At the start of our foster care journey I had no idea how I could sympathize with birth families as a whole let alone individually.

Why?

There were many reasons from the number of negative stories we had heard about birth families to the horrible situations children had been removed from. Then there was the simple truth that I could not sympathize with what I did not yet know.

After our first foster children the question became “how could I not?”

No I was not naïve enough to think that all situations would be like this one case or that all birth parents would work hard to get their kids back. However, I was no longer innocent to the possible circumstances we could see. Yes I was still a newcomer and had much to learn but I could not pretend that a spectrum didn’t exist in between the black and white cases we had been told about.

It is hard to see all birth parents as villains when some are just as scared as the children you are caring for. Not to mention how some birth parents are mourning the loss of the child who you will mourn the daily presence of soon enough.

When you stop seeing the birth family as a group of villains but rather people fallen on hard times, those who have lost their way, young adults lost on their path… well you start to better understand the children in your care and their needs. You can see how these kids miss the people painted as villains. And you might even better understand these “villians” in ways you never thought possible.

That is how I began to sympathize with birth parents. As I further get to know each of them then I can better understand them as individuals including the hardships they have faced. This includes how isolated and alone they have felt at the onset of both their DCS case and the point where they lost their way.

Sadly some birth parents are hard to humanize and sympathize with. They can be incredibly selfish, do horrible things, and won’t let anyone get near them including their own children. And those are the cases we had heard so much about. The good news is that DCS doesn’t require you to sympathize with the birth parents. Thankfully those are not the type of birth parents we have dealt with, yet.

For more insight on how we have been able to build working relationships with birth families check out another of our posts titled: Fostering Relationships.

Are first impressions getting in the way of being able to sympathize?

Remember my post about Misconceptions?

Well we all have them and sometimes those get in the way.

When we can push that aside we can see that maybe this isn’t the best parent, perhaps they didn’t have any guidance or help like us, but they are parents. Just like any parent they are  worried about who this stranger is that is taking care of their child, where their child is sleeping and what they are eating. When we can remind ourselves of that fact it is hard to see them as villains.

Just because we can understand them better doesn’t mean we have to be best friends. The important thing is to build a working relationship do the kids in our care have the best team possible to help them succeed.

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

Reading the post of a friend the other day brought this subject matter to mind. It was the regular kind of post about a mom happy with the accomplishments of her growing child. The majority of the comments congratulated the mom. Part of the congratulatory comments were phrased as if the accomplishments were due to the mom and not a part of the child’s growth.

accomplishments

This happens all the time. It’s not new to congratulate a proud parent over their child’s accomplishments. Nor is the way in which we congratulate as if it were the parent’s accomplishment. Many of us do it without thinking. Being a proud parent and congratulating parents are both natural events.

In terms of fostering it is should feel just as natural. Sometimes it’s a bit more complicated than that. As foster parents we often have to set our feelings aside and accept that accomplishments, or our help with them, are not our own.

 

Scenario 1: Struggling and Finally Getting It

So many times kids come into care with a myriad of issues. There is nothing out of the ordinary about any of the issues on their own but when put together it’s not just a mild hurdle. Suddenly it’s a looming mountain the kid would rather avoid than figure out a way over or around.

Foster parents know that the mountain cannot be climbed in a day. It is more about list making and accomplishing one task at a time. Each task can feel insurmountable at times as well. That is why when each task is resolved/completed it is a big deal and should be acknowledged with pomp and circumstance. So many times these kids have never had heard one good word about anything they have done. Kids need accolades to build their confidence and show how they are valued even for the small things.

For each task accomplished, as a foster parent, you want to shout congratulations, give awards and give hugs. Do it. Do it. Do it.

Don’t expect to be congratulated for struggling with them. Most of us don’t. Sometimes a caseworker, teacher or other team member will acknowledge the struggles you have shared with your foster child. Acknowledge that the same way most parents do with turning the focus back on the child’s hard work.

What should you expect? The birth parents will take credit for all the hard work their child has done without really congratulating their child. This will be exceptionally frustrating. Nod your head and ignore all that drama. Focus on your foster child. Reinforce your foster child’s hard work.

Scenario Two: Growth Goals and Accomplishments of a Baby/toddler

Just like birth or adoptive parents, foster parents are excited over every small first from smiling and rolling to first step and first word. Everyone involved in the case will be excited with you.

Well that is mostly true. Birth parents are a mixed bag when it comes to this.

Some birth parents will be resentful and possibly confrontational. Why? They are missing these “firsts” while you are catching every precious moment. Even if you are a foster parent who shares photos and communicates regularly with birth parents they may still feel very resentful.

