In foster care, the goal is to reunite a child with their birth parent or another relative whenever possible, which happens in about three-fourths of cases in Texas. Shared parenting is a consideration.
As a foster parent, that means you will likely have some contact with the child’s birth family. The key to successful foster care is to have open, respectful communication.
“The biological parents may be working through challenges, but they still love their children and want to be involved in their lives,” says Frank Lopez, Upbring Statewide Director for Foster Care & Adoption. “Foster parents can help sustain that relationship as the family heals from trauma.”
Read on to learn more about communication between birth families and foster families, and tips for building a strong connection.
The Case for Shared Parenting
A foster parent’s role is not to completely take over for a birth parent. Instead, think of foster care as providing a continuum of safe, loving support for a period of time when the birth family cannot.
When birth families and foster families work together, it’s often called “shared parenting” or “co-parenting.” The benefits are twofold, Frank points out. First, this collaboration improves logistics: setting up meetings and appointments, signing paperwork and so on. To provide the very best care for the child, it helps for everyone involved to be in touch regularly.
Second, shared parenting has a strong psychological benefit, helping to preserve a child’s relationship with their birth family while they bond with their foster parent. “As they say, it takes a village to raise a child. Foster care is a perfect example of that group effort,” Frank says.
Positive communication between adults sets a good example for kids — and sets the stage. “Shared parenting can make a child’s transition into and out of foster care that much smoother and less traumatic,” adds Jose Yerena, Upbring’s Regional Director for Foster Care and Adoptions in Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso and Houston.
Tips for Building Connection with Birth Families
Initially, interacting with a child’s birth family can feel awkward, particularly for first-time foster parents. However, it is important to keep in mind that the birth parents, grandparents, or other relatives are naturally upset by the circumstances that led to the child being in foster care. They may also be hesitant to entrust their child to a stranger, even though you, as a foster parent, have undergone a thorough vetting and licensing process.
But over time, it’s possible to build trust on both sides. Here’s how to approach this critical shared parenting relationship as a foster parent.
1. Introduce yourself. Greet the birth parent as you would anyone else you were meeting for the first time. “Hi, my name is Maria and I’m going to be taking care of your son” is a good place to start. With approval from DFPS and the Court, offering your cell phone number is a way to contact you between visits.
2. Honor the agreement. This goes without saying, but it’s important to follow through on your obligations in the foster care arrangement. That means sticking to the agreed-upon visitation schedule and cadence of communications. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), with approval from a judge who oversees the case, decides when, where and how the birth family can interact with the child while in foster care (assuming there are no safety concerns).
3. Lean on the birth family for information. You’re eager to learn more about the child who has just entered your home—their likes and dislikes, hobbies and health history. Turn to the birth parent as a primary source for these details (as well as the child’s file and your Upbring Family Services Worker). Mom and Dad know their child best, and getting their input helps establish trust. “By asking them about their child, you convey your good intentions and that they will be safe with you,” says Frank.
4. Provide regular updates. In return, find ways to keep the birth family updated on what happens while their child is in foster care. In addition to maintaining the child’s lifebook, you can text or email Mom or Dad with photos of milestones, artwork and schoolwork. Let them know when an event or appointment is coming up and the outcome (if they cannot be present themselves). In regions of Texas that practice community-based care, the birth parent may be more involved with service plan meetings and other parenting decisions.
5. Honor their family history. As a foster parent, you can help validate the child’s feelings of loss and encourage them to talk about their birth family. Frank and Jose recommend asking questions such as: What’s your favorite family activity? What are your holiday traditions? What kind of food do your parents like to make? Then you can try to recreate those experiences in your foster home. In this way, you preserve birth family memories, while also making the child feel welcome in your home.
6. Prepare children for scheduled visits. As much as everyone looks forward to visitations, these times can be emotionally hard. Consider having the child create an artwork like a drawing or a macaroni necklace to give to their parent as a keepsake. With an older child, help them think through what they want to tell their parent at the upcoming visit. These things preserve a child’s relationship with their birth family and pave the way for reunion when the time comes.
7. Set clear, consistent boundaries. Just because you have a cordial relationship with your child’s birth parents doesn’t mean you should be a completely open book. DFPS and child placement agencies like Upbring have policies in place to enforce reasonable boundaries in foster care. For example, it’s probably okay to share your phone number with the birth family, but not your home address. Also, it is not recommended to have in-person contact with the birth family outside of the court-approved schedule. Any changes to what is approved should be discussed with your Family Services Worker.
8. Handle disagreements professionally. If you aren’t seeing eye to eye with the child’s relatives, or if boundaries are being crossed, consult your Family Services Worker for guidance. You can share your concerns during their monthly check-ins. If your concerns are more pressing, each Upbring Foster In Texas office has an on-call number that is staffed 24/7. Whatever you do, remain calm and collected in front of the child.
9. Be open, flexible and understanding. This is an important mantra for any foster parent. Remember the birth family is trying to get the help they need to overcome complex circumstances — and they, too, are experiencing grief and loss. Reserve judgment as to what may have happened in the past, and lead with compassion as you work alongside them. As Frank puts it, “We all want to see the biological family succeed.”
Shared Parenting: All on the Same Team
As a foster parent, you will provide invaluable support from the moment a child enters foster care to the moment they hopefully return home. Healthy communication minimizes the trauma of this difficult journey and helps families become whole again.
Upbring seeks to establish a strong working relationship among birth families, foster families and child wellbeing professionals. “This is the direction foster care is going, both in Texas and nationwide,” Yerena explains. “At the end of the day, the emphasis is on the child: making sure they are safe and well cared for and preparing them for whatever comes next.”
At Upbring Foster in Texas, licensed foster parents receive more than 40 hours of training and preparation, including how to communicate with a child’s birth family. Check out our training calendar for more resources, designed just for foster parents in Texas.