Interactions with your foster child’s parent may not be the hardest part of the foster care, but it can be the most nerve-wracking, especially the first contact. In most cases, you probably know very little about this person, and what you do know doesn’t paint him or her in a favorable light. You may have heard horror stories about hostile or dangerous parents, or you may just be nervous about interacting with someone whose story is so different from yours.
But despite all the initial awkwardness, and even hostility, it is often possible to form a good relationship with your foster child’s parents, if you’re willing to work at it. And while everything certainly doesn’t hinge on the first interaction, there are some things you can do at the beginning to help start things off on the right foot. Here are a few specific ideas of things to say when you first meet your foster child’s parent:
You have a beautiful daughter. Will you tell me about her? Your foster child is one thing you have in common, and she is the reason you need to build a good relationship with her parent. Asking about the child acknowledges your common ground and provides you with a chance to find out the things you need to know to care for the child. What are her favorite foods? Does he have any kind of bedroom routine? Some parents may not be able to offer too much that will help, but even the act of asking is beneficial, because it builds their confidence as parents—and that is crucial to their ability to do the work necessary to bring their children home safely.
I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you. As foster parents, we need to remember that the children placed in our homes are not the only ones going through trauma. The children certainly have no responsibility for what is occurring, and they must be our primary focus, but having your child removed from your care is also traumatic. We can have compassion for someone experiencing the consequences of poor behavior, even though we know those consequences are necessary.
Do you have any pictures of yourself that I can put in his room? It can be comforting for the children to have photos of the parent they love. But it also communicates that you honor the parent’s role in the child’s life and aren’t trying to replace her. Sometimes it can even be helpful to call this out directly.
It is not my job to decide when she comes home. My only role here is to care for your child the best I can, until the court decides she can come home safely. Anyone who has ever sat in a court hearing about a foster care case can tell you that there are a lot of people involved, all in different roles. Even for seasoned veterans, it can be difficult to keep them all straight. Your foster child’s parents are likely experiencing the same thing, so everyone can be lumped together as part of the system that is keeping him from the child. Distancing yourself from that system can help break down barriers that get in the way of a positive relationship.
Even if you follow all of these tips, you still might not have great interactions with your foster child’s parent. Don’t give up! These messages are important to communicate no matter how far along you are in the process.
Remember, too, that your foster child’s parent is not in the best frame of mind at the initial placement, or at least not in a place to build healthy, positive relationships. Her mental and emotional energy is consumed with the trauma of the child being removed and whatever issues brought the child into care in the first place, whether that is addiction or mental illness or another factor. One of my friends has been in these exact shoes, and she tells me that it wouldn’t have mattered what her child’s foster parent had said to her in the beginning. So, say them anyway, and then repeat them as often as in necessary.
Any successful relationship is usually built over time, and the relationship between a child’s parent and foster parent is no exception. Whatever situation you find yourself in, bite the bullet and put in the effort, even if it means swallowing your pride (it often does!). It’s awkward and sometimes scary, but the end goal is worth it.