Don’t expect birth parents with resentful feelings to share in your excitement. Certainly don’t mistake their treatment of you as a lack of enthusiasm for their children. While the birth parents are showing you a lack of enthusiasm they may take to Facebook later to tell friends and family members the exciting news. When they share this happy news they will do so without ever mentioning the people taking care of their children.

Birth parents will treat you just like a nanny or daycare provider. You are just a place holder until they can step back into their child’s life. How you choose to take this is up to you. While it may feel like a slight ask yourself one question, “how would you act in their shoes?” Don’t expect people to instantly act grateful especially when emotions are running high. After all you aren’t doing this for their gratitude.

Even when you have a great relationship with the birth parents, don’t expect that they will give you credit for growth goals and accomplishments. The birth parents will be just as excited as you and share your joy. They will even share the accomplishments with others but it will be as if it were due to them because your involvement doesn’t quite exist. You know it exists but their friends most likely don’t. Would you share that kind of detail, that your child is in care, with all of your Facebook friends? I don’t think I would.

So don’t take this as a slight. It isn’t like they are doing it to turn the focus back on themselves or to discredit you. They are just acting like all the other parents out there: sharing their child’s accomplishments.

 

End Notes on When Accomplishments are never Truly Your Own:

Foster Parents are Valued

The point in all of this is to know that you are valued as a foster parent. Rarely will you receive a pat on the back about what matters to you like the accomplishments of your foster kids. Honestly that is not why we are foster parents anyway. Truthfully life is just like that.

Rarely do any of us receive accolades for the things that matter most to us. There are times when we receive congratulations for things that make us uncomfortable like being foster parents. I always feel a bit odd when I hear strangers say “God bless you for taking these children into your home. They are truly blessed now”

 

A Bit of Advice

During foster training we were reminded often, by our instructor, that the cases we handle are not about our feelings. Yes, we all have feelings and no one is asking us to remove our feelings. What is being asked is that we put our feelings on the back burner because we are here to represent our foster children. It is far more important to focus on your foster child’s accomplishments than it is to focus on your involvement.

I put this reminder out there because we are all human. We all feel slighted at times and we often don’t have control over when those feelings pop up. And in all honesty if this were a relationship involving two sets of divorced parents, often the adults forget it’s not about accepting ownership of involvement but the actual accomplishments of the children involved.

 

Keep in Mind

The whole time kids are in the care, the birth parents are coming to terms with, or not, that their kids are being raised by someone else.

There is no time line in which they will have an “ahah!” moment and suddenly see the foster parents as their best friends or their saviors. They may never see you as anyone other than the enemy. Then again, you may be lucky enough to develop either a working or lasting relationship.

The Take-Away

When talking about your foster children’s accomplishments the focus should always remain on the foster child.

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.

Thus far, Rent-a-dad and I have been supportive of the reunification process in the cases we have received. This has put us in a unique position where we are being asked questions by, and giving advice to birth parents. If you are a foster parent who is also working towards reunification in positive ways you may find yourself in a similar situation.

advice

Giving advice to birth parents is a little tricky. First you want to make sure they are actually asking for advice and not making an off-hand remark. Since they are literally dealing with everyone telling them what to do (so they can get their children back) it isn’t very useful to also have the foster parents doing the same thing. Giving unsolicited advice may put the birth parents off and do damage to your budding relationship. Second, if asked to give advice, give some thought to your answer before you give it. Sometimes being asked to give advice feels a little bit like a double edged sword: you have to be careful how you handle the situation.

When Rent-a-Dad and I have been asked to give advice to birth parents it has been when the parents are seeing that their journey through the foster system has an ending point. They know reunification is an attainable goal. By this point you, as a foster parent, have had a chance to build a relationship with the birth parents. The birth parents should feel secure enough to ask for some help/advice.

Here are 5 things to keep in mind as you are helping your foster children to transition back home and ideas of advice to birth parents that you can feel safe giving:

 

5) Keep a journal or folder with information

Going through foster training foster parents receive basic information on keeping scrapbooks or photo journals for each foster child. I also kept a huge file folder filled with medical and legal documents for the children. When it was time to transition the kids back home I created a smaller version of this to give to the parents.

In the front of the folder there is a cheat sheet packed with information. The quick list contains medication information (when and how much to give); allergy information (some parents honestly don’t know their child’s allergies); doctor information including appointments; and emergency contact information. The rest of the folder has copies of paperwork needed for appointments; medical files/notes; and more.

Give this folder to the birth parents prior to the first full overnight or weekend visit, which is the start of the transition period. It is important to cull out some time to sit one on one with the birth parents, minus the kids if possible, so they can ask questions pertaining to the care of their children. This is important because you are showing how much you trust the birth parents and care about their children.

