After our first failed adoption attempt I admit that I was a little bit down at first. I had been excited about the possibility of meeting these children, becoming their mom, and getting them involved in everything from school to extra-curriculars. Even if I had known the reason why the case had been pulled and the adoption process (early stages) had ended it wouldn’t have changed my feelings or anything else. Ultimately I just hoped the kids were where they needed to be: safe, loved, and provided for. Even with a sad outcome for us, the whole process did provide insights we could learn from and share.

Our caseworker was sad that she couldn’t provide us with a clear answer of what happened with the kids but was glad that our failed attempt didn’t make us angry with the system. After a good long conversation I found out a few things that I am sure not everyone is privy to when working directly through the state. Here are some bits of advice (insights) our caseworker gave us, and other state employees have backed up:

  • Be organized
  • Be patient
  • Don’t give up

Without any further explanation it could seem as if this advice is a bit weak, insignificant or unimportant. Much like the system, you need to look at it as pieces of a puzzle. On their own they are each just as important and when put together they make a very clear picture.

Be Organized

Being organized seems like basic advice for the success of any project. In terms of working with the child-welfare system, I can not stress this enough.

Enter every case with a notebook and pen at the ready.  I find it useful to have a portable file folder where I can keep paperwork, a notebook and a pen or pencil.

Create a folder within your email just for the children/case you are interested in. Aside from holding onto all documentation and emails that come in, email yourself other important paperwork you want to be able to access quickly. Rent-a-Dad also advocates using the cloud but not everyone (me included) is as computer savvy as him.

When sending emails, make sure everyone that needs to be privy to the information is included in the CC line. In our case that meant the child’s caseworker, his boss, our caseworker and her boss as well as both Rent-a-Dad and I. This way everyone gets the information the instant it is sent instead of piecemeal or not at all.

Being organized not only helps keep a case moving along but it shows up as proof of how serious you are about a case.

Be Patient

Traversing the child-welfare system is complicated and frustrating for everyone, especially the employees who often have their hands tied by the judicial system.

The process for adopting from the state is sometimes easier for foster parents who are adopting their foster children. Sometimes that process takes longer than any other adoption process. No two cases are exactly alike so you can never know how long a case may take.  If you are a foster parent, you may foster dozens of children before you actually adopt.

Each state moves at its own pace and not the one we would like. Being frustrated by the slowness of the process is understandable. Strongly voicing this displeasure in negative ways makes the state wonder if there are any unsavory reasons this person is pursuing adoption. That can slow the process down further or give cause for the system to terminate the adoption process.

Our caseworker reminded me that very impatient people make caseworkers nervous and throw up red flags in the system.

While each state is obligated by the same basic rules, reunification or severing parental rights within eighteen months, each state can at its discretion move faster or slower on each case.

Caseworkers are overloaded with cases and foster parents might be stretched thin on their own resources. This can mean that the Child and Family Team for a child’s case can be hard to reach and get information from. There is a balance between being patient and not giving up.

Depending on the information, it is usual to not hear from a caseworker about an adoption case for several days. Don’t let several weeks or a month pass as that might show the caseworker a lack of interest so they may then pursue other avenues and assume you are no longer interested.

Don’t Give Up

This applies to the children/case you are interested in as well as in the process all together if the case should fall through.

Our caseworker reminded me that there is a fine line between being patient and pushing for success. Treading that line and knowing which side is better to be on takes experience.

Foster parents do have a higher success rate of adopting through the child-welfare system because they have gained experience of how that system works.

Even if you are not a foster parent, don’t give up! Don’t let the complications of an imperfect system drive you away from reaching your dream and providing a safe, loving home to a needing child. Reach out to friends who have traversed the system and consult adoption website communities for advice.

If an adoption attempt is cut short, always try one more phone call or email to the caseworker for information before admitting that you may not ever get a reason why the child is no longer available for adoption.

If you are truly interested in adopting keep these details (insights) in mind:

 

Get a Home study

While no adoption can move forward without one, do some research to find out whether it makes sense to go through the state or a private agency. Some states are fine with home studies conducted by another state. Private agencies may request a home study be completed not by the state but rather by their agency or another private agency.

If you have been casually looking at adoption sites and have identified a child or children through a state site there are multiple steps you must take. First you need to contact the state agency with the case number. Once the state is aware of you, they will ask for information about you, your family, and if you have had a home study completed.

If you contact a state agency interested about a case but don’t have a home study, your home will not seriously be considered until that process is completed. In the meantime those who show similar interest in a child and have a completed home study will be considered before you. This may sound unfair but keep in mind no adoption is about just you. No case will be put on hold just because you are interested. After all what if you changed your mind? The top goals are for this child to be in the system for as little time as possible and to be placed with a forever family that is as good of a fit as the state can find.

 

Private Agency VS State Adoption

A lot of your success story, and time spent, depends on what you want from this experience.

Private agencies will provide hand holding through the entire process. The downside is that this service can be quite costly. A private agency will look through all the children that fit your criteria, make contact and find out if parental legal ties have been severed all before you find out his/her existence. Once a match us found and you have been notified, then the agency helps with all of the necessary details.

I have had friends say that going through a private agency ensures that an adoption will happen.

Going through the state usually means minimal costs and some of those are refundable or tax deductible. The state has minimal resources so you need to be driven, organized and oddly enough patient as you work with the system.

The older the child the easier the adoption process generally is. There tend to be more problems when seeking to adopt an infant than with an older child. Private agencies have higher success rates with infant adoption because they are working directly with pregnant women who are considering adoption as an option for their child. Babies in state custody are generally more sought after by family and friends over older children.

