“One hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, how big my house was or what kind of car I drove. But the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of a child.”[i]
While a foster child is under their temporary care, foster parents have many ways to help improve the situation. The most important task for foster parents is to provide a stable home during a period of uncertainty. At the same time, they can work actively to promote permanence. Recognizing the critical nature of bonding, foster parents must honor the original attachment to the birth parents where appropriate. If the birth parents can remedy the problems that led to the child's removal within a reasonable time, this will maintain the attachment with minimal disruption.
Preparing the child for a return to his birth family becomes the first step. Listen to the birth parents. Learn from them as much as possible about the child you share. Respect their knowledge and relationship. Encourage them to follow through on the initial plan to return the child home. Cooperate with visitation. Keep track. Do they miss appointments? Are they late? What is their attitude with you? With their child? Help the birth parents with their organization and punctuality. Model and teach parenting skills. Be positive and supportive of their steps in the right direction. Monitor the progress or lack of it toward reunification, and keep the case manager informed.
Delay, however, is not an option. Time is not on the side of the child. The child is growing and developing. Society and the birth parents may feel that they have time, but the child does not. Drift works against nature's clock. Childhood is a formative period requiring stability. ASFA has specified wise timelines. They need to be followed. The mandate from both research and the law: Reunify within child time or find a new permanent home.
If or when reunification fails, the foster parents frequently become the next choice for permanence. Of the foster children adopted in 2012, 56 percent were adopted by their foster parents.[ii]
If the case plan is for adoption and you are hoping the child can become part of your family, consider a cooperative adoption. If you and the birth parents can get along and they are not likely to harm the child, this resolution has several advantages, starting with the fact that you already know each other. The fact that the child’s relationship to his or her birth family does not totally end may be another advantage. Permanence may be much easier to achieve if a drawn out either-or battle can be avoided. The child can be protected by limits specified in the post-adoption visitation agreement.
Each child enters a foster home with cultural differences and considerable emotional baggage. To attach and perhaps bond, the foster family needs to listen to the child, to mentally go where the child is. This is very different from demanding that the child immediately accommodate to his new parents' way of doing things.
How can foster parents “listen” to their new arrival? One good way is to work with the child to prepare a story of the child's earlier life. Called a Life Book, this is wonderful way to give the child an appreciation of his or her past. At the same time, the new parents are learning what the child brings to the present moment. Begin by incorporating information you have obtained from the birth parents and case manager.
Life Books create connections. Connections with our past are what give us our identity, stability and wholeness. Connections are relationships, memories, feelings, places, and things that make up the fabric of belonging to and being a part of a family or a group. They allow us to enter new relationships as a complete person, without feeling so lost, adrift and empty. They help define who we are and provide the foundation for our well-being.
Simple connections that make a difference for children might be continuing their religious tradition, maintaining the parent’s preference for their child’s hair style or including the child’s favorite types of food at meals. If the child is to return home, this provides comfort and continuation. Add pictures, impressions and feelings collected during the period the child was placed in your home.
If you are adopting a foster child or are the foster parent of a child that is being adopted, Life Books can prepare the foster child for adoption. Help your child collect pictures, record memories and write down his or her feelings. The child’s past will always be a part of who they are, and the Life Book provides an appropriate way to help frame their past in context with their new family. Progress toward new connections is facilitated.
Tom and Jean Gaunt, biological, foster and adoptive parents, have developed a useful outline in creating Life Books for their large adopted family.[iii] It can be easily adapted for any foster child. Their book contains five chapters, and starts with a standard binder and a clear pocket cover. They allowed their foster/adoptive child to design the insert for the front cover. Envelopes were included in the back for the child to collect keepsakes. This gave their child the opportunity to claim ownership of the Life Book.
Work with your child and be creative! Here is the Gaunts’ outline, which is filled with suggestions.
(You can download this outline from the following URL: www.adoptioninchildtime.org/abdownloads)
Chapter One: Who Me?
- a) Baby pictures
- b) Important information like a copy of the birth certificate, birth information (hospital, date of birth, weight, length), social security number, etc.
- c) Questions to be answered. What is my favorite food? What do I want to be when I grow up? What makes me happy? What makes me angry?
Chapter Two: My Birth Family
- a) Include as many pictures as possible of birth relatives such as mom and dad, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, and others. If no pictures are available, then provide space for your child to draw pictures of their family.
- b) Make a family tree.
- c) Take a trip and take pictures with your child of their birth homes, schools, play areas and fun spots.
