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Monday, September 16, 2013

Working With Birth Parents

If you have followed my blog you know that I have not always been easy on birth parents. In fact, I have been critical, judgmental, tough, frustrated, and angry. And then this amazing thing happened: I learned to work with and form a relationship with the Birth Mom of my former foster kids. I would NEVER in a million years have believed that I could do that with any birth parent, particularly this birth parent.

I thought I would share how I got enough perspective to reach this point. It was not easy. And it was definitely a process. And I'm not sure if I read someone else's story that I would have followed their advice. But I did read about other foster parents who had openness with former foster placements and I found it helpful to know that others managed to make it work (even if I thought they were crazy).

1) Realize that the Birth Family comes from a completely place.

Not just a different city or county but a different culture, set of experiences and lifestyle. I know that this is discussed in most foster parenting classes. But take everything you know and throw it out the window. I had no reference point of where Maria came from. 

It became painfully obvious how different we were the time I took her to a burger place and she tried to order soup. Why did she order soup? Because she wouldn't dream of paying $8 for a hamburger and couldn't read anything on the menu. Could you imagine living in a world where you only understand a teeny bit of what is going on around you if you leave your house? What if your house changes every few months? When you move every few months you don't have "things". No lamps. No dressers. No plates or silverware. 

2) Realize that the birth parent, at some point, has also had trauma and has likely been a victim.

It was really easy for me to hold it against Maria that she was in an abusive relationship even after she had been arrested for domestic violence against her children and in therapy for a year. A year? This woman had had 20+ years of trauma and violence against her, much of it at the hand of her own relatives and people who claimed to care about her. A year of therapy (with the wrong therapist IMO) wasn't going to make a dent.

As I watched her with her kids, a lot of her actions reminded me of the traits in her kids that needed healing. And healing takes time. And healing can be exhausting. Then add having every move you make analyzed and documented. And no one there every day helping you. In fact, in some instances she had people working against her. There was no therapeutic parent working with her daily like her kids had. Seeing her in this way allowed me to stop vilifying her and see that she really needed my help.

3) Remember your role and where the bar gets set.

My role as a foster parent is to help reunify a family and advocate for the children in my home. Sometimes those two responsibilities conflict. And sometimes you believe they conflict. At the end of the road, it became clear that I needed to do a better job of remembering my role is also to help reunify a family ahead and put aside my own feelings. 

Those are my kids. Even now, 5 months later, it is hard for me to think of them in any other way. But the aren't really my kids. They are hers. And while I believe it is my job to love and protect and act as Mom to any child in my care, I'm not their forever mother until a judge tells me so. That means sometimes you have to revisit your purpose and your role. That means that if the case has made it to the point where overnight visits are happening and the judge moves to move the children home, you have to trust that everyone did their part just as well as you did.
In the end, being able to say to a biological parent, "These kids need to go home to you. Back and forth doesn't make sense." allowed me to stay in their life. It allowed her to begin to see me as someone other than the enemy.
It also helps to remember that the bar of acceptability gets set at good enough. Minimum parenting standard. And while it stinks because every kid deserves better than the minimum, this isn't the way it works.
  •  Can the birth parent clothe the children? The answer is yes if the clothes are clean and acceptable for the weather. They do not have to match. They do not have to fit nicely. They do not have to be permanent stain free.
  • Can the birth parent shelter the child? Sharing a room with mattresses on the floor is acceptable to the state. Matching bed spreads and bunk beds with guard rails need not apply.
  • Can the birth parent ensure the child gets an education? Are they showing up to school pretty much? Are they mostly doing their work? Then the birth parent has been successful. 3 grades behind? Perhaps they kind find a tutor at the library.
  • Can the birth parent feed the child? Did they sign them up for the free breakfast and lunch? Did they eat dinner (even if it only consists of eggs, beans, and tortilla)? Are they malnourished?
  • Can the birth parent keep the child safe? Do the kids have access to a phone? Is there a lock on the door? Is the birth parent at least attempting to keep away harmful people? If so then this standard is met.
Post reunification both of us have really worked to respect the other. She has tried to share her children with me and I've tried to share my knowledge with her. We have not really come to blows over an issue or a disagreement and I think that's because we are both really trying very hard. I remember that just because her way is not my way does not mean it is wrong. I have nearly forgotten the things that made me crazy in the past because now they won't do me any good.
I hope that the above helps. It is not easy. Foster care and foster parenting never is. but it is so rewarding. And there are so many families that need our help.

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