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May 2020Vol. 21, No. 4Everyone Needs Relationships

Written by Jerry Milner and David Kelly

If ever there was evidence of the need for and power of relationships during hard times, it is before us now.  The public health crisis has left the vast majority of us confined to our homes and socially isolated.   Distance from friends, loved ones and critical support is causing people to feel disconnected and alone.  Our inability to spend time with and even hug people we are close with has brought the importance of human connection in our lives into acute, and for some, quite painful focus.  Some of us likely are realizing we took time with important people in our lives for granted.

People and relationships are who and what most of us turn to when confronted with a tough choice, difficult challenge or loss.  Relationships provide support and help us navigate or heal from nearly all that life throws our way.  Human connection is one of our most basic needs.  We know it because we can feel it and have experienced it.  The literature is also replete with verification of the need for and benefits of connection and, of course, the consequences of not having that need met.

This moment should be a reminder to all of us professionals in child welfare of just how important relationships are for parents of children in foster care.  There are few larger crises than separation from a child, and perhaps few more lonely hours than those following that separation.  The uncertainty of not knowing where or with whom your child may be placed can heighten stress and aloneness---as a society we spend so much time telling young children to be careful around strangers, and in an instant, a child can be placed with an unknown family.

As a field, these needs are often overshadowed by our quest for the latest off the shelf clinical intervention or evidence-based practice.  As people who have reviewed thousands of case plans over the years---we struggle to recall many instances in which notes reflected efforts to provide emotional support, peer partners—or efforts for resource parents to work directly with parents to help provide a sense of connectedness and support.

Parents with children in foster care need relationships and connection, too.  In fact, the stories we have heard from parents about the loneliness, frustration, and often hopelessness that accompanies having their children removed suggest that their need for relationships is even stronger during an episode of foster care.  Further, the absence of meaningful and supportive relationships contributes to social isolation, a factor in eroding the protective capacities of parents.

As we search for meaning in the public health crisis and look for lessons learned and ways to be better as individuals, professionals and a society, we can draw upon this powerful reminder that relationships matter and work with intention to help parents with children in foster care nurture relationships, social connection and peer support.

The incredibly positive news is that there is great potential at the ready.

We believe firmly that there is a largely untapped and incredibly helpful source of relational support for parents with children in foster care-- resource families.  We believed this prior to the public health crisis and our conviction is even stronger now as we see the effects of isolation and inability to connect much more clearly and broadly than before.

For the second consecutive year, the theme for National Foster Care Month is "Foster Care as a Support to Families, not a Substitute for Parents".  Although we seek to reduce the need for foster care to the lowest level possible, there will likely always be some need.  Where that need does exist, foster care can and should be a dramatically different experience for children in care and their parents than the more typical experiences we see.  Foster care can be a vehicle for safe and expeditious reunification.  It can be an opportunity for parents to focus on addressing personal challenges while working in partnership with resource parents to make sure their children have all of their needs met.  Foster care can be as much about attending to the emotional and relational needs of a parent as it is to meeting the needs of the child in care.  It can be an opportunity for a parent to form a relationship of trust with a resource parent who can serve as mentor and source of encouragement and support.  The relationships can continue post reunification and resource parents can continue to help support parents in different ways.

We know it is possible, because we have seen examples across the country and spent time talking with resource parents who see supporting parents as a purposeful way to give back to their community or an expression of their faith.  We have heard directly from parents separated from their children about the difference it makes to meet and get to know the resource family and to be welcomed and encouraged to spend time in the resource family home.  We have heard stories of the difference something as simple as a phone call from resource families following removal can make, where resource families introduce themselves to the parents, let them know they are there to help, that they will be rooting for them, provide support and clarifying that they are not in this to try and take their kids.

We have been on a mission to change the shape of foster care in the United States for the past three years, motivated by what we have seen made possible through intentional relationships between resource families and parents.   If we mobilize caring people around the country to help care for families and children that make contact with the child welfare system, as opposed to children alone, we can demonstrate what we all know about the need for relationships and human connection. 

We can work together as people who care about other people to apply the lessons the pandemic has taught us and do everything we can to make foster care a support to the entire family.