“Treat them like your own.” That’s what we tell Foster Parents. Simple enough right? Welcome children into your home, fold them into your routine. Easy Peasy.
Except it isn’t easy peasy, is it? Treat them like your own, EXCEPT: don’t advocate for them if it means going against the state’s position in court, report and record their every injury, don’t expect to be treated like you are an important figure in the child’s life, and if they leave your home don’t expect a relationship or updates on their well being.
So yeah, it’s a little more complicated than just that simple reductive statement. First, I want to tackle the heart behind that statement, from a social worker’s perspective. Second, I want to discuss what do specifically regarding how foster parents and social workers can honor attachment and social/emotional development through placement moves.
The heart behind “treat them as your own” could be surmised in the following points: 1) don’t for any reason other than they are a child in the custody of the state (and following it’s rules), treat your foster children differently in regards to the level of care or nurturing you provide. 2) Be as committed to them as you are to your own children. 3) Think of them, talk of them, and treat them as you would want your own children to be in the same situation. Now the heartbreaking part of these mandates to love children as if they were your own, is that in reality there are limits to how this can be done when the child is in the custody of the state, and is working towards reunification with a parent. So you sacrifice, you love and put in all the work, possibly without ever getting to see the fruit of that labor. Sometimes that labor of love is thwarted by the very systems that vowed to support it and honor it. That is the hard truth. You risk your heart as a foster parent, with little to no reward. Yet that is the heartbeat of Christlikeness. There are few other tasks we can take on as believers that not only display Jesus so well, but make us like Him so quickly, if we submit to His discipline.
But let me discuss some practicalities in this matter. A common complaint I have seen/heard from foster parents on my instagram community is that they really do seek to love foster children as their own, but when they seek to keep connection with a child after they leave their home, they are met with a firewall. Now this could be due to several different factors: confidentiality, the workload of the agency, the child’s own motivations to contact, etc. Sometimes these cannot be overcome, and we must entrust a child ultimately into the Lord’s sovereign care. However, discernment is needed to know when to act and when to advocate, as the Lord will work through his people to accomplish His purposes.
The first thing foster parents and social workers can do is to change the standard for transitions and maintaining connection. The standard should always be: transition visits and maintaining connection. This means that for foster parents, if a child leaves your home for any reason other than a substantiated abuse/neglect situation against yourself (or perhaps one of your own children was a victim), you should be making a plan for continued contact with that child. Here are some examples of what that may look like:
A child leaves your home to be admitted to a mental health hospital or to a placement that can better meet their mental health needs. You could provide respite for them on holidays, plan visits to their new placement, or have regular facetime talks. While medication and behavior management play a part, we now know in trauma research that it is connection with safe adults that heals complex trauma. Who will be that safe adult at a mental health hospital? Often there is none.
A child may leave your home because they put another one of your children at risk. You can explain to the child that they have to move because you as the caregiver do not have the ability to keep everyone safe, and reach out to their new placement for ongoing contact through phone calls or short visits. This honors the worth and personhood of the child, despite how they may have harmed you or your family. In doing this you recognize that their behavior does not change their preciousness. What I see too often is that because children are rejected and relational ties severed forever, the message they receive is that their worth is directly tied to their behavior.
For social workers, this task could potentially be simple. If foster parents are willing to do this work, we have to be inconvenienced by connecting all parties involved. It can be so difficult to prioritize something so menial as asking a new caregiver or a group home to allow permission for a previous foster parent to contact when we are facing one crisis after another. But it is those simple, kind tasks that reinforce positive connections that will heal your kids in the long run. We need to show them that healing adults do exist, that they don’t give up, and that they do care. You, social worker, will never be able to be that person in the child’s life. While you are often a sounding board, you have to realize that you can’t provide the love, the nurturing and the connection that your child ultimately needs. If you try to provide it, you will do them a disservice. Child welfare turnover aside, if you cross that professional boundary, you will never be able to practice self care. You will burn out from the work as soon as you begin.
When foster parents want to treat children as their own in this way, we ought to be the first in line to support it. I understand how it could be cumbersome and draining to have to answer to someone that doesn’t even care for your child anymore. You already have to answer to so many. But if we truly want what is best for our children, taking 5 minutes out of your day to send that email asking the child’s new placement for permission to maintain old connections will have lasting effects on their life. And if caregivers are fully committed to a child for life, but ask for a child to be moved so they can receive mental health services, it is incumbent upon us not to take those kind of disruptions as rejections of our child, but as another step in their path towards permanency. It may involve building the capacities of both the child and the caregiver, but just because adoptive placements don’t always happen smoothly doesn’t mean we should give up. Especially if a caregiver is not giving up.
These are small steps of many that we can take to make our child welfare systems more trauma informed, attachment honoring, and ultimately, more successful for our children.