive family:
- Ask the child’s social worker what you can do to help with the transition.
- Talk to the child about what is going on. The social worker should do this first, but children need to have this conversation many times with the important people in their lives. Explain the difference between foster care and adoption. Encourage the child to ask questions.
- Give the child a picture of you and your family to keep.
- Keep a picture of the child and let the child know you will always remember him or her.
- Explain to the child in language he or she can understand why you cannot or will not adopt him or her.
- Let the child know it is okay to live with and love his or her new adoptive family.
- Share information with the adoptive family such as: the child’s likes, dislikes, progress in school, and behavior, and the names and numbers of important people in the child’s life so the child can stay connected with those people.
When children enter foster care, they bring their biological families with them mentally and emotionally. They may feel as though they suddenly have two sets of parents. Sometimes they feel pulled between the two families because of their attachments to both.
Children can come to understand that they do not have to choose between their biological family and your family if you let them know this is okay and if you show respect, concern, and understanding toward the biological family.
When a child joins your family for foster care address their immediate needs, listen rather than talk at first, and accept the child’s feelings. If you help the child express his or her feelings, you will help the child feel better and help him or her form an attachment with you.
Some children will not want to talk and you can be supportive without insisting that the child talks. Just let them know it is okay to miss their family, their feelings are understandable and you are there to support them.
Children and youth in foster care want information. They want information about why they were removed from the home, what is going on with their family now, and what is going to happen to them and to their siblings. They want to be consulted about the process and about visits with their biological parents. They also want information about the court process. They want to know what to expect when going to court. You can discuss with the child’s social worker and/or attorney whether or not the child or youth should attend court hearings. If the youth is not able to attend, help the youth get information about what happened in the hearing.
You might feel you are protecting a child from hurt feelings, disappointment, or confusion by not sharing information with them. But, children will try to fill in the gaps of information on their own. Be honest with the children in your care. Of course, you will need to gear the information you share with them to their developmental level.
Researchers asked youth in foster care what advice they would give to foster parents. Here’s what they said:
- Foster parents should know something about the child’s history and why he/she came into foster care.
- Foster parents should find out about the child’s personality, what the child likes and doesn’t like, what hurts the child’s feelings, and how to help the child.
- Foster parents should know how to take care of children.
- Foster parents should know the “rules” of being a foster parent.
Families who need foster care have reached a crisis. Families who are in crisis need support to strengthen their family. Whenever possible, your job is not to rescue a child from his or her family, but to help strengthen the family.
Sometimes the best way to help a child is to help his or her parents. It can be hard to have positive feelings about your foster child’s parents if you know the child has been abused or neglected by them. Try to remember that the parent may not have known a better way of dealing with their child or may have had a mental health or substance abuse problem. That doesn’t mean the abuse or neglect is acceptable. But, most of the parents you will encounter have been doing the best they knew how to do.
Be aware of your feelings about the biological parents. Be very honest with yourself. If you are thinking negative things about the parents, do not express such thoughts to the child. If you can, find out the family’s story. Everyone has a story. Then try to imagine yourself in their place.
When children see that you and their biological parent(s) are communicating and sharing the responsibility for their care, children will have an easier time seeing that their biological family is still their family.
Here are some things you can do:
- Treat the parents respectfully.
- Support the parents’ efforts to parent.
- Keep the biological parents up to date on what the child has been doing. If it is advisable within the case plan, give them a call or send a brief note in the mail once a week. You may also communicate through the child’s social worker or attorney.
- If you need to give the biological parent instructions or address a concern do so out of the child’s presence.
- Consult the biological parent about some of the decisions about the child. Ask the parent’s opinion whenever possible.
- Remember that the child will always have a biological family (whether they have contact with the family or not), and that the biological family will always be important.
- If the child does not have a picture of the biological family, help the child get one. During one of their visits, you might take two pictures or ask the social worker to do so – one for the child, and one for the family to keep.
- Don’t overreact to criticism by the parent. Sometimes seeing a foster parent do the job that a biological parent would like to be doing leads a parent to feel defensive or resentful. When a parent does not know how to address those feelings, he or she might react by criticizing you.
- Some children will return to an environment that offers less material benefits than were provided in the foster home. You can help by letting the child know that it is a fact that certain people live differently, but that his or her home condition does not have anything to do with his or her worth as a person.
Honor the bonds the children in your care have with their biological family. Many children want to continue to have contact with their parents, and nearly all want to have contact with their siblings.
Often, children who are in foster care imagine that someone has hurt their parents. Or, they might think their parents do not know where they are and therefore, will never return home. To calm their worries, a visit should occur soon after placement. Generally, contacts with parents should not be used as a threat or reward for the child’s behavior or for the parent’s behavior.
Foster parents sometimes worry about the children in their care having visits with their biological families. Some worry that if the visit goes well, the child will experience greater distress from being away from their parent(s). Some worry about the disappointment a child might have if the parent does not show up for a visit or forgets to call. It might seem easier to prevent this disappointment by not planning the visits or by not telling the child a visit is planned.
But trying to protect the child in this way does not help the child or the parents in the long run. When children and their parents are protected from these feelings, it teaches them not to be sensitive to each other and adds to the breakdown in their relationship. Children who do not experience the unreliability of a parent do not have the opportunity to demand accountability from their parent. A parent who does not have to face their child’s demands does not have the opportunity to become more responsible toward their child. At the same time, we do not want to subject a child to recurrent abuse or neglect as a result of the visitation plan. The best interests of the child must always be foremost. Whenever concerns arise regarding visits, a foster parent should contact the child’s social worker and/or attorney.
Policies and court decisions are based on the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. The purpose of the law is to expedite permanency for children and youth. The courts and the agency have to decide if it would be in the child’s best interest to return home or to be adopted.
The law says:
- The court must have a permanency hearing within 12 months after the child enters foster care.
- The court is required to file a petition to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months or if the child is an abandoned infant.
- You, as a foster parent, have the right to be notified and heard in hearings and reviews that involve a child in your care.