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In past posts I know I have talked a little about fostering relationships with birth families through our own experiences and bonds formed with the birth parents of our former foster children. What I haven’t yet talked about is how rare this exact relationship seems to be and how we got where we are.
For us, becoming foster parents was never just about adopting. Our original plan was to become foster parents after we had children of our own and they were old enough to understand the basics of why we wanted to be foster parents. When it became obvious that becoming birth parents was not in the cards for us we decided not to wait any longer to become foster parents. While we would love to adopt every child that comes through our home, our main goal is to provide shelter for children who have no one else.
In providing a safe environment for children in care, we had hoped to form forever relationships but had never really thought about what that meant. When we went through the PATH (Parents as Tender Healers) classes to become foster parents we were warned that birth families have problems with relationships, birth families know how to manipulate people, that we need to always be on our guard because birth families have no problem telling DCS (Department of Children’s Services) that we are abusing their children, etc. After we completed our training and became foster parents, we were once again reminded to be cautious with our interactions with birth families and why. This repeated warning put us off and made us question how we could form a working relationship with birth families let alone a lasting relationship.
Then finally the day came where we had our first placement and we were to meet a good portion of the birth family. DCS had tried to set up a weekday visit for the birth family but the timing just was not good. As it was out first placement we had no idea that we could say “no” to a weekend visit and get a DCS employee to transport the kids for a pre-approved weekday visit while we worked. So we agreed to meet the birth family at a McDonalds so the older kids could burn off some energy in the play area. So many family members showed up to the visit that it was easy to see how these children were loved. For the last hour of the visit we sat and talked with one of the parents and grandparents about all the pre-conceived notions they had about foster care and helped them understand that while we do not have children of our own that we were not foster parents just to “steal” someone else’s child. It was a good experience that reminded us why we wanted to be foster parents to begin with.
Growing up I had always known that if something happened to my mom and dad that I had a safe place with my grandmother or my aunts and uncles. Not everyone is that lucky. Families are complex things with health issues, money troubles, and arguments. Sometimes there just isn’t any family structure because of distance between relatives, death, or even abandonment.
Why did it bother me that there were children in the world without safe places? I grew up with parents who had health issues so my welfare had been discussed with our extended family because my parents were concerned about having a plan in place if the unimaginable ever happened. I knew about this plan. I knew my parent’s had health issues. It all worried and terrified me and yet I knew I had a home to go to if something happened. All of this planning took place during the time I became aware of the foster family that lived next door to my grandmother and began to notice that my aunt was a foster parent. So while I was worrying about my own well being and where I would live, I also worried about all the children who didn’t have a big family like mine or whose extended family might not be able to take them in for one or another reason.
Yeah… I worried a lot as a kid. That is just who and what I am. My mom used to say I carried the weight of the world on my shoulders. But it is this concern and worry that shaped the idea of one day becoming a foster parent. Along with the idea of becoming a foster parent and learning what it really meant through discussions with my mom and even my aunt, I also developed that sense that I wanted not just to foster children but to still stay in contact. I saw how my biological aunt was able to stay in contact with some of her former foster children and I knew I wanted to do the same. My mom also told me that one of my other aunts (a good friend of the family) was also a foster parent. I heard stories about all of her nieces and nephews who I later found out were her former foster children. That just re-affirmed this idea in my head of staying connected and building relationships. But like most well meaning ideas, I never knew quite how that was going to work out.
Return to our first placement, we only had the boys for eight months which seemed like an eternity at the time and yet like no time at all. During those eight months we had many opportunities to get to know the birth family better and realize they were good people in a bad situation. That they loved their children with all their hearts and were trying to do right by them but they needed help. DCS provided the building blocks the family needed and we helped to provide the support to keep the building blocks in place. It is what DCS hopes will happen but never quite expects since ideas on paper are great but in practice people tend to make a mess of things.
Through the process though we were constantly reminded that birth families and foster parents don’t normally get along. The judge overseeing the case was always happy to see us as it made him feel like there was hope for the world if we could all work together in the best interest of the children. Don’t get me wrong, we had our moments of frustration and at times needed DCS to help us figure it out. Even with our moments of frustration we were able to give and receive respect with the birth family and remember that we all love the boys.
As the reunification time drew closer we were sad and scared. Friends and family assured us that we would figure out a way to stay in touch. My aunts reminded me of their own experiences. Everyone was trying to give us hope and keep our spirits up.
When the time came for the boys to return home we made sure the boys had everything they needed from us and that their parent’s knew we cared. Their parents let us know that they wanted us to stay in their lives and be both aunt/godmother and uncle/godfather. We felt honored but also knew that life has a way of shutting doors and opening windows when we least expect it. We didn’t want our hopes to be raised up too much as we didn’t know if we could deal with loosing the boys more then once.
Time. That is one of the biggest components that every relationship needs. With time one can see a budding relationship grow. The boys are now almost three and four respectively, and we still get to see them often. Their parents may not have the support of DCS any longer but the good news is they are working on their support system and are not afraid to ask for help when they need it.
We weren’t sure how DCS would take us still being actively involved in the boys lives but we knew it was what we were meant to do. Thankfully DCS is happy with this relationship. Our case worker has told us several times that DCS worries about the kids exiting care and if the families have continued access to the help they need. We were also reminded that while DCS hopes that foster families will form lasting relationships with birth families they know it is a rare occurrence. DCS and our caseworker are constantly amazed at the relationship we have been able to form with the birth family, that the boys spend the night several times a month, and the birth family trusts us enough to make us emergency contacts for the boys. I just see it as a relationship worth working on and people worth caring about and helping.
Now will we be able to build this type of relationship with each birth family? No but that doesn’t mean we wont have good relationships with other birth families, just different relationships. This comes back to the hope (and dream) that we never have a placement where we can’t find a common ground with the birth family.