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Marissa Sanders

West Virginia has long put an emphasis on foster families’ willingness to adopt children who are placed with them. The rationale was that by placing children in homes willing to adopt them, the children could achieve permanency without having to move to a different home if reunification with their biological families couldn’t happen. However, this approach can result in recruiting families who are looking to adopt, and who may feel resentment toward the child’s biological family.

The Federal Children’s Bureau and DHHR have begun to embrace a different model — one where foster parents are asked to partner with biological parents to help them successfully reunify with their children. This represents a significant shift in culture and practice in West Virginia, though other states have encouraged this type of partnership for some time.

At a recent conference hosted by the WV Foster Adoptive & Kinship Parents Network, training was provided about this significant shift, which is happening in the child welfare system at the federal and state levels.

For the average person, the term “foster parent” conjures up images of children who have been abused by “bad” parents, and foster parents as the “perfect” parents who stepped in to save them. Many foster parents share this misperception of biological parents, and it is not conducive to building successful relationships.

In reality, most biological parents who have had their children removed are struggling parents who love their children, but need more support, resources, or help to successfully parent them and keep them safe. Nationally, nearly two-thirds of children enter foster care due to child neglect and a parent’s inability to meet the needs of their children — not physical abuse.

That’s according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2019 child Maltreatment Report.

These families need someone to care for the children temporarily while they get on their feet and in some cases recover from addiction and get the treatment they need. Most have experienced their own trauma, which contributes to their situation.

Research over the past several years has made it clear that reunification with the biological family is the best possible outcome for all children, whenever it can be done safely. The trauma of abrupt removal from a biological family is devastating for children and should be avoided whenever possible. When it is needed, foster care should be temporary if possible, and maintaining a safe relationship between the child and the biological family should be a top priority.

Traditionally, when children were placed in a foster home, the foster parents have had limited or no contact with the biological family. That approach must change. Through training, the Network is laying the groundwork for helping families work together in the best interest of the children they both love.

Training during the conference was provided by international experts about the biological imperative for children to maintain contact with their families of origin, and the value of parents as the most powerful mental health intervention available to children. After these trainings, one attendee said, “[This] session helped me see birth parents in a different light. We need to work together for the good of the children.”

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Another key training featured a biological mother and foster mother in West Virginia who developed a strong relationship while the biological mother’s child was in foster care, a relationship that continues several years later. They shared their experiences and tips to help other parents work together. After this training, one attendee stated, “They should be the model for foster care. We need the system to support and encourage these relationships.”

The Network also polled several foster parents who have built successful relationships and noted several themes in their stories:

  • Initial contact happened in a variety of ways, from sending letters when the child visited their biological parent(s) to talking at court hearings, case meetings, or doctor appointments
  • Trust must be built over time using a gradual process of increasing time with the birth family
  • Healthy and reasonable boundaries are a key to keeping things safe and successful
  • There can be no judgement of either parent if the relationship is to be successful; Empathy is a requirement for all parties
  • It is important to remember that all parents are different, and to let each have their own relationship with the child

To reduce barriers to successful relationships, the system must enact and enforce policies that support sharing of contact information, facilitating relationships, and involving both sets of parents in relevant hearings and meetings.

As we move toward this shift in culture and practice, these trainings give hope that more children will benefit from the love and support of multiple caring adults in their lives; adults who also care for and support each other.

We hope that we’ll also begin to adjust the way that we recruit and train foster families, the way we talk about foster care — it is a support for families, not a substitute for parents, and the way that we support and encourage families to work together for the good of the children they love.

There are numerous resources available to help families who are trying to build these relationships. For example, the national Birth and Foster Parent Partnership, has developed an extensive toolkit with policies and practices to help promote this approach. The toolkit and additional information can be found here: https:// ctfalliance.org/ partnering-with-parents/bfpp/.

If you have already adopted a child or cared for a child who reunified with their biological parent, it is never too late to begin this process of building connection between biological families and foster or adoptive families. The WV Foster Adoptive & Kinship Parents Network is happy to share resources, help you talk through your individual situation, and connect you with others who have experienced this and worked through challenges to build successful relationships.

We all want what is best for kids in care and we are here to support those who are providing that. For more information, join our Facebook group or visit our website at www.wvfosterparents.org. Recordings of trainings will be available on the website soon.

Marissa Sanders is a foster adoptive parent and Executive Director of the WV Foster Adoptive & Kinship Parents Network, a nonprofit startup working to support caregivers through peer support and advocacy. She can be reached at wvfakpn@gmail.com.

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