Birth and Foster Family Partnerships
Principle: Promoting meaningful partnerships between foster and birth families as partners in promoting safety, well being and permanency for children.
The relationship between foster parents and birth families can have a significant impact in the overall course of placement and/or treatment. When the relationship is respectful, nonjudgmental, and supportive, all parents are able to do a better job in meeting the children’s needs (Werth, 2008). Creating a teaming approach with planned contact between birth and foster parents have shown that children return home sooner, have more stable placements, experience better emotional development and are more successful in school.
I. Icebreaker Meeting/Visit:
Icebreaker meetings or visits represent the first step to integrating the birth family into their child’s life while in out of home care. They provide a structured, first informal meeting early in placement for both foster and birth families to create an atmosphere of “working together”. The concept of teaming is not new, but now it has become a formalized part of the services offered to families. This first meeting or “ice breaker” is a facilitated, child focused meeting held shortly after a child is placed (or replaced) in out-of-home care and lasting not more than thirty minutes. The meeting provides an opportunity for foster parents and birth families to meet each other and to share information about the needs of the child. Thus, the “ice breaker” is a starting point for establishing communication and building a relationship between families (Werth, 2008).
These meetings have been used in several states, including Oregon, North Carolina, Maryland, Oklahoma, California, Virginia, and New Mexico.
The Bridge Program – Oklahoma – contact Margaret Linneman, Foster Care Programs Manager Margaret.Linneman@okdhs.org
The Bridge Program requires the fostering of a professional relationship between birth and foster parents, with the goal of best meeting the needs of the child. The Bridge program aims to do just what its name describes: create a bridge between children and their birth families and/or children and a permanent family. An initial meeting is planned within seven days of placement to allow foster and birth parents to meet and discuss the needs and preferences, of the child. The Bridge Resource Families and DHS staff work as a team. They assist in helping children have as many visits with their families as possible (including siblings, grandparents, etc.) as they understand the importance of a child’s relationship to their family.
Oklahoma has made a paradigm shift in the way they recruit and train families. They refer to families now as Bridge Resource Families. The Bridge Resource Homes are foster and/or adoptive homes.
Bridging the Gap: Families Working Together – A Northern Virginia Foster Care and Adoption Initiative – contact Claudia McDowell, LCSW
Program Manager, Foster Care & Adoption Program, Fairfax County Department of Family Services, (703) 324-7476
Bridging the Gap is the process of building and maintaining relationships and communication between the birth families involved in a youth’s life, or between the foster and adoptive families, with the goal of supporting family reunification or another permanency plan. This work started in 2006 and has been a process that evolved over time. The implementation of this best practice is a true collaboration between the private/public agencies in Northern Virginia.
Bridging the Gap is most often viewed in relation to the relationship and communication between birth parents and foster parents. The benefits of bridging can also be afforded to other families involved in the child’s life, such as between foster parents and extended formal and informal family members of origin, between relative caregivers and the child’s parents, and between foster parents and adoptive parents. In examining the rationale for bridging, these other relationships apply as well.
The most difficult step in opening communication and developing a positive relationship between the birth and foster families is apt to be the initial introduction of the two parties. That introduction can best be made by holding a brief, planned icebreaker meeting facilitated by the child’s social worker. While it is preferable to have such a meeting in person, some case circumstances may necessitate having the meeting by conference call or correspondence. All participants need to be prepared for, and supported through the icebreaker meeting. The introduction of the two parties early in the placement must be presented to, and viewed by, the parents as a normal and necessary part of the foster care process. Foster parents need to be open to meeting birth parents because it is helpful to the child and the security of the child’s placement. They also need to understand that the social worker will, above all else, be concerned about everyone’s safety and will not put anyone, including the foster parent, in the way of harm.
Advantages of Bridging the Gap
From the child’s perspective, the advantages of Bridging the Gap are:
- Opportunity to preserve sense of identity and history.
- Bonding and attachment to family of origin preserved.
- Enhanced self-esteem.
- Decreased sense of abandonment or rejection.
- Potential for increased contact with birth family.
