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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care

Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

Foster parents' potential to rescue the foster care system

Charyl Enzinger Gerring

This paper presents the Catholic Community Services foster care program in which foster parents connected with birth families on behalf of the child, regardless of whether the child returned to live with the birth family or remained in foster or adoptive care.

The degree of inclusiveness between the birth and foster or adoptive families throughout the life of the child is the distinguishing characteristic of this foster care program. This innovative practice was based upon the premise that placed children have the right to connections with their birth families, and that these connections can contribute to their well-being. Furthermore, the placed child has the right to have these connections protected and facilitated by the placing agency until the agency’s legal responsibility for the child ends (Maier, 2002). The conceptual and theoretical background for the development of this innovative practice is briefly summarized in this article. No attempt is made to give a comprehensive description of the foster care program, but rather the focus is on the relationships developed between birth and foster families. The foster parents were a critical force in initiating and maintaining the connections and examples of their efforts are presented here.

This program, developed in the northwest part of Washington State, is the practice foundation for a demonstration project now underway within the state child welfare agency with concurrent research being conducted by the University of Washington Graduate School of Social Work. The primary purpose of the demonstration/research is to develop the interventions for relationship-building between the birth and foster families, and to evaluate their worth to child well-being.

Historical perspective for connections

Ever since children have needed care beyond their original family, non-institutionalized care has come from relatives as well as from other, often informal, arrangements such as placements within church communities. Despite the increase in private philanthropy in modern times, the rapidly growing need for the protection of children has brought governmental agencies more and more into the picture. The result is a behemoth bureaucracy, struggling with an overload of seemingly irreparable families, beset by uncertainties concerning the exercise of its power, and pinioned by perpetually penurious funding. Child welfare workers, in their zeal to rescue children from neglectful and abusive parents, have often interceded in a manner as to keep birth and foster families separated. However, some contacts have been made, some are allowed by workers, some are made by foster parents without informing the agency, and many more are effected by older children who find their “street legs”. Nevertheless, in stark terms, foster care has largely been built upon a system of fracturing families rather than drawing upon the strengths of both the birth and the foster family for the nurturing of the child. Not only are the birth parents condemned to permanently severed ties but the same fate befalls the entire birth family. If children fail in their foster or adoptive homes, as too many of them do, these children become what is sometimes referred to as “legal orphans”. Kemp and Bodonyi hold that it is not likely that the flow of legally free children will stop any time soon, nor that solutions will be readily found within currently existing policy and practice frameworks (2000). Cut adrift by severed blood ties, a large number of legally free children end up with the impersonal, kaleidoscopic bureaucracy as their parent. Often they are torn between loyalties to birth and foster family and experience isolation in their loss of ethnicity, lineage, and knowledge of their genetic endowments.

Their rights to have safe access to their birth families have been abnegated. They are denied the redeeming qualities, however scant, of their birth families as well as the potential willingness of many courageous foster families to cloak their protection with acceptance in contacts with birth families. They are left with the daunting task of facing the future bereft of a foundation that might have been secured for them.

Conceptual framework for connections

Although informed scholarly thinking and research data suggest many differing conclusions about the value of connections, support for some degree of inclusion is predominant. Unfortunately, research to support this stance is minimal (Gerring, 1996). An extreme position against connecting is taken by Elizabeth Bartholet, an adoptive mother who is also a lawyer. She writes that the laws should be changed to give parenting based upon relationships equal footing with ‘blood-based’ families. (Bartholet, 1993). According to Drs. Salvador and Patricia Minuchin, who have developed the ecological model of connecting birth and foster families, “... two families coexist in the mind of the child” and that the connections between the two families must be acknowledged (Minuchin & Minuchin, 1995). In her extensive teaching, research and practice, Peg McCartt Hess has championed the cause for connections. She reports that frequent regular visiting is associated with increased well-being of the child (Hess, 1993). Littner describes the unacceptable sense of helplessness on the part of the foster child to prevent the harsh blows of fate which stimulates a denial and a move to the opposite position, i.e. one of power, of responsibility and of one who bears no ill will toward the parent (Littner, 1956). Pecora and Maluccio report on many well-documented benefits including the ability of foster children, if they remain connected, to accept the realities of their birth parents and to suffer less the inescapable sting of abandonment (Pecora & Maluccio, 2000). Sister Mary Paul of the Center for Family Life in Brooklyn has pioneered the concept of neighborhood foster care where proximity can promote connections, thereby increasing the contentment of the child. (Sister Mary Paul, 2000). Dr. Henry W. Maier, world-renowned authority on child placement, describes the foster care program of this paper as a pioneering service, assisting children to maintain valid connection with their birth parents. He speaks of this trend as a ‘paradigm shift’ and asserts that such inclusion will foster mature identity (Maier, 2001).

