Studies have shown that one of the best ways to reduce trauma for children in foster care is to co-parent with the biological family. For many of us, this is easier said than done.
Co-parenting can be one of the hardest parts of a foster parent’s job—especially if the child has been abused or severely neglected. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would hurt a child in this way, and even harder to imagine forming a partnership with this person!
It helps to remember that the vast majority of children are in foster care due to neglect. Neglecting a child can come from many causes: ignorance, immaturity, and/or addiction. It can also come from a lack of self-worth that leads to poor choices in boyfriends and friends. Understanding these dynamics does not mean you excuse the birth parents for what they did, but it does help to strengthen your compassion, which in turn will help you form a healthy co-parenting partnership.
What is Co-Parenting in Foster Care
Co-parenting is when foster parents share the nurturing of a foster child with the birth parents and the child’s caseworker. Co-parenting can be done in many different ways and it can result in the child returning home sooner and reduce the likelihood that the child will reenter foster care in the future.
Co-parenting is best for kids in foster care because they see the adults in their life working as a team and they feel less divided loyalty. It is also best for kids because, if done well, the foster parents can become a role model for the biological parents on what healthy parenting looks like.
It’s hard to imagine a relationship with a more awkward beginning. Someone has taken a person’s child, asked you to take care of the child, and then asks you to become their partner in parenting. Say what???
No matter the reason the child was removed, almost every birth parent feels some mixture of fear, defensiveness, confusion, surprise, embarrassment, and anger! Not a promising beginning for a healthy relationship. Given the emotional upheaval the birth parents are going through, it is up to the foster parent to set the stage for a healthy functional co-parenting relationship.
Start with Compassion
When working with your foster child’s birth parents begin with compassion. You are seeing them at the very worst moment of their lives.
Yes, this person made a mistake. Yes, their child has suffered. But they are humans and humans make mistakes.
Start with the knowledge that chances are good the birth parents have had a lot of tough breaks in their lives. It is true that plenty of people have overcome bigger problems than these people face without harming their kids, but these birth parents aren’t those people. Accept that.
I’ll grant you that in many cases of abuse, compassion towards the abuser is not called for, but in most cases, the foster parent will not be asked to co-parent with the abusing birth parent.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
When they realize that their child has been taken into foster care, the parents’ initial reaction is usually a mixture of disbelief, terror, confusion, and anger. They often believe that the authorities have overreacted and don’t understand what happened. They may not yet (or ever) accept their role in these events.
As the reality sets in, they often feel deep shame, regret, grief, and not a small amount of anger.
When you begin your co-parenting relationship, it helps to put yourself in their shoes and understand that they are feeling overwhelmed by their emotions and the gravity of what has happened.
Don’t Take Things Personally
Given the toxic brew of emotions your foster child’s birth parents are likely feeling, it is up to you to be the bigger, more emotionally stable, person. Don’t take their anger personally. Treat them with the dignity and respect that you would want to be shown to you when you have made the biggest mistake of your life. You don’t need to correct them or tell them that you don’t believe them. Focus on your shared interest in doing what is best for this child.
The court or caseworker will likely dictate the visitation schedule, but when possible offer to go the extra mile to make the visits easier and less awkward for the biological parents. Try to visit with them at the beginning or end of their visit with their child. Assure them that you are taking good care of their child and not trying to replace their role in their child’s life. Share cute stories. Bring the birth parent a piece of artwork or craft that the child has made. Make sure the child makes cards for them on important occasions, such as birthdays or Mother’s Day.
Along with the child’s caseworker, set up a plan for communication outside of visits that works for the realities of the birth parent’s life. Can you text pictures to them? If the birth parents don’t have a phone, can you send pictures to the birth grandparents who can share them with the birth parent? If there are privacy concerns, can you set up a private email where you can send pictures or send them through the caseworker? The caseworker will need to approve of whatever method you choose, so ask her for suggestions. The more communication, the better the co-parenting relationship.
Good relationships have good boundaries. While you want to communicate and work with your foster child’s birth parents as much as possible, you do not need to be available to them all the time. You have your own life and your own family to attend.
It is not your role to talk about their case or about how they are meeting or not meeting the parenting plan laid out by the caseworker. It is best to refer all discussions on these topics to the caseworker.
Sometimes it is simply not possible to establish a healthy co-parenting relationship with the birth parents. Ultimately, you have to maintain boundaries that are in the best interest of the child and your family.
How have you been able to establish a healthy co-parenting relationship with your foster child’s birth parents?
Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Enjoy
- Becoming a Foster Parent: What You Really Need to Know
- The Single Biggest Obstacle to Co-Parenting in Foster Care
- Dr. Purvis’s Tips-Staying Happily Married When Adopting/Fostering