September 2008Vol. 9, No. 7New Mexico's Ice Breakers for Foster and Birth Parents
New Mexico completed its most recent Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) early in the second round, and the Final Report notes a number of promising child welfare practices across the State. One of the most innovative practices is the use of "ice breaker" meetings between foster and birth parents. Designed to encourage the sharing of information about the child in foster care, the facilitated meetings can lead to a better placement experience for the child and, ideally, better adjustment for the adults involved.
An ice breaker meeting occurs as soon as possible after a child is taken into custody—generally, within 2 work days. In most offices across the State, the meeting is set up and facilitated by a foster parent liaison, who is a former foster or adoptive parent. When the birth and foster parents meet at the agency, the facilitator guides the discussion, keeping the focus on the child and his or her needs. For instance, the birth parent can provide information about the child's personality, likes and dislikes, routine, bedtime habits, allergies or medications, favorite toys, special activities, and academics. In return, the foster parent can offer information about who else lives in the foster family, where the child will sleep, and regular activities in the foster home. The facilitator ensures that the discussion does not stray into other issues but stays centered on the child's needs. The meeting also offers the foster and birth parents the opportunity to see each other as adults who share a common concern about the child.
Future meetings and contact depend on the individual circumstances of the case. In some cases, there are more facilitated meetings between parents, or there may be contact during drop-offs for visitation. Foster and birth parents may write notes or have phone calls. Having had the ice breaker meeting often makes it easier for future contact and the sharing of parenting information.
The early anecdotal evidence regarding the success of the ice breakers is overwhelmingly positive. Children make a better adjustment when their foster parents know as much as possible about them. Older children are more comfortable knowing that their foster and birth parents have met and feel that their loyalty is not being put to the test while they live with a foster family.
The ice breakers are considered for every case, although they are not implemented in cases in which the birth parents are not interested or are too angry or aggressive to be helpful participants. All foster parents receive training for the ice breakers. While a few foster parents were resistant to the experience at first and seemed to have a difficult time making the connection with birth parents, they have come to see the advantages that the meetings have for the children and their adjustment.
Commenting on the success of the ice breakers, Maryellen Bearzi, Administrative Deputy Director for the Protective Services Division of the Children, Youth and Families Department, said: "Ice breakers provide an early and critical opportunity for family engagement by recognizing their strengths and focusing on what matters most to all of us—the safety and well-being of the child."
Many thanks to Linda McNall, Regional Manager for the Protective Services Division of the Children, Youth and Families Department in New Mexico, who provided the information for this article.