Even if you have reservations about the children returning home you need to show the birth parents that you are rooting for them to succeed. They need to know there are people out there who believe in them because often their own families are skeptical and may be waiting for them to fail. Knowing that the people who have been taking care of their children believe they can do it does matter to them and to your foster children.

 

4) Share recipes

Often birth parents don’t have positive role models in their life who have shown them how to succeed. In many cases birth parents have come from broken homes. Things like homemade meals can often be distant or non-existent memories.

As the children are transitioning home try to cook a homemade meal. Ask the birth family if they would like to be involved. The answer you receive may shock you. They don’t know how to cook and are even afraid to try and fail at something else.

So far Rent-a-dad and I have not housed a transition meal in our home but rather in each case it has been in the birth parents’ home. If the birth parents were unsure of their cooking skills I would make a simple meal to bring and share as well as the recipe. If the birth parents have shown an interest in learning I have offered to teach and have provided basic recipes for meals I know their children have enjoyed.

Providing recipes or a meal may seem simple but to these families it means the world. I have seen some birth parents blossom with their confidence that they can work and provide a home cooked meal that the whole family will like.

When sharing recipes, make the first recipe you share something easy to make that the children have loved like a favorite dessert. One of our family favorites has been Peanut Butter Crispy Treats.

 

3) Share daily routines

This is something that can be added as a section in the medical binder or it can be a quick email in preparation of an overnight visit. Some birth parents want to know this information from the moment their kids are placed in care and ask for weekly progress reports that include information like baby feeding or sleeping schedules. No matter the situation, most birth parents appreciate this kind of information as the transition period gets closer. This way they know how to plan their first unsupervised visit from meals to bedtime.

 

2) Share tips/pointers

As the transition period gets closer I have found that a note with words of encouragement is welcome. Birth parents typically worry about the transition period and trial home-stay not going well. A note sometimes eases these worries and reminds them we are all human.  If you have a strong relationship with mutual respect you can try to give harder advice but be careful as this is still a slippery slope.

The most recent note provided a reminder that in life there are successes and challenges, much the same can be said about raising children. Rent-a-Dad and I are open to being sounding boards when this parenting thing feels crazy hard because we all have been there.

The one tip I have given to parents of infants/toddlers is to find a balance between being strict (disciplining) and spoiling. I have to remind myself that my job is to parent the kids and guide them, not to be their best friend. Once they reach adulthood that is the time to be their best friend.

The reason I provide this piece of advice is from experiences with birth parents of infants and toddlers. Often they feel horrible because they have missed a lot of their child’s first moments. They want to atone for this feeling by overcompensating. They do this through co-sleeping in the parent’s bed, providing lots of candy/goodies, and giving big rewards for every kind of behavior. Once these habits are formed they are very hard to break. Months after reunification, I have received requests for advice on how to alter a toddler’s behavior. The action could be sneaking candy now that the parent has decided to limit candy consumption. Or the parents have grown tired of the toddler sleeping in their bed every night.

 

1) Be sincere and humble

This is probably the most important bit of information I can give advice on. As a foster parent you have been given a special privilege to take care of a child you are not related to or have known existed prior to their placement in your home. For months, or years, this child has resided in your home under your care and protection. Now it is time to turn all of those responsibilities over to their birth parents.

Even if you agree 100% that this is the right time and the right action to take, your parental instincts are screaming in your subconscious that this is your child. Part of you is going to want to speak from a place on high because you haven’t done anything wrong to have this child taken from you. That kind of action is not what you need.

Speak from your heart with sincerity and care. Put love in your words so the birth family can feel the warmth and want to reciprocate. Be humble. None of us are perfect. Foster parents are just lucky to have had families that are supportive, loving and caring to help them in positive ways through troubled times.

 

Keep in Mind:

Not every birth parent will want advice. Many will fight and buck you every inch of the way. They are acting out of self preservation and do not know a better way to act.

One of the most difficult things to do is to be calm in the face of anger and insecurities. But being calm and showing your support is what you need to do. Why? Because being a foster parent is not about us, it is about the children in care. While the goal is reunification, the foster parents must be supportive of the birth family’s success as that is a success for the foster child. Be as supportive as you feel you can if your goal is to be involved in that child’s life beyond reunification. Finding a common ground with the birth parents is an important step in this process. This is no easy task but one well worth all the hard work.

 

End Note: Giving Advice to Birth Parents

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. This article covered the things you can do. Check out the next two installments:

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

Topics to Avoid: Giving Advice to Birth Parents Part 3