Whether you are going through a private agency or the state the process is much the same. The length of time differs from case to case. There is no such thing as always having an easy adoption. Some people are lucky with the adoption process moving quickly. Sometimes how fast the process moves is really just about one’s perception of time.

Just remember each child is worth the wait and adoptions take time.

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If you have not already read our post on Adoption Pitfalls I hope you can make the time to rectify that soon! Adoptuskids and American Adoptions also provide good adoption insights and research into the adoption process as it is today.

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.

 

Bonus Tip:

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.

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End Note:

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:

Fostering: Giving Advice to Birth Parents

From Advice to Guidance: Giving Advice to Birth Parents Part 2

Earlier this week I gave some generalized topics to use for administering advice to birth parents. I also happened to throw in some ideas on how to approach giving said advice. The one thing I did not actually do was give lots of examples of questions asked or words of wisdom shared. The advice we have been asked to share is more physical guidance, or information sharing, than it is about words.

guidance

Keep in mind birth parents, like any of us, tend to parent the way they were raised. To change this behavior, if change is something we are seeking, one must relearn. Not only is this easier said than done, the best way to learn for most people is hands on.

In terms of foster care and the system, most foster parents refer to this as a “baptism by fire” type of feeling. With each new placement foster parents learn what works and what doesn’t. Foster parents also learn that what works with one placement won’t always work with another.

How does this apply in terms of offering birth parents guidance?

The point here is that each placement, and their family, needs to be treated as a new experience or clean slate. Experiences from prior cases may apply to new placements but be careful that those experiences don’t negatively affect new ones. Also, don’t start a new case by giving advice. Just because you were able to do so with a prior birth family doesn’t mean this birth family will be as open.

Let the positive experiences you have from prior placements shape you for the better. By our second placement we had a better idea of how to interact with birth families from advice to offering guidance. Experiences from our first placement also meant we could be more prepared to help with the reunification process. The second placement also lasted longer than our first one. This gave us additional time to build a stronger relationship with the birth family. Tread lightly with verbal advice even when it was asked for as it is often misinterpreted.

The best way to provide advice to birth parents is through guidance and leading by example. The parents in our first two placements were not new to parenting but admitted they had more to learn. Even when we, as humans, admit there is more to learn we don’t want to be force-fed advice.

When the advice asked for was more technical we provided information from the internet, doctors and specialists. This type of guidance comes off as less threatening. Printed copies of information proves to be better than verbal advice as it is something they can look over at their leisure. If questions do arise the birth parents can ask for clarification later. If asked, providing our thoughts on the subject, pros and cons was much different then straight out advice. Using this method has shown the birth parents that we are human just like them. Yes, it can be truly frustrating if they toss the pamphlet away and ignore what the doctor said. However that is something they are allowed to do as the birth parents.

Another way to provide guidance, not just verbal advice, is through teachable moments. This is just another fancy way of saying leading by example. Using this terminology (the subject matter of a DCS training class) provides a link between foster children and their parents.

Life is filled with moments where we have no idea that we are learning something, like toddlers observing chores. When toddlers are old enough they start helping with the chores they have watched adults do. Completing these chores gives them a sense of accomplishment. Much is the same with birth parents who haven’t had positive role models. They need to watch how other real life (no TV here) adults handle situations. Then when they complete a similar task it gives them the same sense of accomplishment. That is just one reason why DCS advocates interaction between birth parents and foster parents.

There are many ways you can provide teachable moments. The best way is to interact at visits. In past cases Rent-a-dad and I have not been available for the court mandated weekly visits but have enjoyed being involved in the optional additional visits. We have helped arrange family oriented get-togethers from attending the county fair to getting a photo taken with Santa. At these times we let the parents interact as much, or as little, as they want. Watching the family interactions can provide clues to knowing the type of relationship you might have with the birth family.

These interactions provide insight into the family dynamics. This helps ascertain whether a parent is secure in how they handle their children or if they could use a guiding hand. When it involves the later, ask the parents if you could give them a break. When the child in question is an infant offer to help feeding, burp or change the diaper. If an older child, ask the parents if they mind you taking the child to buy a cola or snack. Showing the parents that you value them through their permission, or opinion, is a good way to build a relationship. It will also provide a teachable moment in positive adult interaction.

As your relationship with the birth parents grows you will find other ways to provide the same care. Birth parents attending doctor appointments often see me asking questions for the case worker and taking notes. At the CFTM (child and family team meeting) and review panels, I am always taking notes and adding dates to my calendar. If the foster child sees other specialists I always provide the birth parents with copies of reports and information received. At weekly visits, the birth parents often receive notes from us with what has transpired that week in addition to any artwork their child made. While all of this is relationship building it is also showing the birth parents positive interaction with another adult and provides ideas on responsible “adulting”.

When physical guidance is given over verbal advice often times the birth parents don’t even realize they are receiving it, much like the aforementioned teachable moments. This interaction is seen as less threatening as verbal advice can sometimes be misconstrued as telling someone they are bad at something. Foster parents never want to make a birth parent seeking reunification seem like they are a bad parent. Most likely they already feel this way because they did lose custody of their child and have to earn that privilege back. Even if you feel the parenting skills are lacking, verbalizing this can hurt your relationship with the birth family and the foster children.

 

End Note: From Advice to Guidance

If you are looking for some advice yourself on things not to say to birth parents you will have to check-out our next installment in this series:

Topics to Avoid: Giving Advice to Birth Parents Part 3

If for some reason you missed the first article in our series, here the opportunity to get caught up: Fostering: Giving Advice to Birth Parents.