- d) Ask them to write down feelings about their birth family. What was your favorite family holiday? What do you miss about your birth home? What would you say to your birth parents?
- e) This chapter could include a letter to their birth parents saying good bye.
Chapter Three: My Schools
- a) A place for each school grade picture
- b) A listing of schools attended
- c) Pictures of teachers or class pictures
- d) An art picture for each grade
- e) Report cards
Chapter Four: What Makes Me Tick?
- a) Shot records
- b) Medical history
- c) List of doctors and professional service providers
- d) Family medical history
- e) Special needs
Chapter Five: Getting Adopted!?!?
- a) Listing and pictures of previous foster parents
- b) Questions to answer before meeting adoptive parents. Where would I like to live? What do I think my adoptive parents will be like? What would I like my bedroom to be like?
- c) Questions to answer after moving in. Date when I met my new adoptive parents? Date when I moved in? Date my adoption was finalized?
- d) Pictures of my new family and me!
Memories provide us with a base. We need a base from which to grow. That is what a Life Book does: It provides the displaced child with the story of his or her journey. Where he can go depends on where he’s been. Give your child the gift of his or her past.
Take a few minutes every day to write down the ordinary and extraordinary happenings in the life of your foster child. This has benefits for both you and your child. Why is this so important?
Keeping a daily journal assists you as a foster parent when you are advocating for your foster child at case conferences or at court hearings. When opinions are divided, the journal provides you with reasons and documentation for your views. The written word has power.
Journaling helps you get to know your child better. By recording daily happenings in a journal, you concretely invest yourself in the child’s continuing growth and development. If you wish to adopt, a daily journal provides strong written evidence of your everyday commitment to provide a permanent home. A well-kept journal provides documentation about the emergence of bonding.
Events recorded at the time can be vital in defending against unwarranted allegations of neglect or abuse. When some questionable event or conflict arises, write down the details when they occur. The record of an event when it occurs is a big improvement over memory and guesses. Whether you wish to adopt or are answering charges of abuse, keeping a journal is the number one way you can help your attorney.
Here are some examples of events worth including. You never know what problems may arise later.
- Write down behaviors, good or bad, and any progress made.
- Keep a record of doctor appointments.
- Report on school progress or problems. Keep notes from teachers.
- Write down any requests/communications between you and the case managers.
- Keep a record of visitation with the birth parents.
- Document interactions between the siblings and any behaviors after a visit.
- Anticipate defending yourself against false allegations of abuse or neglect by documenting any problems.
- Document daily family life.
Judges can only make decisions about a child's case plan based on the information presented in court. The person making decisions needs accurate and complete information about the child’s needs. Information, as presented by the child welfare department or the birth parents, may be incomplete, biased or just plain wrong. Your foster child depends on you as the most informed person at the conference or in the courtroom. Federal law states that you have the right to present both written and oral evidence to the court. Your journal can provide critical written evidence that can correct misinformation and bolster your opinion about what is in the child's best interests.
Write on a regular basis—daily, or at least every few days. Set a regular time to write and stick to it. If you decide to write when you get around to it, the days will fly by and nothing will be recorded. Be sure to write when your foster child has had some special event in his or her life. Be sure to date your journal entries, day, month and year, at the start of each entry. The date can be important should a dispute arise at a later time.
Do not use your journal to attack the birth parents, the child welfare department or any other interested parties. Instead, pretend you are a camera and record what happened each day. Did the child cry, laugh, get angry, act out, appear sad? Describe any actions of the child that led to your conclusion: failing to eat, unexplained sickness or vomiting; fighting with another child in the household; destructive behavior of any kind. Describe the good things as well: school successes, kindnesses, good interactions with peers. Remember to stick to facts.
School Datebooks has produced A Daily Journal for Foster Parents. This book is a handy way for foster parents to keep regular notes and contains much additional information of value to foster parents. The Journal is available on the ACT website (www.adoptioninchildtime.org/abdownloads).
Most problems of foster children arise from unresolved issues about attachment. They have had traumatic experiences with earlier relationships due to loss or abuse. They may be reluctant to reconnect or they may interact with hostility.
Because of its supposed temporary nature, foster care presents a dilemma. If the foster parents and child become attached, the child may face the loss of one more relationship and the damage done to the child may deepen. If, however, the foster parent presents a cool, detached front, the child may be reinforced in the notion that no one truly cares. In everyday life, this dilemma is more theoretical than practical. Whether one intends it or not, most foster parents become emotionally attached. As time passes, attachment and bonding occur naturally.
