When I first became a foster parent, I was hugely intimidated by the thought of engaging with my foster child’s mom. I assumed she would not like me, or she would be really hostile, or she might even be dangerous. I had visions of her showing up at our house or her child’s school and confronting me.
Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’ve learned a thing or two. I have never had a parent show up anywhere, I have had mostly really good interactions, and now I know that it is very possible for a foster parent to cultivate a good relationship—or at least acquaintanceship— with her foster child’s parents.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s always awkward at the start. But, in my experience, it is worth making the effort to press through the awkwardness and pursue meaningful interactions.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you do:
First, it’s up to the foster parent to make the first move. When a person has had her child removed by Child Protective Services, she is filled with guilt, shame, and fear. In light of that, she is probably not going to reach out to the foster parent. She might not even know that she can! As the foster parent, you are in a position to extend hospitality not only to the child in your care, but to his parents as well.
Second, small gestures go a long way in helping to foster good will with your foster child’s mom or dad. I recommend doing a few very simple, basic things. Send a journal back and forth at visits or setting up a Google Voice number so the parent knows they have a way to connect with you. Show up to at least one visit so you can introduce yourself and express your support for the family’s reunification. Send school papers or art projects to visits to help Mom and/or Dad feel connected to their child’s day-to-day life. Text (again, through Google Voice) pictures or other updates periodically. All of these actions keep the parent engaged with their child (which is essential for maintaining their bond), while also communicating that you are with them and for their reunification.
Third, only speak positively about your foster child’s parent to their kids. Never, ever bad mouth a foster child’s parent. Even if the child does. Either find a way to genuinely express support for their parent, or don’t say anything at all. Even children who have been terribly hurt and traumatized by their parents usually love them and care about their well-being.
Fourth, be open to the possibility that this person could become your friend. In my experience, it is rare for this to happen, but it has happened! While there are certainly cases when children are in foster care due to horrendous abuse and they will never be reunified with their parents, many times, the circumstances are that a parent needs rehab and a good recovery program and support system. This, of course, takes time, and during that time, their child needs to be someplace where she will be safe and well cared for. But be willing to accept that parent’s transformation and be willing to let her put her past in the past. Just last week, we had one of our former foster children over for a play date. I’m in a good relationship with her mom, and we have maintained a friendship after foster care. This is possible because I don’t see her through the lens of what happened to put her daughter in foster care. I see her through the lens of what she did to get her back.
Fifth, stop referring to your foster child’s parent as a “biomom” or “birth mom.” These two terms are adoption terms, not foster care terms, and using them betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of your role as a foster parent. The child has a mom (and maybe dad) who is, at least in theory, working hard to be reunified with her child. Your job is to support that. Referring to her as “biomom” undermines her role in her child’s life and assumes that the child will not be reunified. It is also very confusing for children who know they have a mom and are eager to be living with her again. To call her “biomom” or “birthmom” reduces her role to something less than “mom,” making her sound more functional than fundamental to to the child’s current well-being. If you do end up adopting your foster child, then you can explore what term you will use to refer to your child’s “first mom” (the term we use). For a child who was with his mom for years, saying “birthmom” does not make a lot of sense. She was his mom, he remembers her as his mom. “First mom” distinguishes her place in his life and keeps things authentic. (For what it’s worth, we don’t refer to me as “second mom.” I’m just Mom, or sometimes “forever Mom,” to my adopted children.)
There are, of course, exceptions, because every child in foster care has his or her own story and dynamics. We have had children whose family of origin showed no interest at all in maintaining a connection with us (or their child, sadly).
But for the most part, I recommend these tips as being the default posture for foster parents to take when engaging with their foster child’s parents. Foster parents can play a significant role in fostering not only the children in their home, but their parents’ hope and future as well.