Foster Care Awareness Month Part 2: Caring for Biological Families and Emotions

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This is a continuation of a three-part series answering common questions about foster care. Check out Part 1 and Part 3.

How do you care for biological families that aren’t working to be healthy?

We do foster care because we want to help children coming out of hard situations, but a huge part of helping them is caring for their parents too. In foster care training, social workers call this “bridging the gap.” Bridging the gap means building a trusting relationship with the biological parents or extended family.

Things to keep in mind

There may be not be many situations where we will feel totally comfortable with the child’s parents or the idea of reunification. Their children were separated from them for a reason and good social workers don’t take their jobs lightly. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want them to succeed.

Parents have to jump through so many hoops to get their children back and typically they are doing this with very little support. As foster parents, your judgment shouldn’t be on the list of obstacles parents need to overcome to get their kids back. So we must be honest about and vigilant in battling our own possessiveness, fear, prejudice, and jealousy when it comes to our kids’ parents.

When biological parents aren’t working towards health, it’s likely because they don’t know better, they don’t know how, or they don’t have the support to succeed. Learn as much of their stories as you can and view them with compassion. Many of them are caught in cycles of poverty, mental illness, foster care, addiction, abuse, and neglect.

I want to never forget that I am NOT exempt from the challenges faced by the birth family that led to the removal of a child/children.
-Lindy Johnson

When you think about where they came from and the trauma they’ve experienced, it’s easier to hope that, maybe with a little more support and kindness, things could be so much different for them. As foster parents, we have a window into the brokenness around us and an opportunity to do something about it.

So, if there’s an opening, step in to help these families succeed. If reunification happens, do everything you can to stay involved. 

An important thing to note is that, because of trauma, you can literally do everything right, and the parents just might not be in a place where they can receive it. How you interact with them is still important and how you speak of them to their child is ALWAYS important.

Depending on their receptivity, you should try to find creative ways to communicate with and support the biological parents.

How do you care for your emotions when saying goodbye to a child you’ve loved and cared for?

There are many different types of goodbyes. Some goodbyes are harder than others. You will connect differently with each child and that is okay. Some goodbyes are forever, some are “see you later,” and some are more like, “I’ll be in touch with your parents and maybe when you’re 18 we can reconnect.”

Accept that you are not at all in control. Foster parents have the hardest part of this gig, with absolutely zero authority to make any decisions. We can advocate, educate, plead, and befriend everyone involved, but it’s simply not our call where the child ends up.
Bridge the gap as much as possible with the forever family (biological or adoptive). If you can show them that you are for them and for the child by your words and actions, you will have a greater chance of staying in the child’s life. Research shows that it is better for the child to sustain healthy attachments because they need to know that people don’t just disappear. But this is hard. It’s hard for the child and it’s especially hard for foster parents.

Allow yourself to grieve. As I’m writing this, I’m holding back tears from the loss of our foster daughter last year. I’ve said goodbye to others before and since, but that goodbye felt different. I honestly felt like my daughter was taken from me. As much as I love her family and trust that she is in a wonderful adoptive home, the sting of it has still not gone away many months later. I’ve had to be patient with myself, give myself time to just be sad, to be numb, to think about the memories, and to simply trust, depending on my emotional state on any given day. And I must always, ALWAYS remember that she is worth the HEARTBREAK and that I would do it all again without hesitation.

child holding hands with parents

How do you care for your forever children’s emotions in the process?

“Often times as parents we want to help people as long as it doesn’t impact our own children. But maybe we should be doing the opposite. Helping people so boldly, so radically that it PROFOUNDLY impacts our children. It opens their eyes and hearts to what matters most. Loving people.”
– Elle Flowers

I want to start answering this question by saying this: I understand the concern here and it is a big reason our family is taking a break from fostering at the moment. While it is a LOT of emotion, my kids LOVE fostering. Within five minutes of dropping off our foster daughter back at her mom’s, my son lovingly and excitedly asked when we would be able to foster again. We had to make the hard call for our family to take a break and they don’t quite understand why. But our kid’s mental wellbeing is always considered before we take a placement.

A few tips for including your kids

Make sure they are part of the process. When you get a call, go talk to them in an age-appropriate way. Ask them how they feel about welcoming another child into their home. Be upfront about some of the challenges that might occur. For instance, mom won’t be as available; sharing toys; “on-the-go” more often; the child might be used to different rules and food. Get them comfortable talking to you about these things before the child comes, so that when issues do happen, they will feel safe confiding in you about them.

Regularly check in with your children. Carve out space to see how they are doing with adjusting to another member of the family. Also make sure you have some scheduled one-on-one time with each of your children, just for the sake of quality time.

Books are a beautiful way to talk about big topics in a safe way with kids. Here are two of my recommendations.

Talk to them about brain science (age appropriately). This will help them understand any difficult behaviors that a child in foster care is having and it will also help them understand how to handle any of their own big feelings. It gives them language to talk about what’s happening so they don’t have to feel embarrassed if they’re struggling.

Encourage them regularly and remind them of the “why” often. If you see them helping their foster sibling, thank them and encourage them. Tell them how much they are making a difference and how helpful they are being to your family’s mission. If you see them handle their big emotions with self-control and honesty, tell them how proud you are of them. When they don’t, tell them how hard this is and validate their feelings.

Part 3:When you can’t foster, but want to help.

Resources

Tips for Supporting Reunification

Brain Science & Trauma Resources:

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