Find a therapist who is familiar with the problems inherent in foster care, and one who works primarily with parents. Therapy and healing occur not in a doctor’s office, but at home. The therapist can help the parents learn how to model attachment and teach compassion when opportune moments arise.
The temporary nature of foster care has understandably taught most children to keep a distance. They may seem isolated, avoid contact with others, resist comforting, or act cruelly to animals and other children. Parents may find it hard to relate to a child day in and day out without any emotional response. Despite these difficulties, foster parents can help to prepare the child for permanency and for life by modeling healthy relationships and interactions within the family.
The best time to teach or demonstrate attachment is when the detached or hurtful behavior occurs. The window of opportunity has opened. The unattached child may behave cruelly, or in a way that shows he has no compassion or feeling for others. His antenna fails to pick up the emotions of those around him. This is a teachable moment.
Love the pet. Kathy’s 4-year-old foster son liked to hurt animals. She caught him hurting the cat. So she took the cat and held it. She showed him how to stroke and love the cat appropriately. She took his hand and said, “This is how we love the cat and not hurt the cat.” If the parent is consistent, the child will get it. When he goes to touch the animal, be sure to say, “Remember, we love the cat, not hurt the cat.”
Cuddle the baby. Lynn brought a new foster baby home. Within a few hours, her older adopted son decided to pick the baby up by its neck. In response, she took the baby and said, “No! We need to love the baby.” This was a live baby, not the cat! Rather than let him handle the baby directly, she bought her son a “Baby Alive” doll that ate, drank and wet. She added a diaper bag. As Lynn would feed or change the real baby, her son copied what she did with his doll. She modeled baby love while reiterating how to love the baby. “This is how we hold the baby; and this is how we feed the baby.” After a while, she would let him hold the bottle while she held the baby, or bring baby wipes when she was changing a diaper. This was a good way to bond with her son and for him to learn that the new addition to the family was not a threat.
Respond to physical hurt. Jan’s daughter fell off her bike and cut her leg open. She was bleeding. Her 8-year-old son got his emotions mixed up sometimes and was not sensitive to others. He was laughing. At this moment Jan said, “Do you see your sister? Do you see her blood? This is not a laughing moment. This is a sad moment. Sissy is crying. Sissy is bleeding. Sissy is hurt. We are sad.” Jan’s face was sad.
Give him the look. Over-dramatizing facial expressions when explaining emotion to the younger child is compelling. Show him a sad face as Jan did. Let him get the emotional message from the tone of voice and the look. Emphasize facial expressions when making a point.
Show him the move. Defiant behavior may be hard to handle. For long-term help in this area, Sue found that Karate or Tae Kwon Do worked very well, both for teaching self-discipline and curbing problem behavior. Children get their energy out through carefully programmed actions. They also learned “yes sir” and “yes ma’am.” They were rewarded with belts and other tokens for progress. When they became hyperactive or needed to refocus attention, Sue simply asked to see their karate moves. This way, she defused the situation and refocused them on another physical and interpersonal activity.
Show me the feelings. Mary had a poster in their home that had funny exaggerated faces expressing all varieties of feelings. She asked her son to identify his feeling (or someone else’s) by pointing at the proper face on the chart. This was an important way to help him visualize emotion. Mary also asked him to identify his emotion when he woke up in the morning, after school and before he went to bed. If his emotions changed, it opened a line of communication to discuss what happened.
Children with attachment problems often require extra assistance. If time passes and the child remains unattached, professional help may be needed. Join a support group. Find a good psychologist. Remember, however, that attachment is not a skill learned in a doctor’s office. Rather, it happens in the home. Parents need to be creative with children who have emotionally distanced themselves. There are no simple solutions to these disorders and no magic pills. Do not be afraid to be unconventional. Just find what works and stick with it. Foster children are challenging.
Communicate with the case manager on a regular, even weekly, basis. Foster parents should not wait for a crisis. Stay in touch. A phone call, a journal update or an email may be sufficient. Build a normal and steady routine of contact.
Begin all communications on a positive note. Good communicators begin with positive remarks. Every face-to-face contact with the other players should start with two uncritical comments or compliments. This tried-and-true strategy is used in mediation, labor-management negotiations and sales. Thank them for the invitation. Offer a smile. Praise their office décor or what they are wearing. Ask a question about something of theirs that you notice, perhaps a family picture or a sports trophy.
