Maintaining an open relationship with a child’s birth family after foster care and adoption can be challenging. Whenever possible, I think that maintaining that relationship is important, and there are ways to keep everyone involved if you choose to. In this article, I am referring specifically to foster care cases that are long term and the case has become adoptive. Typically, the goal of fostering is always reunification, but in some cases, fostering changes and progresses to adoption.
I have been lucky enough to have one of my children be able to maintain a healthy relationship with his birth family. While it is wonderful for him to have those connections, and for us as parents to have them as part of our support system, it can also bring about challenges.
When a case begins in foster care, guidelines are determined by the social workers and the court system. This makes the boundaries of the relationship very clear. Each person involved knows the amount of visit time to expect, the times, the activities, etc. There is not too much guesswork involved when each visit takes place with third-party planning. In some states, open adoption plans can include scheduled visits, frequencies, and boundaries too. In the state where I live, these types of plans are not recognized or legally binding.
Possibility of Kinship Placement
While that aspect is made easier during the foster care process, the relationships being created with the visits to the birth family can, in fact, be hard to accept if you are fostering. While the child is placed with you, if a family member would show interest in raising the child, or caring for the child full time, they would be able to gain placement.
A kinship placement gets preference over a traditional foster care placement. For foster families, creating bonding relationships with a child’s birth family can feel scary. It takes a lot of trust to go out of your way to pursue the relationships, knowing that it could result in you losing the child. You have allowed the child and the extended family to bond, to form a real relationship, and to get to know each other.
Because kinship placement is preferred, allowing that relationship to form also puts those relatives in a position to adopt the child or take placement of the child with little regard to the relationship you have as foster parents. Ultimately, the goal is to be sure the child is loved, and in my personal situation, I felt the more love directed at this child, the happier and healthier he would be. I still believe that. I didn’t take into account how the relationships would impact me.
During the fostering process, while waiting for the termination of parental rights and the finalization of adoption, it was an emotional time for the primary caregiver and foster parents. Each visit we facilitated with the birth family gave them more rights to take placement of this baby boy. There is no anxiety like that of knowing you could lose your child to their relatives. We lived in fear of them changing their mind and wanting placement for nearly two years! It was brutal to deal with that fear for so long. It is also hard to overcome that fear, even after a legal adoption has taken place. When you feel that way for so long, even knowing it is no longer a valid fear, it does not instantly go away.
Birth Family Visits
In my personal situation, while we were fostering, our child’s birth family was requesting visits with him. Specifically, his grandparents were interested in being able to visit, in addition to his birth mom having her visitations through social services. Being aware that the most common kinship placement is with grandparents, this request was somewhat difficult. We were excited for this little boy, who had so many who loved him, but we were terrified of losing him since we loved him too. Our caseworker allowed us to be able to have some input on family visits. Because there was a distance to travel for visits, we decided that we would have visits with grandparents whenever birth mom had visits. This made for some long days, but it worked out. Because the visitation with the grandparents was being done by request, and not as a court order, we were able to stay and be present during the visits (again, distance was a factor), and also form relationships with the grandparents.
I do believe that being able to form those adult relationships with them helped a great deal because they could witness the type of parents we would be for their grandchild. I think they knew he was incredibly loved, and he was happy and bonded with us. Also, since the visits were being done on a voluntary basis on our part, it helped for them to be able to trust our intentions, should we be able to adopt this young boy, were to maintain relationships with them and allow them to still be grandparents.
So, this all sounds like rainbows and sunshine. Where is the challenging part? Besides the anxiety of him being placed with birth family, this sounds like the ideal situation.
In most ways, it was the ideal situation. However, there were occasional conversations where they vocalized that they wished they could take him full time. Those separation fears were quite real and warranted after all.
We also had some struggle with who made decisions. There were many occasions we made requests, and they were not followed. I think this is a common complaint with all grandparents, not just in a complicated situation like ours. Grandparents tend to think they have the right to do anything with their grandkids, and that parents’ rules are meant to be disobeyed. This can be frustrating for all families.
Given that our situation was a bit more complicated than your average grandparent situation, this disregard for our rules and requests felt difficult to deal with. We were also just forming relationships with them, so when they did something we had asked them not to do (for instance, introduce new foods, allow other visitors that we didn’t know to meet the baby, post his photo online publicly, etc.) it felt like an intentional insult to us. And, to top it off, we didn’t feel like we could do much about it until we became legal parents to him, because if we made them angry, they could just decide to take placement of him. We had to walk on eggshells to try to navigate this relationship, which makes it very challenging.
