Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Working With Birthparents

I attended a training for foster parents last month entitled “Working with Birthparents” which, as the title implies, focused on building relationships with birthparents as you care for their children. 

At one point in the training, the question was opened up to other foster parents for discussion of “Why is it important to have a good working relationship with birthparents?”   

A few foster parents shared their experiences and mentioned that having open communication between foster parents and bio parents makes the transition to either reunifications or adoptions so much easier on everyone involved.  

I raised my hand and answered “It’s in the best interest of the child when they know that both sets of caregivers are working together for their good.”  I went on to further explain that it cuts down the sense of a divided “US” verses “THEM” mentality between foster parents and bio parents, which just isn’t helpful to anyone.  
What surprised me the most about my answer was not that the phrase “the best interest of the child” came out of my mouth so easily and automatically (I honestly wasn’t trying to be a brown-noser or earn a gold star on my forehead- but isn’t the best interest of the child always the right answer and at the heart of child welfare?)  No, what surprised me most about my answer is that I actually meant it. 
I can’t say I’ve always felt so comfortable or positive about working with birthparents.  In fact, next to the pain of reunifications, interacting with the parents of children who have come into foster care was probably the next biggest concern my husband and I had when we were first considering fostering.  Much of our concern had to deal with safety and privacy issues- because the thought of interacting with people who have criminal histories or ties to drugs and gangs isn’t something we exactly want to welcome into our family and personal life.  Neither was the thought of working with people who abuse or neglect their children.  Needless to say, when comparisons and judgments arise- because they inevitably will- it’s far too easy to (either consciously or unconsciously) develop a sense of superiority between myself as a foster parent and the bio parents of the foster children in my care.  After all, I bake cookies in my kitchen- not meth.  I’m not one of “those” parents.
It can be far too easy for others (myself included) to judge birthparents of foster children and have an attitude of smugness or to lean much more towards justice than mercy when considering their situation.  After all, they’re adults and should be held accountable for getting themselves into this situation (of having their kids getting taken away) in the first place, right?  But two other things I’ve learned as I’ve gotten to know my foster children’s parents is that:
1)      People generally do the best they know how.  If someone has grown up with violence in the home or if their parents abused and neglected them as a child it can be extremely difficult to break that cycle OR they may not realistically know any different way of parenting because they haven’t had the opportunity to see the right kind of modeling.  Does that mean that just because someone was abused or neglected that they’re going to abuse their children?  Well, of course not, nor does it excuse their actions if they do abuse their children, but it is helpful in trying to understand where they might be coming from. 

2)     Even the most upstanding citizen or model parent can drastically change if they become enslaved by addiction.  I think probably the most tragic part about addictions is that they can turn even the most caring, selfless person selfish so that the things (and people) which were once a priority in their life come second to feeding their addiction- whether that addiction is to an actual substance, or to a pattern of abusive relationships.   Unfortunately, guess which job description always requires someone to put their own needs on hold until the needs of others are met?  Yep, being a parent.  Is it no wonder addictions tear families apart?

Perhaps the most surprising discovery I’ve made as a foster parent is that it’s not just about helping the children who come into care- they’re not the only ones who need help.  It’s ultimately about helping the entire family unit and that entails helping the birthparents as well.  Does that mean I have to be best friends with their birthparents?  No.  Does it mean I condone or excuse domestic violence or drug abuse?  Absolutely not.   But I think it’s definitely possible to “love the sinner and hate the sin” as Jesus did.  
I think a huge part of learning to accept and even show respect towards others (especially when you don’t agree with them or have a hard time understanding them) is to put yourself in their shoes and try to see things from their perspective.  For instance, I can think back to the worst relationship I ever had with a birthparent of one of our foster children and it wasn’t until I came to the realization that every bit of criticism and resentment they aimed towards me (usually in a passive-aggressive way by complaining to the caseworker at weekly visits; the caseworker would then have to pull me aside and share that week’s complaint of what I was doing wrong in parenting their child)  Anyway, it wasn’t until I realized that this parent’s resentments and hatred towards me stemmed from their sense of frustration and fear of losing their child and/or jealousy of the fact that I was now the full-time caregiver of their child that I could brush things off and not take things so personally.  Think of how out of control and pissed off a parent must feel to have their child taken away (especially when it’s not the first time it’s happened) and to know that a complete stranger now has the power and freedom of raising their child as they see fit!

When birthparents and foster parents can put any differences aside and work together out of a shared concern for a child, then everyone benefits- not just the caregivers, but caseworkers, and most importantly, the foster child.


FootPrints said...

Great points! I love number #1 because it's so true. Many times they themselves didn't come from the best of situations. Humility is also a big part in working well with birth parents, from my experience at least!

Sharla said...

I have had similar experiences. When we began fostering twelve years ago, I was most nervous about interactions with birth family. It wasn't long at all before I came to realize that it was in the best interest of my foster children, their birth families, and even me, to find the positives in their first families and to build a relationship with them. As a result of being able to build those relationships in the situations where it was possible, we still have contact with some of our former foster children who were reunified with birth family. Without that relationship, we would not be in their lives, which would not be good for them or for us. The realization that I came to when we were foster parents greatly impacted my view on openness in adoption and now impacts the children we have gone on to adopt. You are so right that everyone benefits!

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acceptance with joy said...

So far everyone involved is going through great lengths to keep us from meeting the Buddy's Birth Parents.... I can't figure out why. I have asked to meet them....Some act surprised that I haven't yet, and some act surprised that I want to.

In the end Grandma told me she would rather we didn't yet as she believes once they figure out He's safe and in a good place they'll walk away and stop trying to get him back. ?


Natasha said...

You said it so well. I've had such a hard time explaining this to others. Really appreciated your post.

Becky said...

Love this post. I especially agree that we all do the best we can with where we are at that moment.

Monika said...

I stumbled onto your blog because you started following mine. :) I really like this post, because though I'm a birthmother, my child was not removed from me due to abuse or neglect or anything else. I made the choice to place her with adoptive parents. However my point with all this is that as a birthmother who made the choice for adoption, I've judged those birth parents who have lost their children to foster care. I haven't wanted to call them birth parents because they didn't make the choice to become "one like me." Though admittedly I still want to be selfish with the title I have to admit that it's all about the children and the fact that I preach birth families being good for the children on my blog means I need to acknowledge it in foster care as well. (Sorry for the long comment.)