Critical Connection: How Resource Families Support Reunification for Very Young Children

By Janie Huddleston and Jaclyn Szrom

The ominous knock on the door from Child Protective Services in Des Moines, Iowa, triggered a bout of incredible anguish from the mom, holding her newborn baby close, as the removal she was expecting had come.

That scene is repeated every six seconds, every day in America as young children, frequently younger than 3 years old, are taken into foster care, creating a ripple effect of stress and strain on family life.

But all the science tells us that the healthy development of infants and toddlers depends on the consistent, loving adults who encircle them. Parents want the best for their children and try to create a stable setting for children’s healthy development but can’t always do it without support from extended family, friends, neighbors or their community.

Not every family has those community resources and supports, potentially resulting in a lack of financial or housing stability, or health insurance. Others live with a family history of abuse or neglect, marital conflict, substance use, domestic or community violence, unemployment or homelessness that, without available supports to reduce financial pressures on families and increase their capacity for supportive relationships, greatly magnify the normal stresses of raising children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau 2021/2022 Prevention Resource Guide.

Like that family in Des Moines, children will be temporarily removed from their home and brought into the child welfare system and foster care while the family can receive the interventions and tools needed to strengthen them and mitigate the effects of trauma and other conditions in which they have lived.
That’s where resource families from outside the child’s home come in: foster parents, foster-to-adopt families and kinship caregivers, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. These resource families are critical partners in caring for children toward the goal of reunification, according to the Children’s Bureau’s Children Welfare Information Gateway site on Recruiting and Retaining Resource Families.

Ideally, resource families can establish safe, stable and nurturing relationships with infants and toddlers in their care; build collaborative co-parenting relationships with the birth parents; ensure the child has frequent quality family time with parents and siblings either virtually or in-person; prepare for family visits that may take place in their home or another safe space.

In addition to providing a safe and nourishing environment for the infant, this dedicated team can equip all the adults in the child’s life with the tools they need to work toward a common goal of responding to the developmental needs of infants and toddlers, and both the complex needs and underlying strengths of their parents. When this team supports all caregivers in working toward a common goal, extraordinary outcomes can occur.

This dedicated team — which in many places implement the Safe Babies Court Team™ (SBCT) approach and apply cross-sector teamwork — includes lawyers for all parties, judges, parents and counselors. These people all play a critical role in strengthening and keeping families together — for the good of the infant. But the key players in the process of knitting families back together are resource families.

Tamara Keech, a former court-appointed special advocate supervisor and foster parent in Little Rock, Arkansas, said children “need to know there’s somebody safe they can go to, and that they’re not going to judge them, and they’re going to love them where they’re at … and the birth parents as well … they need someone that is going to walk down to the bottom and gradually hold their hand and go up those stairs with them.”

There are steps to support the baby’s parents while the baby is in your care:

• Be a stable, responsive caregiver who builds trust with the child by promptly meeting the child’s needs.
• Watch for the child’s non-verbal cues like gestures, facial expression and body movement.
• Notice which sensations irritate or overwhelm the child.
• Notice preferred sensations that calm the child.
• Establish predictable caregiving routines to help the child feel secure (mealtime, playtime, bedtime, etc.).
• Support the parent-child relationship during and between visits to promote a healthy emotional bond with parents even while separated.
• Keep all lines of communication open and provide updates when possible: Exchange written messages with family to discuss the child and send pictures and videos to the parent(s).
• Develop shared routines and experiences to meet the child’s needs, attending medical visits, therapies and other events with the child’s parent(s).
• Offer parents positive comments.
• Help the child maintain a close connection to parent(s) between visits.

A resource family can be the champion who helps make parents feel close to and connected with their baby or toddler, even if they cannot be physically together. It is a simple but powerful strategy for building the safe, stable and nurturing early relationships that infants and toddlers need.

One way to do this is together. The resource parents and parents can determine a convenient time of day the parent can routinely call the caregiver in order to read a book to the baby over the phone. The caregiver can turn the pages while the parent reads the book over speaker phone or FaceTime. The resource parent and parent can go beyond the words in the book, with the caregiver pointing to the picture as the parent is describing or asking them to find it. This connection can be enhanced by giving the caregiver a shirt or blanket with the parent’s scent on it to hold or wrap around the child while reading.

One particular family went the extra mile, in the interest of the baby they were fostering and the mom to whom they also lent support.

Foster parents Martha and Hal Jessup met baby Adriane in the hospital and brought her to their home after she tested positive for cocaine. Her young mother, Holly, agreed to enter a treatment program, but could not take Adriane with her.

The Jessups brought Adriane with them to the first court hearing toward reunification and as the parties to the case assembled in the courtroom, Martha put Holly’s baby in her arms while they waited for the judge.

While Holly gently touched her baby’s cheek and made responsive sounds to Adriane’s coos, Martha told her about the baby’s daily routine, sent pictures to Holly holding her daughter and to keep the mother/daughter connection burning brightly, promised Holly that she would send her at least one picture of Adriane every day.

Back in Iowa, that foster family nurtured the baby and provided support for the young mother. They became mentors and parenting models. While that is unusual in the foster care world, it’s not only possible to replicate, but ideal so the baby grows up loved, safe and stable. •

Janie Huddleston is the director of the National Infant-Toddler Court Program at ZERO TO THREE. She brings 30 years of experience to her work implementing the Safe Babies Court Team approach throughout the country, supporting effective, collaborative court team interventions to transform the child welfare system. Jaclyn Szrom is a senior federal policy analyst at ZERO TO THREE. She provides research-based expertise on behalf of the Infant-Toddler Court Program to engage policymakers on infant and toddler development and support public policies that reflect best practices in the child welfare system.

Fostering Families Today magazine is the most comprehensive foster care, adoption and kinship care magazine offering resources, expert opinions, practical advice and information on the latest evidence-based best practices for supporting children and youth who come from traumatic backgrounds. Subscribe to our foster parent magazine today or contact us about agency group rates.

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