By Laura Hutton
Foster parent training provides a lot of information regarding how to work effectively with children in foster care but it usually includes little information about how to work effectively with their parents. Many foster parents view working with parents as the caseworker’s job and avoid it altogether.
However, a 2017 bulletin from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families entitled “Supporting Successful Reunifications” states that, “When foster parents support or mentor birth parents, they can enhance the ability of birth parents to stay informed about their children’s development while they are in out-of-home care, improve parenting skills, increase placement stability, and lead to more timely reunifications.”
Foster parents may be fearful of interacting with parents of the children placed in their homes. They may worry that the parents will kidnap their children, abuse them during visits, or even physically attack the foster parents. While extreme incidents like these may sometimes occur, they are exceedingly rare. Neither I, nor any foster parent I know, has ever had a situation more serious during a visit than a parent showing up under the influence, making inappropriate promises to a child, making negative statements about a foster parent, or allowing a child to engage in inappropriate behaviors. While all of these are difficult situations, they are situations that foster parents can best address through a combination of open communication with the child’s caseworker and through serving as a mentor to the child’s parent.
The first step to serving as a mentor is to form a positive relationship with the parents of the children in your care. This starts with changing your mindset. It is important to see the child’s parents as the child’s “parents” not as “biological parents” or “birth parents.” Putting such qualifiers on the role of the child’s parents attempts to minimize their importance. While you may be a phenomenal foster or adoptive parent and your child may love you dearly, you will still never replace the child’s parents. Even after we adopted our children, we did not attempt to change what our children called their parents. In our house, we treat “Mommies” the same way we treat “Grandmas.” We simply say “Mommy” if the person we are talking about is clear and add the first name if we need to differentiate. Thus, I am “Mommy” when my son is talking to me but I am “Mommy Laura” when my son is talking about me to his other mother.
Changing your mindset goes beyond the names you use. It is important to understand families as an important part of their children’s lives both while they are in foster care and after adoption. Love multiplies. Children who have a strong attachment to one adult find forming a strong attachment to another adult easier. Thus, foster parents have nothing to lose by encouraging a strong relationship between children and their parents even if the permanency plan is adoption.
My husband and I think of our children’s families as extensions of our own family. We send them holiday cards and invite them to family birthday parties and outings. We have been blessed with families who embrace this approach and reciprocate by reaching out to the other children in our home and including them in activities. This family-style approach has the added benefit of ensuring that there are always plenty of people involved in visits and that supervision is rarely an issue.
While we are fortunate to now share a strong relationship with the families of several of our adoptive children, getting to this point did not happen overnight. When children enter foster care, their parents are usually concerned for their safety. Many stories abound about children who are mistreated in foster care. One way to alleviate parents’ fears is to share pictures of the children in your care engaged in everyday activities and having fun. When parents see that their children have been truly welcomed into the foster family and are being treated well, they are much less likely to see the foster parent as the enemy. When foster care proceeds to adoption, these pictures allow parents to remain abreast of their children’s lives and to experience the important milestones they might otherwise miss.
I’ve found that small things go a long way toward forming a positive relationship with parents. In addition to sharing photographs, having children give parents pictures they have drawn and school papers that would otherwise go on the refrigerator acknowledges that parents are still an important part of their children’s lives. While parents’ initial concern regarding foster care may be whether their children are being treated well, they may later worry that their children will stop loving them. By encouraging children to share special papers with their parents, foster and adoptive parents can help children demonstrate their continued love for their families. When holidays roll around it is also important to make sure that children have small gifts to share.
Another important step to working with families, particularly when the children’s permanency plan is reunification, is to allow parents to participate in decision making in regard to their children. To some degree foster care regulations already mandate this, but going beyond the minimum requirements will be appreciated by parents. For example, if a child expresses interest in playing both spring soccer and softball, you could ask the parents which they think the child will enjoy more. You can also tell the parents the plans that you have for the child’s upcoming birthday party and ask their opinion. However, make sure that you are willing to abide by the parents’ decision if you ask for their input.
Once you have developed a positive relationship with the parents of the children in your care, you can truly start to serve as a mentor. The most important thing you can do to mentor parents is to model effective parenting techniques. When parents respect you and believe that you are taking good care of their children, they are likely to imitate your behaviors. By communicating effectively with children, lovingly setting limits, and staying calm when tantrums occur during visits, you are helping to teach these skills to parents.
Advice is another technique that can be used to teach parenting skills but this must be done carefully. Advice is most likely to be taken if it is given in the moment, is provided as an option, and is given sparingly. For example, when a child tantrums and falls to the floor, you might say, “I’ve found that if you ignore him he’ll usually stop in a few minutes. Would you like me to show you the pictures I have of his last baseball game?” This type of approach is much more likely to be effective than a command like, “You need to ignore him and he’ll stop.”
The advice that is least likely to be followed is advice which includes criticism such as, “The only reason he throws himself on the floor and tantrums like that is because he knows it will get your attention.”
It can be difficult to determine the right way to give a parent advice in the heat of the moment. A good way to start giving advice is with the phrase, “Sometimes it works when.” You can also try using the word “I” instead of the word “you.” Say, “I’ve found that,” instead of “you should.”
Advice should be used sparingly. Avoid giving advice to a parent more than once during most visits. When a parent is inundated by a lot of advice, the parent is less likely to absorb and use any of it. Focus on one or two techniques that you think would be beneficial for the parent and refer to them sparingly over multiple visits. Be patient and understand that habits are difficult to break. It may be months before you see a parent begin to incorporate the techniques you are sharing.
It is also important to understand that parenting is art, not science. As such, not every good parent uses the same parenting techniques. The technique that you are sharing may not work for that parent or may not fit well with the parent’s personality. If the parent never uses the technique that you are sharing, it is important not to believe that either you or the parent has failed.
When foster parents take the time to work effectively with parents, children benefit. Children in these families feel free to express the love they have for all the adults in their lives. They feel supported and are more likely to be able to talk about the complicated feelings that they likely have surrounding being removed from their home. These children are much more likely to heal and grow into healthy adults whether they return home or are adopted. While working with families takes time and effort, the benefits are well worth it!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laura Hutton is an associate professor of teacher education at Hartford Community College. She and her husband Mark were foster parents for more than 10 years and have adopted five children from foster care.