Becoming a foster parent comes with many responsibilities. There are the obvious, of course — doctor appointments to get to, therapists to see, meetings with the caseworker, and the biggest of all…parenting a child.
One thing that can be overlooked is the co-parenting with the child’s birth parents. When you think of co-parenting, most people think of two birth parents who live separately but are parenting together. That in itself can be a difficult task. Now, imagine parenting a child that comes to you with little to no notice after being taken away from everyone and everything they know. They have been traumatized and have a suitcase full of emotional baggage to unpack and work through. All you want to do is protect them and make the pain go away. Then you’re expected to co-parent with complete strangers. It can very easily become a power struggle.
Birth parents can be fearful and angry. Their kids have been taken away and sent to live with strangers. They feel helpless. They feel powerless. These feelings can present with aggression and accusations.
As a foster parent, it would be very easy for me to judge. After all, the only thing I know about the parent is what they did. I could let that become who they are. I could take their anger and aggression personally. I could let it create a divide. Or I can try to understand. I can get to know them. I can learn the circumstances that led to their child being taken and help them overcome it. The best thing I can do is keep them involved.
Birth parents remaining as involved as possible is so important. Not just for the parent, but for the child, as well. Kids need to know that foster care is not us versus them, but rather, all of us for the child.
So how can you keep birth parents involved? Here are a few ways that have worked for us.
- Make it clear from the beginning that you are here to help them and not replace them. Show you respect their role in their child’s life and recognize they are still the parent.
- Send pictures. Not just of their kids, but of your home. Send pictures of their child’s room, the backyard or the playroom. If you’re comfortable, send a picture of your family. There is comfort in seeing that your child has a warm bed to sleep in and toys to play with.
- Ask them about their child. Maybe they have a special bedtime routine or song they sing. Maybe there is a book their child can’t fall asleep without reading. Ask them if there are certain hair or skin products that work for their child.
- Let them ask about you. Foster parents have every right to be curious about the person caring for their child. Who wouldn’t be? Letting them know that it is okay to ask you questions opens the door for a better relationship.
- Encourage them to attend appointments and school functions. Give them a chance to parent as much as possible by encouraging them to take the lead at appointments.
- Model positive parenting. If a parent isn’t interacting with their child in a waiting room, it may not be that they don’t want to. They truly may not know how. Suggest a game they could play or bring a book they can read together.
- Help celebrate holidays. It is not always possible for birth parents to spend holidays with their children while in care. Losing out on those special moments is devastating. One of my favorite things to do is send a Thanksgiving meal to a visit. It is a very simple gesture that allows traditions to be continued.
Being a foster parent is hard. Being a parent with a child in care is hard. The best thing we can do is work together for the good of the kids. In the end, the one thing we all have in common is that we love the same children and only want what is best for them. Put yourself out there. Get to know the parents.
– Sarah Kneser, foster parent