The theoretical foundation for the program of this paper was a large body of knowledge concerning attachment beginning with Bowlby on through to the recent From Neurons to Neighborhoods which reported, “Relationships shape the development of self-awareness, social competence, conscience, emotional growth and emotion regulation, learning and cognitive growth…” (Shonkoff & Philips, 2000, p. 266). Attachment theory has acquainted the profession with the value of careful transition assistance to the child as the child navigates the placement changes in foster care. Analogous to skillful medical bandaging, skillful psychological bandaging through supportive connections can serve to reduce emotional bleeding.

Inferences for connections in literature beyond that found within social work

If one reaches beyond the professional writings of social work, one finds precedents in literature concerning the nature of humankind that illumines the potential of foster parents for this daring attempt at connections with birth parents who certainly can be both strangers and strange. Camus wrote extensively about moral responsibility. According to Judt, Camus views heroism as “ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency” (Judt, 2001, p. 6). The philosopher Simon Blackburn pointed to the presence of rules in every society about the appropriate ways of treating strangers, minorities, or children (Blackburn, 2001). In Sober and Wilson’s treatise of psychological altruism, parental care, whether for one’s own or for the children of others, is viewed as something altruistically driven that will warm the cockles of the heart (Sober and Wilson, 1990). They grant that there can be a selective factor in empathy toward those viewed as similar and those viewed as different. The foster parents of this article articulated their ideals for foster care in terms of such precepts as, ‘do unto others’ and ‘walk a mile in their moccasin’. Such ethical perspectives as these proved encouraging for the inherent potential of foster parents to build drawbridges across status and cultural moats.

Description of this foster care program: the forerunner to the research/demonstration project

The development of the program took place over a period of 16 years, expanding to an average of 25 families with 30 to 35 children in placement. The ultimate purpose of the program was to improve the lives of children during and after foster care. The means to accomplish this was through relationship building between birth and foster families, thus drawing upon the benefits of a new family constellation for a continuum of care whether the child remained in placement or returned home. The program served three counties from north of Seattle to the Canadian border, an area of small cities, towns and rural areas. The same social worker was the director throughout, working with a staff of social work interns and temporary staff. In the last two years, a full-time, masters-level social worker took over the licensing tasks as well as supervision of some foster homes.

Approximately one third of them, yes, the foster parents, were childless, one third with one or two children, and the rest with more children both younger and adult. About two thirds of the families were Protestant, the rest Catholic. Income ranged from $10,000 to $90,000, the median being $35,000. They were mostly in their late thirties and early forties, some with high school education, some with college and a few with graduate work. All the foster parents were at least part Caucasian; one-third of them were also either part Latino, Black, or Pacific Islander. All the foster children were referred for placement by state workers who retained the legal responsibility to determine final decisions about the child. The occasional, sometimes disturbing, disagreements that arose between the state and the program’s staff and foster parents, gradually eased into a respectful collaboration that eventually formed the keystone of the present research/ demonstration.