All good communication must be informative. You are an expert on what you think and feel, not what you suspect the other person thinks. Practice using “I” instead of “you” in your discussions. The “I” message avoids criticism and judgments about other points of view. People are more apt to hear what you as the foster parents have to say if you don’t spend your time attacking the other opinions.
Listen. Keep an open mind. Consider what others have to offer. Respect their thinking. People are more likely to listen if they are listened to.
Work regularly with the CASA or GAL. Keep the CASA/GAL informed of the everyday progress and setbacks. Communicate positively as described above.
Attend all conferences and hearings. You are important to your foster child. You have something to say.
Knowledge is power, and therein lies the foster parents’ elemental strength. Very often, foster parents have the most day-to-day information about the child’s behavior, reports from the school and doctor, and contact with the birth family. They must find effective ways to present this everyday knowledge about the child to the decision-makers. While foster parents cannot order changes, they need to be advocates for the children in their care, acting as salespeople in presenting what they know and believe.
Foster parents often have much to say about medical care, school issues, visitation with the birth parents, and whether and when to change the permanency plan to adoption. Their knowledge and opinions need to be heard. Unfortunately, fearing retaliation, foster parents are often afraid to speak out.
One foster mother told us that the family therapy was not helping. “We all have to go three times a week. We’d do better if it were changed or stopped. But I’m afraid to bring it up or argue for fear we’ll have our foster children removed—or be blackballed from any more placements.” She needs to find her voice to explain the problem to the case manager. Caving in to what the others recommend or being silent in fear of retaliation must not be an option. Rather, foster parents must learn how to present their knowledge and opinions without threatening the other players. One does not have to be combative to be effective.
Foster children benefit from an honest discussion of alternatives. Yet the foster parents may feel they are “just foster parents,” or that they are not important decision-makers. For the sake of the child, they need to find ways to make themselves heard.
Speak up. Stand up for the child in your care. That is part of your responsibility as a foster parent. State what you think is best and why. Don’t blame or impugn the motives of others. Find a way to get information to the case manager and, if necessary, into court for the judge to hear. Don’t be hesitant for fear of being blackballed. Remember, the best decisions can only be made if all sides and opinions are adequately presented.
Regard court as a last resort. The courtroom is an adversarial setting. Arguing in court may sometimes be necessary, but it is far better to have matters resolved before going to court. If foster parents feel they will have problems presenting important information in court, they should hire an attorney who is familiar with foster care policies and laws.
Put the information in writing. A quarterly summary can be used to inform the judge at a court review hearing, to update the case manager or simply to organize the foster parents’ own thinking. Here is a good outline for a three-month review:
(You can download this review from the following URL: www.adoptioninchildtime.org/abdownloads)
- GENERAL: Tell what has gone on with your foster child. Mention any problems.
- SCHOOL: Tell your child’s grades and behavior. Attach a report card.
- MEDICAL: Note any illnesses, injuries or medical problems. Give dates of doctor visits.
- DENTAL AND EYE CARE: List any dentist or optometrist visits. Give the results.
- COUNSELING: List visits to the therapist and tell of your foster child’s progress. Ask the therapist for a written summary.
- FOSTER HOME: Tell how your child has adjusted and gotten along in your home.
- SOCIAL SKILLS: Tell how your foster child has gotten along with others his or her age.
- SPECIAL INTERESTS: Note any activities or hobbies that your foster child enjoys.
- VISITATION: List visits with the birth family and tell how they have gone. Give facts, not your opinion.
- CASE MANAGER: Tell about your relationship with the child welfare department. Mention what issues you would like to discuss at the next case conference.
- ANYTHING ELSE that you believe is important.
FOSTER PARENT SIGNATURE ________________
Children in care need the foster parents’ knowledge and love. If the foster parents are concerned that the child’s best interests are being ignored, they need to speak out as an advocate. Getting along is the key to making a difference. Foster parents should use good communication skills to be sure that the information necessary to make informed decisions affecting the child’s entire life and future is available to the welfare department and in court. When communication appears to fail, they may need to hire an attorney to be sure that all information and recommendations are fully presented before the judge. The child is the most important party to all these efforts, and the child’s best interests are paramount.
Chapter 11 What the Foster/Adopt Parents Can Do Notes
[i] Forest Witcraft
[ii] Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System—AFCARS Report No. 20, 2012.
[iii] Tom and Jean Gaunt, “Why and how to prepare a life book,” In: Foster Parent Daily Journal, (Lafayette, IN: School Datebooks, 2008.)