When it comes to communicating with your foster child’s family, I encourage foster parents to make every effort to connect. The goal of foster care is reunification, and data shows that parents who have contact with their children while they are in foster care are more motivated to do the hard work required of them to get their children back. This may include parenting classes, outpatient recovery programs, inpatient treatment, and more. But even if the parents themselves are not involved, contact with other members of the child’s family—aunts, uncles, siblings, grandparents—can help the child stay connected and keep a sense of their identity and sense of home within that family.
I have found that you can expect the interactions to look one of four ways.
First, and ideally, there is the mutual relationship between a foster parent and their foster child’s parent(s) or family members. This is when all of the adults involved in the child’s life—from your home and their family of origin—recognize the benefit of their communication for the child who is in care. I have experienced this several times, to varying degrees. It may mean touching base by phone, keeping the parent update with photos and texts, and even meeting up in person for park playdates. In one case, I developed such a good rapport with a woman whose daughter was with us that I wrote a letter to the judge on her behalf, and after the little girl was reunified with her mom, we continued to see each other periodically. In another case, we became friends with the aunt and uncle of a child who was in our care, and over the course of time, we actually visited one another’s homes, sharing meals together and celebrating milestones in the child’s life.
The second and most common communication I have experienced as a foster parent is a one-sided relationship. This is when a foster parent sends updates to a parent without much/any response from the parent. For a variety of reasons, parents of children in foster care may struggle with being in touch with their child’s foster parent. Shame, grief, substance abuse, and fear are all contributing factors to why a parent might “go dark.” Still, I encourage foster parents to do their part to stay in touch and keep sending the parent updates, either directly (if you have their contact information) or through the case manager.
The third and least common communication I have experienced as a foster parent is hostile communication. This is when a parent treats the foster parent with open hostility, lodges unmerited complaints or accusations, threatens the foster parent, or otherwise makes a mutual relationship impossible. I have only experienced this one time in my years of foster parenting, but it definitely left an impression! We faced allegations of neglect from parents we had never met. We were cleared of all allegations, but the experience of being under investigation made it impossible for us to be in touch with that child’s parents or have any kind of fruitful dialogue.
The fourth style of communication I have experienced with the parent(s) of children in our care is the absent or unresponsive parent. Sadly, I have experienced this a number times, and in my experience, those cases typically go to severance, or termination of parental rights. This is the case where the child is scheduled for visits that the parent does not show up for, phone calls with the parent that never happen, or the parent otherwise going off the grid and making no contact with their child or case manager for months at time, if ever. This is very hard for the child in care, as they are left to wonder about their parent’s well-being and progress.
Ultimately, a foster parent can only do so much. But in as much as it is up to the foster parent, I encourage pursuing a mutual relationship if at all possible. Will it get messy? You bet it will. Awkward, uncomfortable, and frustrating? Sometimes, yes. But if a child can experience a good rapport between her mom or dad and her foster parent, that child has a solid shot at getting through her stint in foster care without as much damage as she would otherwise.