Attributes and roles of foster parents in the foster care program

Since the goal of the program was to achieve helpful connections between birth and foster families, foster parents were evaluated for their potential for at least marginal connections. In addition to completing the usual hefty licensing packets, individual developmental and family histories were taken. Through individual interviews and group discussions, their motives and aims for foster care were explored. The attempt was made to bring out their questions, doubts, objections, and fears. Most applicants stated their readiness to consider some form of relating to birth families; objecting applicants withdrew. Many alluded to what one parent cautiously affirmed, “I would need to have trust in the worker to keep connections safe”. Others mentioned their uneasiness with parents who were strangers and sometimes strange. All parents wanted to avoid what one described as “... not to be put in adversarial relationship with birth family”. A few mentioned the possible threats to the foster family such as, in one parent’s words, “...gang involvement of foster child or the friends”. The belief systems of these parents were drawn upon in exploring their motivations. They spoke in various ways about how they felt a moral obligation to show respect and concern for the welfare of the child’s birth family. Some did not perceive of the child as belonging to them, nor to the birth parent, but as a child of God; their ethical imperative as caretaker of the child was to share the child. Proverbs such as “Judge not lest ye be judged”; “There but for the grace of God go I”; “All have sinned” were juxtaposed with their feelings toward birth parents who had perpetrated heinous abuse against their children. Often the foster parents’ bottom line was their gut feeling that bloodlines cannot be broken, and that it is simply humane and right to protect children without alienating them from their past. No one could have predicted how hard caring for tragically damaged children would be, and certainly not how frustrating it would be to extend a hand to birth families that seemed unable to improve their treatment of their children. The director became increasingly aware of their inadequate preparation for this work. Nonetheless, as the foster families persisted, they became more resolute about the value of keeping a safe door open for the birth family. Perhaps their persistence in the face of severe difficulties had something to do with the worth that they placed on families, their own as well as that of their foster child.

Their family life was their primary enjoyment, and children enjoyed center stage here. Those foster parents who confessed to ruptures within their own birth families spoke vehemently about their need for healing, at all costs, in order to avoid estrangement from their families. Somewhat surprisingly, such awareness of their own need for healing caused them to have a strong antipathy toward actions that would jeopardize the chances of the foster child to reunite with the birth family. Initially, foster parents were quite uninformed about the damage caused by abuse, and even more so about the damage caused by neglect. They showed an extraordinary tenacity to deal with intolerable behavior, especially if they felt a strong sense of being needed by the child.

Much consultation took place concerning the meaning of children’s misbehavior, and about tempering expectations according to developmental stages and the traumas endured. Both foster parents tended to be very involved with the foster child, although the mother provided more of the physical care. Foster parents entered into friendly, cooperative working relationships with staff and other foster parents with whom they quickly established rapport on the basis of the cause that they held in common, i.e. helping children through foster care. Over the sixteen years of the program, two sets of parents were terminated for unacceptable behavior. With hindsight, clinical evidence indicated that these homes should not have been licensed. Some homes were lost through normal attrition, but most were filled to capacity. For a few years, some homes for adolescents were maintained, but later most were discontinued due to insufficient services. In the original research on this foster care program, foster mothers attributed only two placement disruptions out of 34 to connections with the birth family, a finding which contrasted sharply with the large number of in-home visits that received a positive rating by these foster mothers (Gerring, 1996). Almost all of the new foster families brought into this program were recruited by families already in the program. The needs of the entire foster family were taken into consideration in all services including consultation, celebrations, gifts, etc. The director’s position was that the practice of foster care should eventually become an enhancement to the entire family, otherwise the foster child did not belong in that home.

The goal of relationship-building between birth and foster families was passionately and steadfastly held throughout the program. Connections developed gradually, as naturally as possible and always individualized. To impose a rigid structure on connecting might have been tantamount to “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”. The disturbing complexities with connections were not and could not have been avoided, but efforts were made gradually to reduce this discomfort. Staff was available on a 24-hour, 7-day, year-round basis for crisis intervention. The safety of these connecting efforts was rigorously reviewed. Connections were on a broad continuum from supervised contact to unsupervised contact, and took place in agency offices, in birth and foster family homes as well as in parks and other neutral settings. Some contacts began with letters, pictures, telephone calls, etc., with most of these becoming in-person contacts later. Bringing the families face to face proved most effective for relationship building. Initially staff was active in promoting and supervising connections, however, over the years all the families came to their own way of coming together as an extended family with staff available for consultation as needed.

Development of the foster family community

Program development was designed to bring foster families together as a community. The cords that bound them were their passion, their commitment and the uniqueness of their service to children: around the clock duty, maybe for life. As friendships grew they educated each other, stood by during crisis, traded respite care, and had fun together. Years after the close of the program, many of these foster families maintain their relationships and recently they held a large reunion. The present research/demonstration project underway was designed with input from most of these foster families, and some serve on the Foster Parent Panel, which provides on-going consultation to the project.

