Giving advice to birth parents can be quite complicated at times. It is just as important to know what topics (and situations) to avoid as it is to know what advice or guidance to give and when to give it. The topics can be simple every day things that, under normal circumstances, come up in conversation. They can also be topics that directly relate to advice they either asked you to give or something you feel they need to work on. No matter the situation, it is always good to have an idea of what might be a sensitive subject to birth parents.
5 Topics Foster Parents Should Avoid with Birth Parents
1. Getting Personal Really Quickly/Being Aware of the Words You Use
Rent-a-Dad and I have not had this problem yet but have heard other foster parents talk about the dangers of getting drawn into the drama of the birth families. We always try to be aware of the words (or colloquialisms) we use so they can not be misconstrued.
Every now and then a case comes along where you can feel an instant bond/connection forming. It might be because one of the birth parents reminds you of yourself or someone else you care about. The situation may feel very similar to another case you handled that went well. Whatever the reason remember to stay focused on the foster children. Observe how the birth parents handle themselves with the tasks they need to complete for DCS.
As long as you see good progress and honest willingness to try, getting personal shouldn’t be a problem. Keep in mind that some birth parents may still see you as the enemy. They may try to get you to share your personal details/feelings just so they can tell DCS how unfit you are to take care of their child/children. This can be an attempt to sully your reputation in hopes of getting their children back faster. All foster parents should be an open book to DCS but sometimes what we say can get misconstrued and cause a problem.
Case in point: Use of language. We heard of a foster family being investigated because someone told the caseworker that the foster dad was having a drink in front of the children at breakfast. Some people use the word “drink” when they mean tea, coffee, water, etc. Other people only use the word “drink” when referencing alcohol. The use of this one word caused a lot of headaches for the foster family and DCS.
2. How to Parent
As parents, sometimes we ask for guidance when we feel out of our depth. What we don’t appreciate is strangers telling us that we are doing everything wrong. This is how birth parents are feeling.
At the beginning of each case, birth families and foster families are absolute strangers who have been thrown together through unfortunate circumstances. Most birth parents (and families) are resentful of the foster parents for their children being taken away and given to strangers. This is an upsetting situation even if they fully brought it on themselves.
DCS requires every birth parent (family) seeking reunification to take parenting classes. These classes cover a lot of topics including how to bottle feed, burp babies and change diapers. If a caseworker feels the parents need additional training they will seek out other classes for them to take.
Sometimes foster parents want to give instructions on care because they want what is best for the child/children they are caring for. Instead of giving instructions, or outright telling a birth parent how I expect they should care for their child during visitations, I send progress reports. In these reports I let the birth parents know of the positive things we are working on. This includes feeding schedules; the kind of food/snacks I am sent for the visit and why; potty training; or new signs their baby is giving to let us know they are ready for a nap. By providing the information in this manner the birth parents can make a choice on how to proceed.
Caseworkers appreciate this type of communication. Even if they never see the note, knowing that weekly progress reports are being sent keeps caseworkers aware that information is being provided. This helps the caseworker when observing how the birth parents interact with the children at visits.
3. Relating to their problems when you don’t share a common background
While children are in care, their parents should be receiving the help and care they need to get their children back. A plan for this process is made at the start of every case. During DCS meetings/court hearings this plan and its progress will come up. Most birth parents don’t like to talk about this plan or its progress outside of those spaces. That is their right. It is also courteous to avoid the topic unless they bring it up. If the topic is brought up in conversation let the birth parents do the majority of the talking/sharing.
A lot of birth parents are recovering addicts and/or dealing with mental health issues. They don’t need to know the story of your second cousin who was an addict. Sharing this information may humanize you but if they are seeking to cause problems then that information can be used to try and discredit you with the caseworker. If asked directly, I have shared that I know others who have struggled with addiction or a mental health diagnosis. After the conversation is over I will might send the caseworker an email to keep them aware of what transpired.
The situation I have often found myself in is a birth parent telling me what they are doing in recovery and asking me if I think it is fair. That is a hard place to be in. Your advice was directly requested. First you must listen, then you must give thought to your answer before replying.
4. The company they keep
When interacting with birth parents/families you may never see anyone but them through the entire case. Rent-a-Dad and I have been in the position to meet additional family members, friends and acquaintances. These situations may feel awkward but they are quite normal. So far none of the interactions we have had raised any concerns. If we had been concerned, and the child was still in our care, then we would have talked with the caseworker about our worried us.
In those situations the caseworker should always be notified even if it is an innocuous encounter. Even when you live in a large community you will find that even a coworker might be an aunt of the birth parent you are dealing with. If something like that does happen definitely let the caseworker know sooner rather than later. Waiting to let the caseworker know might appear like you are trying to hide something.
5. Teasing & Joking
Teasing and joking should always be reserved for family and close friends. Even then harmless teasing or joking can be misconstrued. While I never want people to feel like they always have to walk on eggshells, I can’t stress enough the importance of choosing the words you use with foster children and their families.
Be especially careful about how you interact with your foster children in front of the birth family. What might be a fun family joke to you may seem like something improper and tasteless to the birth parents/family. Once again the birth family could take a harmless joke, blow it out of proportion and even get DCS involved.
Rent-a-Dad and I were once told by a birth mother not to pick on her child. There had been an innocent interaction of adults and kids playing tag during a visit. I tagged her son and went to slowly run away. Our foster son dropped to the ground and began to cry. Even though we had played tag in the past that day he was a bit sensitive with his mother around. When I went to comfort him his mother stood up, told me to stop picking on her son, and walked away. She was upset and saw the simple interaction in a negative light. Even though I wasn’t sure how I could have handled the situation any better, I still apologized.
Don’t harp on any one subject. This relates to everything you should avoid as well as any advice, guidance or aid you do give. While I say this as an umbrella bit of advice, for me it is a point I remind myself of every time my parenting skills differ from the birth parents. My inner parenting voice screams that I need to help the birth parents parent but I don’t need to do that. We all parent differently. No one way is the only way.
Giving advice to birth parents is one of those multi-faceted topics. There are the general things you can do, they point behind it, and the topics you should always try to avoid. If this is a topic you would like more information on check out our previous two installments: