• Dec 2009/Jan 2010
  • Vol. 10, No. 10

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"Bridging the Gap" Between Birth and Foster Parents

The following is part of a series of occasional articles on programs that come to the attention of the National CFSR Team during their reviews.

Children in foster care have a more positive experience if their birth parents and foster parents work together to ensure that the children feel loved and comfortable in their out-of-home placement. That's the principle behind Northern Virginia's Bridging the Gap practice, which connects birth parents with foster parents when children enter foster care.

"Bridging the Gap is a practice, not a program," explains Claudia McDowell, the Program Manager for Fairfax County's Foster Care & Adoption Program, which is part of Bridging the Gap's Northern Virginia Initiative. It begins with an icebreaker meeting between the birth and foster parents within the first few days of a child's placement. The caseworker arranges and facilitates the meeting and continues to remain involved at every step. Subsequent communication depends on each family and set of circumstances. Birth and foster parents may continue to communicate through notes in a diaper bag, phone calls, visits, or, in some cases, joint family dinners or events. The relationship that develops is unique to each family but can provide benefits to both the children and the two sets of parents. Children are generally more comfortable and secure when they know their foster and birth parents are sharing information, birth parents know more about the family taking care of their children, and foster parents learn about the children's family and background.

While promoting relationships between birth and foster parents had been practiced informally in Fairfax County by some caseworkers and parents for a number of years, the county decided to move toward formalizing the practice in 2005. This decision eventually led to a unique collaboration among 10 private and 4 public agencies in Northern Virginia working together on Bridging the Gap. A steering committee of representatives from these agencies oversaw the implementation. The group received special consultation and training from Denise Goodman at the National Resource Center (NRC) for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency Planning*. She helped the group define timelines and develop training materials and protocols for caseworkers and foster parents. Bridging the Gap had its formal kickoff in 2008 and is currently in an evaluation phase.

The evaluation involves examining feedback from both sets of parents and the social worker as provided immediately after the icebreaker meeting and 6 months later. While some foster parents have been initially concerned about safety issues and some social workers have been a bit skeptical of the benefits of such meetings, the data so far show overwhelming support for Bridging the Gap. The agencies involved continue to implement the process for the majority of families and expect to eventually conduct evaluations of Bridging the Gap's impact on permanency outcomes.

The NRC for Permanency and Family Connections website (http://www.nrcpfc.org/teleconferences/03-19-09.html) carries information about Bridging the Gap,  including:

  • Bridging the Gap: Definition and Rationale 
  • Frequently Asked Questions: A Guide for Social Workers and Foster Parents 
  • Roles and Responsibilities in Bridging the Gap

For more information, contact Claudia McDowell, LCSW, Program Manager, Foster Care & Adoption, Fairfax County, VA, at Claudia.McDowell@fairfaxcounty.gov

*Now known as the National Resource Center (NRC) for Permanency and Family Connections

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