The activities of the foster parent community included quarterly general meetings and smaller group meetings as needed. Evening meetings accommodated fathers and working foster mothers. Consultations were held frequently with staff. Specialists such as Dr. Henry Maier worked tirelessly to help all understand what children were telling us in their misbehavior and how they could be reached through play. Summer brought backyard picnics and weekends at the Columbia River for everyone in the foster families. Such settings facilitated informal sessions among all attendees, as well as provided plentiful, spontaneous, carefree play. Kids and grown-ups compared stories, often laughing with the luxury of being able to put some stored anxieties behind them.

Group activities bringing birth and foster families together

Celebrations were promoted in this program. Thanksgiving celebrations were sit-down dinners for birth families along with their children in foster care, with foster parents attending only if needed by the foster child. Other holiday celebrations included the popular children’s-only cookie-baking parties, and the big parties bringing birth and foster families together. During the year, social gatherings were held for older foster children alone with their birth parents and volunteer helpers. Attendance was at its highest at the holiday feasts, despite long distances, relentless rain and occasional snowstorms. Foster parents marveled at the excitement and pleasure of the foster children. These reactions extended even to relatives seen for the first time. Caution was taken at these functions to ensure the safety and emotional support to children when necessary. Foster parents were ready to comfort a child when their birth parent did not show, to stand by but not intrude upon the birth family, to be alert when explanations to the birth parent were needed for the child’s reticence to converse. There were voluntary spin-offs from these official functions; some birth parents increased their visitation. Some foster families planned their own gatherings with birth families, especially to prepare a child for return to the birth family. Presents from the volunteers were plentiful throughout the year and were given to the entire foster family with the foster family in turn giving to the birth family.

Foster children certainly showed their interest in receiving telephone calls, presents, etc. from their birth families, but nothing was as revealing as the intensity of their eye contact when seeing them in person. Many would wait with nose to the window, and dash out with ebullient squeals when seeing them, even after a long absence. As foster parents witnessed the impact of these encounters, they deepened their resolve to stay in touch despite the pain of hard questions, upsets, and sadness that followed the encounters. Notably at these events birth families exhibited very polite decorum and strengths not otherwise seen. Occasionally, appreciation to the foster families was expressed by birth parents as well as a cosseting of their children back into the arms of the foster parents. For several years volunteers were available to assist staff with a support group for birth families, a service that helped a little to fill the awful void in services.

Receptivity of birth families and foster children to connecting

The birth families rarely resisted connecting. Private and public agency staff worked together on risk assessments, reliable connecting arrangements and the setting of boundaries. Responses by birth family sometimes interpreted as abject denial, disinterest, and rejection were re-examined and assessed in the light of the defensive structure that the parent was using in the face of fear, humiliation, anger, and helplessness. For example, an 18 year-old mother bolted from the visiting room when her two year-old child in foster care began crying at seeing his mother. Later, when supported by his new foster mother with the program described in this paper, the child happily crawled to a very pleased, smiling birth mother. She later apologetically explained, “I couldn’t help it, my own child began crying when he saw me”. During another visit time, both birth and foster mother tenderly cradled the infant and at the close, the mother cooed, “ Bye, bye, be a good baby for Carolyn” (foster mother). All but one of the many adoptive placements within this program resulted in voluntary relinquishments with the agreements around future contact based upon the comfortable limits already established between them. Frequent staffing with state workers brought a loosening in visitation rules that seemed restrictive. In turn, state staff offered this private agency staff valuable clinical assessments of the birth families’ readiness for safe contacts. Through these often hard to schedule meetings, state workers became more open to the possibilities of connecting and assisted this private agency staff navigating within a system which sometimes seemed like a tenacious, meandering octopus.

Placement planning was orchestrated with transitional visits in order to minimize the inescapable trauma of separation. Through consultation and educational materials, attachment theory was literally impregnated into these foster parents. A pregnant birth mother, knowing that her child was to be removed at birth, planned with her state worker to have the foster mother be present at the delivery. The birth and foster mother together held the bottle suckled by the neonate, a precious act which might be described as stretching the umbilical cord to the foster mother. This same birth mother, following this tender introduction to her child and foster mother, left the hospital with her partner and disappeared without leaving a trace. Her child, who arrived in the world with a genetic history of delay which prognosticated permanent hospitalization, became a docent at the zoo at age ten.

