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May 2020Vol. 21, No. 4To Benefit Children and Teens, Build Relationships Between Birth and Foster Parents

Written by Denise Goodman, Ph.D., senior fellow at Case Commons, expert on foster parent recruitment, retention and training—and former foster parent

"Are you sure?" I asked Bonnie. The spunky, thoughtful 17-year-old was nearing her high school graduation and I, her foster parent, was surprised. Who topped her wish list of attendees to the graduation party she'd be hosting? Her parents. Her parents?! I wasn't prepared for that!

In those days—this was years ago—it was inconceivable that foster and birth parents would ever meet. It was thought to be too dangerous. It violated confidentiality. What if the birth parent kidnapped the child? At the time, those were the reasons given for no contact between birth and foster parents.

Today, we know so much more. We understand that helping foster and birth parents develop a relationship to support a child or teen is a nonnegotiable benefit. We have learned the following:

  • Young people—even many whose home lives have been unsafe—tell us they still love and miss their parents. 
  • When teens age out of care, one of the first places they go is back to family—often, to a parent.
  • Relationships and attachment are key drivers of child and teen development. Finding ways for adults to show their love and concern for a child or teen can demonstrate a powerful message: The child or teen is important—and worthy of attention and love.

Learning From Kids and Families

I've worn a lot of hats from the late 1970s until today. I began working in a county child welfare agency, first in their shelter then in protective services. Eventually, I became director of a residential treatment program and then a foster parent. What's been most memorable to me throughout the years are the kids and their relationships with many parents—birth, foster, and kin.

I think about James, a teen in a treatment facility where I worked. He was planning to make his first weekend visit home, with the goal of reunification. Then, he was suspended for fighting at school. Ordinarily, that would have grounded him for the weekend at the facility. Reunification, however, is too important a goal to interfere with, and his parents had been working hard to make it happen.

I phoned his mother and asked if she'd be willing to ground him during his visit home, and she readily agreed. James's mother and I became allies working in his best interests. She learned a practical parenting strategy to use if he was suspended again. And a seed was planted in my own thinking that was helpful to both of us and James: Adults at the facility didn't have to do all the parenting. James's mom and dad could still play a key role.

Later, when I began to work in foster care, I met other foster parents who agreed—and who were even more forward thinking. Their philosophy—and the way they lived and worked—was family affirming. Said one: "Of course, we work and support the birth family. And the extended family, too!"

I was excited. But I was also conflicted. I had handled some pretty tough family situations over the years. And I had been taught a strict set of values and beliefs. Chief among them: There should be no contact between birth and foster parents. None!

Supporting Bonnie

Back to Bonnie and her graduation. After I got over my surprise, Bonnie and I talked. I got a glimpse of how much she wanted to involve her parents in her life. So we started to explore the idea. Her father was in prison for armed robbery, and no one knew the location of her mother, who struggled with substance use. We agreed that rather than inviting her parents to our home, we'd ask the long-separated couple to a local diner prior to the graduation ceremony. We sent an announcement to her father at the prison and gave information to her mother's family.

While Bonnie's mother never responded, her father did. He was due to be paroled in time for graduation and was looking forward to it. Bonnie was ecstatic; I was a nervous wreck.

The day arrived, and Bonnie and I entered the restaurant. Bonnie was delighted to see that her father had brought his long-term girlfriend. But I could see that dad and his girlfriend were extremely uneasy. I realized that they were very worried about what I thought of them!

After we left the diner, we three adults sat together at graduation. I could see how proud Bonnie's father was; his eyes welled up with tears. As we walked out of the auditorium, I spontaneously invited him to the party. When I offered my address, he replied, "I know where you live!"

He and his girlfriend came to the house and stayed long enough to give Bonnie a gift and share some cake. As they left, I offered my phone number. He said, "Oh, I have it!" All this time, he had followed what was going on with his daughter. But he had respected our privacy and our family. This allowed us to begin rebuilding a father-daughter relationship—and marked the start of my relationship with him.

Once I became a foster parent trainer and consultant, I had ample opportunities to advise social workers, supervisors, administrators and resource parents that connecting resource parents and birth parents is critical. Relationships between birth and foster parents must be cultivated and supported. As child welfare systems, foster care is the most important service we provide children, teens and families. If you value permanent family relationships as the foundation on which young people build healthy lives, please join me and other resource parents. Make sure your system supports parent-to-parent relationships in policy and practice. It's time these relationships are seen as vital—and nonnegotiable.