While children are in foster care, their biological families are provided with resources and plans to help increase their parental capacity, hopefully making them safer parents for children to return home to. For many prospective and current foster parents, interacting with biological families can be one of the more challenging aspects of their foster parent journey. Foster parents may be unsure of how to interact with biological family members or worry if it is even safe in some situations. They may even wonder if it matters, the social workers are handling the biological parents case plan so why should the foster parent get involved?
While foster parents are not asked to be the social workers for biological family members, they can be some of the greatest resources for a biological family. As foster parents open themselves up to become mentors and support systems for biological families, they will see parents grow and change in ways that cannot always be achieved through court mandated parenting classes or workbooks.
Not all relationships will look the same and they may not always end in a lifelong connection, but in many situations that foster parent-biological parent relationship can help to bring permanency and connectedness for the children in the case. It is not always easy, partnering and building a relationship with a foster child’s biological family, but it can be one of the most important things a foster parent does. Children in foster care who are able to see their biological family and foster family work together, even if reunification cannot happen, build a stronger sense of self and can avoid feelings of divided loyalty between the two families (1).
There are numerous ways to partner with biological families and the best methods can vary across cases and situations. We have included a list gathered from current foster parents of ways they have partnered successfully with biological families. Start small at first and work to build a relationship over time. Foster parents should take the first step and initiate the relationship whenever possible. If the biological parent is not ready to reciprocate, leave the door open for the relationship to grow in the future. Relationships and trust take time to build, but when they can be built great things can happen!
Ways to partner:
Visit Journal: Use a small notebook or folder that can easily be sent back and forth with a child during their scheduled visitation with their biological parents. You can include updates from the child’s week, questions you have for their parents about their care, or a suggestion for something the parent could help with during the visit like practicing sight words or multiplication tables.
Letters and Emails: Some biological families may find themselves unable to visit with their child for any number of reasons, especially extended family members. Letter or email writing can be an easy way to foster a relationship between the child and their family when possible. Ask your social worker if you can mail physical letters to and from their office if privacy is a concern. You can also create a separate email account solely for communicating with biological family. This will protect privacy and will keep all communications in one place for easy reference.
Texts/Messaging Apps: Texts and messaging apps are one of the easiest ways to connect with biological family members. You can easily send pictures, updates, or ask questions as needed. Some foster parents may not be comfortable giving out their cell phone number to biological family right away, but there are numerous other ways to text and communicate virtually. Google Voice is a great option for families who want to text with biological family members but want to protect their personal phone number.
Phone and video calls: Depending on the age of the child and situation, these calls could be brief to chat about the child’s day or week, they could involve the biological parent reading a bedtime story to the child, or could be a video call where they play a virtual game together or do some other activity.
Including biological parents in decisions about the child: This could include decisions about field trips, what the child should wear for their school picture day, what sport or activity to enroll the child in, or other every day decisions. While it may be extra work for you as the foster parent to reach out and ask for the biological parent’s opinion on these decisions, it can go a long way in keeping a parent connected to the care of their child and in helping model appropriate decision making.
Inviting them to appointments in-person as appropriate: Whenever possible, invite the biological parents to participate in the child’s appointments and meetings. For example, you could invite the biological mom to an upcoming well check for the child and also offer some suggestions of questions you usually ask the doctor so she knows what to ask during the appointment. These appointments can be a great opportunity to model parenting skills in real time to the biological parents.
Additional visits for holidays, birthdays, or other special occasions: If allowed, offer to facilitate special holiday or birthday visits with child and their family. Let the biological family plan a birthday party if appropriate and have their own special time to celebrate the child. Ask the biological family if they have any other special occasions they like to celebrate, maybe they have a family reunion every year or a day they gather to remember a relative who has passed, and see how the child can still be involved in those unique family events in some way.
Making duplicates to share with biological family: Whenever a child makes a craft, card, present, etc. at school or in another setting ask if they can create two versions. If they are making a Mother’s Day card at their preschool, discreetly ask the teacher if they could make two copies so they can be sure to have one to give to their biological mom and one you can keep as well for any memory book or keepsake collection you have for the child.
written by Lexie Fowler