Birth and foster families made adjustments to each other as they took on child-caring tasks fitting their skills, time constraints, and life styles. For example, although originally too afraid to tackle a powerfully controlling grandchild, the child’s grandparents eventually assumed guardianship after a demonstration of management strategies by the foster family and after success providing respite care. The child is still with these grandparents, is a champion ball player in high school and a top scholar. Another foster parent, later an adoptive parent, always invited the birth mother to the child’s birthday party. One time when this three year-old came back from a friend’s birthday party she asked her adoptive mother, “Where was Christie’s other mom?” Having two moms seemed normal to her.

One foster family, along with their church congregation, provided long-time surrogate parenting for a young mother and her child. Contact began very inauspiciously when this mother appeared at their door demanding to see her child. Her abusive yelling was met with firm refusal of visits until she could control her belligerence. As time went on, the birth mother’s relationship with the foster family progressed in stages interrupted by drug relapses. Initially, foster parents shepherded the child through visits in their home and at their church where the birth mother was welcomed. Later the birth mother was able to spend the day in the foster home being educated in the care of her child. Eventually, she was invited to live with the foster family on the condition that she remain clean and sober. These foster parents admitted that this took quite a toll on their family, but they thought it worth the strain since this mother did become self-sufficient as a parent and employee.

Later at foster parent meetings this birth mother eagerly spoke of how fortunate she was to have been “brought up” by her foster family.

In another similar in-foster home effort, the mentoring did not motivate the birth mother to separate from an abusive partner, but relationships between the birth mother and the children were sufficiently secured to maintain permanent, regular visitation. Having survived a stormy adolescence in foster care, these adult children now speak kindly of their mother, while acknowledging her serious lacks as a parent. In another instance, a pregnant and extremely rebellious teenager barely held on to her placement with rather controlling foster parents, though ones who were also very determined to succeed. They eventually assumed the in loco parentis position when this former foster child married. They attended her wedding, attended her at the hospital when she delivered two other children, and much later helped her to heal the breech with her birth father who had been convicted of abuse on the basis of this daughter’s testimony.

Since intensive treatment for the trauma of separation was not readily available to foster children, the director sometimes assisted parents with this. One three year-old, about to be placed with her unknown father out of state, was introduced to him through a series of visits by the director and by the foster parents who invited the father into their home. The child’s favorite stuffed bears were used by all to play out the coming move. Toward the end of the long weekend, this child evidenced a remarkable resiliency. She stated, “My baby bear has to go with me. It is only a baby. It would cry if it couldn’t go with its’ mommy. I’m its’ mommy, and I am not leaving it. Mommy G. (foster mother) would go with me but she can’t.” Later she would call long distance and request of the foster mother, “Sing me the Christmas songs, Mama.” Subsequent visits with this child gave a picture of a birth father and his extended family giving excellent care.

Foster parents honored birth families in many ways. When all of the siblings could not be accommodated in one home, the effort was always made to place the others within this foster family community – which was, in effect, an extended family. A five year-old foster girl, shy and reticent to speak at any time, spoke up when prayers were said before their company meal, “Thank you, God, for letting my brother come to visit me”. In another instance, the police picked up a 10-year-old child, returned prematurely to his birth mother. He gave the police the phone number for his old foster home which, unfortunately, was full. The child provided another possible foster home and the police brought him to it. The foster mother and child were overjoyed to see each other, and in the middle of the night, with treats in hand, he entertained her with his description of this home which he remembered from last summer’s picnic.

In a complicated, inter-generational conflict, the director and the foster parents advocated for contact with both the birth mother and her extended family and for a change in visitation arrangements to allow for the foster parents’ presence at that time. Previously, these young children had been brought to visits by various transport persons who the birth mother thought “spied on her”. Following these visits the children exhibited crying, biting, choking of others, sleeplessness, and withdrawal behaviors, all of which threatened the stability of their placement and their day care. The change was drastic with the new visitation arrangements that involved the foster parents who stood by to help this mother play safely with her children. Soon visitation also took place in the grandparents’ home, including the birth mother at times. The foster parents’ acceptance of this “prodigal daughter” helped these grandparents to include her again within the family fold. Even now, when this birth mother is fit, she attends the school and soccer functions of these now adopted children along with other birth family members. These foster parents were instrumental in salvaging something of value in this birth mother, for her children as well as for her parents.