Changing His Name
We felt a lot of pressure about the decisions we made. We tried to keep things honest and open, even when it was difficult. One such difficult moment was the discussion of our little boy’s name. He was given a name by his birth mother that would not be something we would have chosen. We typically called him by a nickname his brother gave him, and he didn’t know or respond to the name he had been given. His adoption was being finalized before age 2, so we felt comfortable that we could change his name without traumatizing him.
We were met with a lot of opposition from his grandparents on this. His birth mom was actually very supportive of our name choice and had no problem calling him his new name. We did keep his given name as a part of his new name, to honor his birth mom. We had several conversations, and a lot of pressure from his grandparents about changing the name, both first and last.
Not only were they unhappy we wanted to change his first name with adoption, but they also didn’t want us to give our son our last name. They asked if we would hyphenate the last name as a compromise. This is one of the moments that stands out as most difficult. We were not yet legally parents, and his biological family still had more power in the situation than we did. However, we felt strongly we were doing the right thing, and we would not compromise on his last name. It was a scary time, wondering if this decision would change any relationships or cause them to seek placement.
Thankfully, it all worked out. Grandparents remained grandparents, and we became legal parents. We should be able to breathe that sigh of relief…except, the anxiety doesn’t just disappear overnight.
We had a hard time in the beginning with visit expectations. While the case was a foster care case, we were required to transport our son an hour each way to visit once a week. There had been times when the visits were more frequent, but when the case turned to adoption, we all agreed to return the schedule to once weekly. After the case was closed and we were legally his parents, we wanted to relax the schedule a bit and make it more of a “natural” schedule. However, his grandparents were very insistent that visits remained weekly.
This was a situation where we all needed to reach a compromise. In the beginning, we maintained visits for a time, though we struggled to ease into a less rigorous schedule. Over the period of the first year, we reduced the visits slowly from once a week to once a month.
As our son grows, we simply don’t have as much free time as we used to. Kids start school, make friends, and join activities that take up more time. At this point, several years into our adoptive journey, we see grandparents and birth mom on more of a bi-monthly basis. I do think that we are all comfortable with this since the transition was slow and not sudden.
We have found difficulty in our expectations in our relationships, and in some communication and boundaries. We realized that our families did not have the same ideas as to what grandparents’ relationships all entail.
His grandparents had been requesting overnight visits with our son since he was an infant. Social workers never granted that request, and I was thankful. I am not the type of parent who uses overnight sitters often, if at all. As our son grows, we find ourselves facing more and more pressure for an overnight visit. So far, we have not consented to this type of visit. We know they are disappointed. But we are not comfortable with overnight visits. We need to do what is best and set those boundaries. In their families, they often visited grandparents overnight. They believe that is part of having the grandparent relationship. However, my husband and I did not grow up spending nights away from home. It just wasn’t how our grandparent relationships worked. We clearly had different expectations that we hadn’t clearly communicated.
Today, the relationship between the birth family and our family is comfortable. While there are occasions that we need to set a boundary or respectfully request that they let us handle some things, we also enjoy our time with them and have all formed great bonds.
His grandparents tend to be a more active part in our son’s life than his birth mom is, but she is always invited and aware when we are visiting. Sometimes, she chooses to be there, other times, she doesn’t.
We don’t have much contact with extended family members. We have visited with a great-grandma a few times, but overall, we aren’t a part of their larger family events. We would be okay with attending if requested, so the extended family could be a part of our little boy’s life. But we are also okay with the decision the grandparents make to keep the relationship to themselves.
It can be a bit difficult at times though when people who are strangers to you, but happen to be related to your child, make comments on social media about your son. Good or bad, it feels odd. They tend to want to make connections to him and his birth mom. Let’s face it, there are definitely some connections there…they do share DNA. But it can be hard when comments refer to her as his mother or disregard us as his family. I try not to take it personally, but it can hurt.
We are very grateful for the relationship we have with his birth family though. It is wonderful to be able to make a phone call when we have a health question or need to know of family medical history. This is typically a hard area for adoptees, not knowing genetic health information. Because we have maintained a friendly, open relationship, we are able to have fewer unknowns when it comes to health.
We are also grateful that his grandparents are willing to be a part of his life. While we may not always agree on some things, we are still navigating the ever-changing relationship and open communication needed to maintain it. We try very hard to make things work and to reach compromises when we are able. We think having so many people to love our son is a blessing, and we will try to maintain the relationship as best we can. As long as things remain positive, respectful, and loving, we feel like it is the best thing we can do for our son.
Insecurities on both of our parts will creep in now and then. That is part of maintaining open communication, and the struggle to keep appropriate boundaries comes in. Adoption is a journey, and this will be lifelong. I believe both sides are in for the long haul and are committed to what is best for this sweet little boy we all love.
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