This post is Tip #5 from 10 Foster Care Tips on Effective Fostering.
Foster care offers opportunities to work with many different individuals. Of the many, two of the most important relationships for foster parents are the county social workers and the biological parents. They hold great influence and power to impact a foster child’s life in significant ways. It is important to build a strong relationship with them based on trust and mutual respect. When the adults can work together effectively, then the child has a better chance at succeeding.
Here are 6 practical steps to building a strong relationship with the social worker and the biological parents. With each tip, I provide suggestions on how you can practice these tips. I have tried out each of the suggestions and found them to be useful in building a relationship.
1. Begin with the end in mind.
Your goal as a foster parent is reunification. Stay with me here. I can already hear the question, “Is reunification always the best thing for the child. etc.” There are situations when reunification is not the best for the child, and foster parents can let the court know. (Read about how you can advocate on behalf of your foster child here.) But, it is important to remember that the overall goal of foster care is reunification.
As we become more attached to our foster child and she to us, this end goal can be so heart-breaking. I have shared lots of tears as we have had to say good-bye. But, our goal is not us. We have chosen to foster so that we can serve the children. We love them as if they are own, for their success. But we hold this love with a tension in our hearts knowing that the kids we have come to love are not ours. If we can begin with the end in mind, then, we can love unconditionally without resentment and regret.
Suggestion: Begin your foster placement thinking about what can I do to genuinely help the child and the parent(s) to reach reunification, if possible.
2. Begin with the attitude that the social workers and the bio parents are not your foes.
The attitude with which we walk into a room and situations can greatly affect the outcome. If we walk into our relationship with the biological family and with the social worker with an openness, then they will sense our genuine desire to work together with them.
Don’t be surprised if initially, if they don’t seem that interested in working with you. It is normal. You are a stranger to them and they don’t know or trust you. Be proactive in showing them that you are for them and for the child. If you can be open, you will find a way to win them over to you for the benefit of the child. The more positive your relationship is with these important people in the child’s life, the more positive impact you can have on your foster child’s life.
Suggestion: When you feel like they are your foes, ask yourself, have I done something to make them feel like I am their foe? Maybe yes and maybe no. Then ask yourself is there something I can fix? Determine whether it is something within your sphere of influence to do something about it. If yes, then come up with a plan as to how you’re going to address this issue. If not, let go. Choose to give them the benefit of doubt or talk to another foster parent or a friend who might be a good sounding board for you.
3. Help your social worker feel connected to you and to your foster child.
There is a saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Remember that the social workers are responsible for not only your foster child but many others. So, be proactive about connecting with the social workers personally and to let your foster child stand out amongst many that they are responsible for.
Suggestion: Send text messages and emails that share good reports, not only bad reports. Surprise them by sending a photo of the child and positive stories that brighten up their day. You want them to know that the child is safe, thriving, and doing well. This is what they want for the child under their care. So be proactive about sharing the good.
4. Be proactive in helping the biological parents connect with their child.
Building relationship with the bio parents can feel tricky at times. The reality that there is a child in your home because of the parents’ neglect and/or abuse of the child can make your stomach turn. But, we all know that parents are not perfect and that we all can use some help from time to time. Many of the bio parents genuinely love their children but lack the life skills and the resources to be the parents that their child needs. We, as foster parents can come alongside them and give them the encouragement that they need to keep moving forward.
Remember that they have a lot that they are juggling: fulfilling court-mandated classes, possibly job and apartment searching, and perhaps juggling schedule with other foster families if the siblings have been placed in different homes. They are under a lot of stress. (There are those who have been in the system for a long time and have become used to having others take care of their children. The social workers are aware and you can address any concerns directly with the social workers.)
One of the biggest ways you can help the bio parents and your foster child is to be proactive in looking for ways to help them connect with each other.
Suggestions: Keep a journal for the bio parent and write out out some significant milestones. Invite them to a meal at a restaurant of their choice to help them connect. Bring art supplies or playdough for them to make and play together during visitations. I have brought board games, sports equipment, books, and legos that they can use during their visitation.
Many of them are not used to “playing” with their children. It introduces many of the parents to the concept of playing with their kids. Furthermore, it helps them to experience together some of the activities that the child has discovered while living with us. They are able to create new memories together in a safe environment. If you monitor the visits, use it wisely and set up the parents and the child for a meaningful time.
5. Be honest about your expectations and how they can partner with you.
In the equation of foster care system, foster parents carry very little (almost no) legal authority. But it doesn’t mean we are powerless. We have great power to influence for good. It begins by being clear about expectations.
For example, making sure that our foster kids have regular visitations with their biological parents is a high priority. Why? It is an opportunity for the bio parents and their child to keep the bond and to remember that they belong together.
I have had biological parents show up late. Once in a while is something that I can work with if I’m able, but if they are chronically late, I make sure that the social worker knows about it. Why? Because it is unfair to the child. Except for one foster child who did not want to see his parents, all of ours looked forward to reconnecting with their mom or dad.
From the beginning, one of the things I communicate clearly is that if they are late, I am unable to extend their time. However, I emphasize again how valuable this time of visitation is for the child and that it is a great disappointment when their time is cut short. Sometimes the barriers are greater for the bio parents to get to a location on time, but they are not insurmountable. The time and location are always something we agree on together so I expect that they would live up to their agreement as well. However, I also open up the discussion about what the barriers might be in getting to the visitation on time to see if changes need to be made. Relationships deteriorate when there is disappointment or frustration due to lack of communication and clarity of expectation.
Suggestion: Ask yourself have I communicated clearly with the social worker and bio parents about my expectations? Do you feel like you know what their expectations are of you? If you feel frustrated, it might be a sign that a conversation is overdue.
6. Pray for them and for yourself.
We pray for our foster child’s parents. Why? Because we know that the challenges that they are facing are great. But, more than anything, we know that only through Jesus can they be transformed from inside out and made into a new person. Our foster children need parents who are on the path to wholeness. So, we pray without quitting.
We pray for the social workers. Why? Because their work is heart work. Yet too many experience burnouts and it becomes just hard work. They need wisdom and courage to do what is in the best interest of the child. Everyone benefits from social workers who care deeply and yet are tough.
As Christian foster parents, we need prayer to see this fostering thing through. It is not an easy peasy act of love. It needs divine power flowing in and through us.
For more on fostering tips, go to 10 fostering tips for effective fostering.