In some other situations the foster care program was less successful in connecting with relatives, particularly if the child was replaced from the foster home to a relative home. Relatives sometimes considered their handling of the offending birth parents and their children a strictly family matter.

In one unusual placement, the court gave support to a long-range plan that allowed for the normal, maturational growth pattern to “kick in” with a young mother’s fight with drugs and the wild life. In response to this mother’s insistence, the state accepted a relinquishment of parental rights and her two-year-old was placed with this foster care program. Visitation was arranged and efforts were made to engage this mother, but she disappeared. The child was replaced to a culturally appropriate home with the state in preparation for an adoption. Two years later the mother returned to this agency requesting visits and rehabilitation services. Community agencies collaborated on extensive services for the mother, and the child was replaced to her former foster home in order to facilitate visitation. At their first meeting, the child circled around her mother a few times and then bounded into her arms. The birth mother exclaimed, “She acted as though we had never been apart.” Mother struggled hard to hold a job, to pay off debts and to afford housing. This agency licensed her as a foster home; her child was successfully replaced with her and eventually adopted by her. Although this mother and daughter have certainly had conflicts, they have remained together with the faithful use of services including the support of the foster parent community into which they were welcomed. The circumstances around this return of a child to the birth mother were unusual. What was not at all unusual was the difficulty encountered in the unsuccessful attempts to connect the prospective adoptive home with the birth parent. When adoptive homes were not studied with the expectation of connecting, resistance to this practice was sometimes insurmountable.

In the methodology of the foster care program of this paper, placement was no longer viewed exclusively in terms of where the child should live or who has legal custody, but rather viewed as an opportunity for repairing relationships and developing the capacity for new ones. It follows that where the secure, nurturing attachments are found, there should be the placement. Safe and secure relationships make for permanency, not the place in which the child resides.

Critique of the presentation of the paper

The objective of this paper is to present descriptions of a variety of connecting activities without any attempt at random sampling with such a small population. No attempt was made to establish criteria for the evaluation of the success or failure of connections, nor the determinants of these outcomes. The research still underway by the University of Washington School of Social Work, the Children’s Administration and Catholic Community Services, shows promise of the benefits of connections for the foster child’s healthy maturation and for the stability of foster care placements. This research will undoubtedly add to our knowledge base concerning those interventions enabling connections, particularly those employed during visitation. The initial positive results of this research regarding connections are compelling reasons for further research, particularly that which provides more statistically reliable data. This future research will need to develop a research design capable of coping with the labyrinth of human relationships within the world of foster care.

Challenges for the future

Greater than the challenge of research validation for this approach to foster care is the challenge of replicating this approach, however desirable that might be. However great the challenge may be, it is certainly made more attainable because visitation between the foster child and the birth family is already a legal given in foster care. The potential of visitation to enable connections is the crux of the matter. More research is needed to give direction to the development of skills useful during visitation as well as in other connections. The best practice innovations will lose their helping power unless they are spirited by attitudinal changes on the part of agency staff concerning the inclusion of birth and foster families. Foster parents in this program were remarkably able to move beyond their outmoded attitudes and fantasies about rescuing children to the challenge of rescuing families from a system that alienates them from their children. These foster parents demonstrated their ability to restore old and to develop new attachments for the child’s journey into adulthood. Surely there are many other foster parents in private and public agencies with similar capabilities. Perhaps the examples in this paper can lead to an examination of attitudes and practices concerning connections. Open-minded child welfare workers equipped with professional skills and imbued with an adventuresome spirit may well find a way to come together with foster parents for both to mine a vein of gold for an impoverished foster care system.

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Enzinger Gerring, Charyl. ( 2005). Foster parents' potential to help rescue the foster care system. Reclaiming Child and Youth Care Practice, 17, 4. pp. 32-41. 

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