Adapted from AOK’s Guidebook, “It Takes a Village“
Children in foster care will start visiting with their birth family very soon after they enter care, sometimes as quickly as the next day. Typically, Family Time with birth parents will be supervised and held weekly for one hour at a DCF office. Of the many reasons this contact is important is that as the case moves toward reunification, the bond between parents and their children needs to be maintained for that reunification to be as successful as possible. Birth mothers and birth fathers may or may not visit at the same time, depending on the level of safety and the relationship between them. This hour a week is often the only time children and parents are able to spend together. The schedule and length of Family Time visits will vary as the case progresses. If a case is moving toward reunification, visits can (and should) become more frequent and longer. If birth parents are not regularly attending Family Time, they are engaging in inappropriate behavior during visits, if visits are having a negative impact on children, or if a case is moving toward termination of parental rights, DCF might opt to schedule less frequent visits.
Visits Can Be Stressful
Even when children have experienced trauma and neglect from their parents, they often have a biological and emotional need to connect to them. And for parents who love their children and are struggling to address the concerns that led to their removal, these visits are an important opportunity to remain connected to their children, and to continue to be motivated to make progress. But parent-child visits in a DCF office are inherently stressful and unnatural. The environment is not conducive to spending quality time with children, and for parents it can be a reminder of an incredibly traumatic time in their lives, triggering emotional and behavioral stress responses. Imagine having a social worker sitting in a chair and watching you interact with your children, taking notes about your parenting and behavior. The pressure parents are under during these visits is intense. Additionally, because visits are typically only once a week, they can interfere with the consistency and stability of children’s routines, on which they tend to thrive. Lastly, visits can be rife with strong emotions and memories of trauma for both parents and children, which can impact their behavior toward each other. All this trauma, pressure, and stress can make it extremely difficult for visits to be smooth and joyous for families. And yet, these visits are typically the only opportunities that parents and children have to spend time together – sometimes for months or years.
Foster parents can also experience stress and turmoil around parent child visits. It can be scary and vulnerable to know “your child” is in an emotionally challenging situation, sometimes with someone you perceive to be dangerous to them. Other times foster parents feel a sense of helplessness when they believe visits are negatively impacting their foster child, but can’t do anything to mitigate or stop this negative impact. Sometimes foster parents focus on the stress that visits cause the foster child, they point out the choices that parents make during these visits as detrimental (e.g., providing sugary snacks), or they worry that these visits cause confusion to children. In many cases, these are all warranted concerns. Sometimes, however, these concerns are rooted in other emotions, such as fear of loss or biased judgment of birth parents and their life circumstances. Therefore, we encourage foster parents to examine the reasons for their strong feelings around visit day and address underlying stigma or bias against birth parents, or your own feelings of vulnerability, throughout this process.
Furthermore, if visits are difficult for children, the typical stance advocated by foster parents is to decrease visit frequency or duration. Although sometimes this is a prudent course of action, we also encourage foster parents to think creatively about how to advocate for maintaining the parent-child connection in a way that doesn’t negatively impact their children (or, more likely, that negatively impacts them less). These possibilities include scheduling visits at a time that is more conducive for children, having foster parents or another trusted adult transport the child to visits, or even having foster parents participate in part of the visit to help the child transition or feel more comfortable. Additionally, offering comforting toys or books to bring to the visit helps some children. In some cases, there may be opportunities to hold visits in a more natural community space, rather than in the DCF office, which can be less stressful for both parents and children.
Foster parents are typically not part of a parent/child visit, though we might be asked to provide transportation to and from the visit, or provide information to birth parents (if appropriate). Should you not be comfortable having contact with birth parents, you certainly are not obligated to. But you should discuss this with the child’s social worker.
Ways to Connect to Birth Parents
Many foster parents are nervous about meeting or connecting in any way to birth parents. We have found that this anxiety is typically rooted in fear of the unknown, and that when birth parents and foster parents meet, it is almost always a positive experience (though we acknowledge it can be very awkward at first). If at all possible, we recommend that you try to connect with birth parents in person. This often can happen before or after parent child visits, foster care reviews, or court dates. Just know that these events can be high-stakes situations for everyone involved, and the level of anxiety can be too high to make a positive connection. In some cases, birth parents will be able to attend medical appointments, which is another good opportunity to try to connect. If the circumstances do not allow this personal connection, we recommend using the child’s social worker as an intermediary to deliver messages, cards, letters, photos, small meaningful gifts, or any other supportive communication that is appropriate.
We have found the following tips to be helpful when communicating with birth parents, either in person or via a social worker:
- Acknowledge that this is their child.
- Provide photos and updates whenever possible
- Pass along artwork or schoolwork that the child has made
- Send messages of support (e.g., “we’re rooting for you to succeed in all you’re working through right now!”)
- Let them know you care about their child very much.
- Ask them questions about their child’s likes, dislikes, and habits, even if you already know (assuming they would be in a position to be able to answer these).
- Consider providing a small gift for special days such as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
Again, foster parents are often very nervous about making these connections, but they can be incredibly positive and rewarding for all involved. When birth parents feel like you’re on their team, you support them, and you’re united in loving their children, the experience tends to be much better for everyone. Although we won’t say it’s the norm, we have seen birth families and foster/adoptive families become very close over time and be in each others’ lives for the benefit of their children. We have also routinely seen birth parents who are not able to parent themselves feel significantly more comfortable and safe with their children being adopted by families they have come to know and feel close to. Extreme care should be taken if you are a pre-adoptive parent, however, because you do not want to be seen as manipulating a situation to make a birth parent more likely to allow an adoption to happen. Not only could this be problematic from a legal or child welfare standpoint, but it’s also morally and ethically abhorrent. Remember, you are typically in a position of social power in these relationships, and it’s important to be guided by compassion, empathy, and grace.