Being a foster parent for the state brings about many interesting challenges. The most obvious is dealing with the issues the foster child may come with. The child who comes into foster care may have been abused or neglected and can have many problems related to that. Or they may have been a well loved child whose biological parents abused themselves and because of that put the child in danger. A child who comes from a situation like this can also have many problems dealing with the loss of their family. As a foster parent, you will need a lot of training, wisdom, patience, and even the willingness to work with these situations.
Another challenge the foster parent faces, however, is working with the biological family of the child they are taking care of. One of the jobs of a foster parent is to help mentor the biological family, if that is possible, and if the family will accept it. This can sometimes be a lot harder than taking care of the child itself.
A foster parent needs to be quick not to judge. It is easy to just assume that a parent who has lost custody of their child is not a good person and deserves what they get. But what should be considered is that many times, these biological parents have been abused themselves, and hardly know how to live any other way. Some of them have had terrible things happen in their lives that they have not yet overcome. I know of one parent whose own mother tried to kill her when she was just a small child. These families love their children, but just have no clue how to be a parent. It’s always good to start out in your journey with this family with compassion, rather than looking down on them. As time goes on, you may change your view, but in the beginning, try to believe that the family can be redeemed and reunited, which is the goal of CPS (Child Protective Services).
Sometimes the biological family wants to work with CPS and the foster parents. They only want their child back, and will do whatever it takes to reach that goal. These families are the easy ones. They are usually easy to get along with. You can feel good about what is being done in their lives, and although you will love the foster child and miss them when they are gone, you can know that you have helped a family become whole, and take comfort in that.
Other times, the family will be very angry at CPS, although they are trying to work their plan, but they will appreciate the foster parents who are taking care of the child. They understand the foster parent had nothing to do with their child being removed; they are just the people taking care of the child during this hard time. These families are a little more of a challenge to work with, although the challenge is more with CPS than the foster family. The family will sometimes try and align themselves with the foster parents, and be allies with them against CPS. You must be careful not to let the family believe this is the case. Help the family understand that you will not lie for them, or hide anything from CPS. Help them understand that you all need to be working together to get things made right so that the child can return home to a safe environment. Let them know you will be their best advocate if they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. And help them learn how to love and care for their child.
Another biological family may be mad at everyone. They see the foster parents as the enemy, as well as CPS. These families are the hardest to work with, especially if they are not above lying and making false accusations. In their minds, although they themselves may not realize this is what they are doing, if they can make the foster parents look bad enough, it will elevate them in the eyes of CPS, the judge, and everyone else. There is almost no way to make them understand that this is not the case, it only makes matters worse for them. The more they fight, accuse, and show that they face each situation with great anger, the more unstable they look in the eyes of the very people who can help them have their child returned to them. This is where the foster parent faces their biggest challenge, and will need the most wisdom. It will never be a good situation if the foster parent cannot deal with the angry parent in a mature, calm way, no matter what they throw at them, and they can throw some rough stuff.
And most of all, the foster parent who has been verbally abused, accused, and screamed at by the parents of the child they are caring for must not go home and let the hurt feelings caused by the biological parent rub off on the child. They must have the maturity to separate the parent and child, and deal with both with the care they individually need. They must continue to help the child love the biological parent. They must go to each visit with a smile on their face, and support the parent and child relationship.
Sometimes this can be very hard, and the foster parent will begin to feel the foster child would be so much better off if they were allowed to keep the child and adopt them. And in many cases this is very true, and it happens often that the child will end up being adopted by their foster family. But for the duration of the time the biological parent has to work a plan to have their child returned to them, the foster parent must continue to help them work towards that goal. It can sometimes feel like an impossible task, but it is the role you take on when you become a foster parent.
There are some things the foster parent can do to help the biological parents learn to help and care for their child. The main thing is that the foster parent should try to be the best example of good parenting they possiblity can. The biological parents need to see just how healthy and nice looking their child can be. When it’s time for a visit, always have the child looking their best. Have their hair washed and attractively fixed. Make sure their clothes are clean, nice, and well fitting. Check their fingernails and ears as you get them ready to go. Really, this is the way they should be most of the time. There is no excuse for letting a foster child have less care than you would give your own biological child. They are just as worthy of all the love and attention you can give them.
If the child is a baby, have the diaper bag well packed. This in itself is a good lesson for the biological parent who is young or just not quite sure how to parent. Try and have the baby rested and ready to see their parents. Give them some hints on how to comfort the child, and the child’s likes and dislikes.
If the child is older and verbal, talk to them on the way to the visit, and remind them of things they have done during the week that they can tell their parents about. Let them bring a favorite toy to show, or maybe have them draw a picture to give their parents.
When you arrive at the visit, greet the biological parents with a smile, and give them a brief rundown of the child’s week. Have pictures of the child for them to keep. Be as nice and helpful as you can be, or as they will let you be.
Much of the time, the biological family will bring fast food, soft drinks and candy to the visits. There can be much complaining among foster parents about how the child is loaded up and wired up by the time visits are over. But even if you are a total health fanatic, remember that this is their child, and that it is usually only once a week. Let them do this, and don’t be upset. If they ask your opinion, tell them you prefer healthier snacks. If they don’t ask you, and the child is wired, plan a trip to the park afterwards, so the child can run and play off the sugar rush. Unless the child has an allergy, this is just not worth making an issue over. This small amount of time is all the biological parent has with their child during the week, and they want it to be almost birthday party fun each time. That is understandable, and especially so if the parent is young and inexperienced.
Finally, the time comes when a decision is made whether to return the child to the parents, or terminate their rights and release the child for adoption. If the decision is made to return the child, the foster parent must be ready to accept that, whether they think it’s the right decision or not. This is by far the hardest part of fostering, the time of saying goodbye to the child. It can almost feel akin to a death as you watch them drive away from you, after your have spent a year or more loving, nurturing, teaching, feeding and bonding with this child. It can be just as hard on the child if they have bonded as strongly with the foster parent, and especially if they have no memories of living with the biological family. There is no way to get past or lessen the grief of letting go. The only comfort is in knowing that you have done your absolute best, and have given this child a safe haven during a terrible time in their life. This is another area where, if you have been able to establish a good relationship with the biological parents, it may reward you. Sometimes the biological family will be willing to let you continue to see your former foster child. They may at least be willing to send you pictures and updates once in a while. This can be a great comfort to the foster parent, especially if the outcome is good, and you can feel you have done a great work in reuniting the family.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem like a good outcome, and all you can do is pray for the child every time it comes to your mind. This in itself is a great ministry, and will do more for the child and their family than you will realize this side of eternity.
If the decision is made to release the child for adoption, then the foster parents have the option of adopting the child. If you decide to adopt, you can do this without any guilt, because you know you have done all you can to reunite the family. You know this child truly needs a forever home, and that the two of you were meant to be together.
You may find it in your heart to allow the biological family to continue to see their child, or at least write letters and send them pictures. This can be very healing for the child who misses their biological family, and can help the child grow up mentally healthy.
If the family is so abusive that you don’t feel like it’s in the child’s best interest, it would still be good to give the child the truth about what has happened in their lives. Don’t make things better than they are, or worse than they are. Just give them the truth about their biological family in age appropriate doses, and try to put a positive spin where ever you can without changing the truth.
Working with biological families can be a rewarding, interesting thing to do, with a little planning and a lot of mercy. If the foster parent can remember to have patience, wisdom, and the maturity to understand what the biological family is going through, and maybe has gone through in their own past, there is the chance to make a life changing difference in this family.