Learning To Walk Alongside Birth Families
I first heard about foster care when I was in elementary school.
I was forever changed and knew immediately I would not be able to ignore the vulnerable children that I had just learned were being overlooked, unnoticed, and were essentially invisible to the general public.
It becomes hardest to work with broken families when we buy into the lie that the children are more precious than their parents. Both of their lives and their souls are worth fighting for.
I find it to be a great honor to get to meet someone at what is quite possibly the lowest place they will experience – having their children removed – and say I am here with you, you are loved, and I believe that you can do this. When I meet a new biological parent, I always try to picture myself getting down low to meet them eye to eye in the place they are currently sitting emotionally. It is too hard to help carry the load unless you get down under it with them.
This is why I do what I do.
Today, I am the Executive Director of Restoration Collective which exists to educate, empower, and restore families impacted by foster care. We are a relationship-based partnership for child and family services. Our newest program is RESTORE – a 5-week training for foster parents.
RESTORE is changing the approach to foster care by training foster parents to come alongside the biological family of the children that are placed in their home. Our vision is for the foster family to become a long-term support to the biological family during their open CPS case, throughout the monitored return, and after the case is closed. We believe that through relationship and mentorship we will see greater success rates of children leaving foster care to return to their biological parents and remaining there without additional intervention from the state.
I learned that very often broken families come from broken families. Before they became parents, they had already experienced great trauma and hardship themselves. Working directly with biological parents, it was humbling to hear their stories and understand their present circumstances in light of their own childhoods. If you start pulling at the thread of what systemic issues are tied to foster care it becomes a never-ending conversation on what causes certain behaviors. Some examples include addiction, domestic violence, neglect, lack of family support, racial disparity, incarceration, trauma, housing, poverty, etc. Over 75% of children are in foster care due to addiction in their parents. Addiction has become a pandemic in America. The National Safety Council just released a study that showed Americans are now more likely to die from an Opioid addiction than a car accident.
When working with families in the system, there is never a one size fits all answer when talking about what is best for different children, different families, and different situations. However, honoring the birth family is always the best option – what that looks like often plays out in different ways. We tell foster parents, the child you are caring for will carry the identity of their biological parents with them as they work through whatever transition comes their way – returning home, staying in foster care, or getting adopted. Children will associate everything said about their parents as part of who they are.
By honoring the birth family - this can look different for every family. Some practical ways include sharing information about doctor’s appointments, education, and extra curricular activities with the biological family. Studies have shown that visitation greatly impacts the trajectory of the case. Showing up timely and being flexible regarding the location and time of visitation. Allowing the biological parent to still take ownership in being a parent by asking for their input in what they would like the foster parents to be called, asking their input on the child’s routine or favorite foods, or by asking their input on ways to correct and discipline their child. This version of co-parenting will tear down the walls between foster and biological parents, highlight similarities, allow you to gently talk through differences, and will often bring you closer to the same page regarding what’s best for the child.
Story about a foster family and a bio family:
My friends Brian and Meghan had a little boy - Benji - placed with them that they described as being a great fit for their family. Meghan was driving home with Benji in the back seat one day when she felt convicted that “this is another woman’s child”. She says that at that time she knew factually he was another woman’s child, but up until that point he kind of felt like her child. She quickly began to realize that her job as a “stand-in mom” was to do everything she could to prepare Benji to go back to his mom and prepare Benji’s mom to get ready for him. She began being intentional with what she packed for visits. She would give the parents updates regularly on how Benji was doing. They began building a relationship with Benji’s family. Benji’s family embraced Brian and Meghan in return. It was no longer just dropping off Benji for visits but now his family would invite them in, feed them, and share their family time with them. Meghan says this shattered the narrative she had created in her head - that they had no one. She says it brought to light the assumptions and arrogance she had regarding what she thought was best for Benji. Brian and Meghan were in the courtroom when it was made official that Benji would be returning home. Benji’s father came up to Brian and said “he has two fathers now” and thanked him for taking care of his boy.