- Two families to love and be loved by.
- Smoother transitions and decreased crisis and conflict.
- Visitation more easily executed and supported.
- Consistent messages from birth and caretaking parents.
- Foster parents seen as supporting birth parents in a non-judgmental way.
- Reduced feelings of divided loyalties to two families.
- Support for birth parents in making an appropriate permanency plan, other than return home.
- Child’s needs better met through collaborative relationships amongst families and professionals.
- Increased possibility of the foster family remaining in the child’s life when the child leaves that family; meaningful relationships not lost.
From the parent’s perspective, the advantages of Bridging the Gap are:
- Bonding and attachment to child are preserved.
- Feeling of being respected for what one knows about the child.
- Anxiety reduced by knowing with whom the child is living.
- Ability to share parent’s expertise about child.
- Better communication and information sharing.
- Greater awareness of the child’s daily activities and lifestyle.
- Decreased feelings of animosity and isolation.
- Smoother visitation arrangements.
- Boundaries and roles clarified.
- Opportunity to benefit from role modeling and mentoring by the foster parent.
- Increased skills and confidence, which in turn increases likelihood of reunification.
- Goal of reunification remains real; promotes achievement of reunification or another permanency goal more quickly.
From the foster parent’s perspective, the advantages of Bridging the Gap are:
- Better able to understand the child’s experience and, therefore, assist the child.
- Ability to gain accurate and comprehensive information form the birth family.
- Reduced discord between the families.
- Smoother arrangements for visitation.
- Opportunity to learn about the child’s culture and ethnicity so that his/her identity can continue to develop.
- Easier adjustment for child that lessens conflicts.
- Feelings of competition reduced.
- Easier transition home or to another permanent placement.
- Lifelong relationship with child may be maintained.
- Participation as a team player with all parties.
From the social worker’s perspective, the advantages of Bridging the Gap are :
- Good communication and relationship create collaboration that reduces tension.
- Direct communication between parents make the job easier.
- Visitation runs more smoothly.
- Better communication from functioning as a team.
- Reality of foster care is more evident to the birth parent if everyone is involved as a team.
- Issues can be addressed more effectively in a direct manner.
- Foster parent can serve as an advocate, mentor, or role model for birth parent.
- Morale booster when parties are working with each other and not against each other.
- Creates a trusting relationship that encourages cooperation.
- In the long run, can reduce the social worker’s role as a primary coordinator, allowing the social worker to serve as a leader rather than as a constant mediator.
The Bridging the Gap Program has developed Frequently Asked Questions: A Guide For Social Workers and Foster Parents which thoroughly address the concerns of birth and foster parents, children and social workers. They have developed an Icebreaker Meeting Protocol and Guidelines as well as a sample meeting process and agenda. These meetings are scheduled by the child’s social worker and take place within seven days of the ongoing placement. They take place at the agency or a neutral location and last about thirty minutes. Meetings are scheduled to be held before the placement when the placement is a planned transition. An alternate form of meeting (phone, in writing) is arranged if a face to face meeting is not viable.
The program also has developed materials that outline the roles and responsibilities of all parties in the Bridging the Gap, focusing on those that relate specifically to the communication, contact and relationship between the foster parent and birth parent.
Resources on Ice Breaker Meetings:
Focus – Newsletter for the Foster Family-base Treatment Association. Fall 2008. Volume 14/Number 3 pages, 1-3, Ice Breaker Meetings – Marianne Werth.
II. Visit Coaching:
Agencies nationally have found that coached visits are an exciting innovation and can be more effective than supervised visits. Visit coaching and support is a practice that helps families to make significant changes and life alterations in a short time frame. Visit coaching and support directly address the issues that brought the child into care, building on family strengths and guiding improved parenting. Visit coaching begins with an agreement with the family that identifies the child-specific needs to be addressed and an understanding of how those needs relate to the risks that brought the child into care. Before each visit, families work with the visit coach to address fears, barriers, and parenting issues. During the visit, the coach actively acknowledges the family’s strengths in responding to their child(ren) and guides them in improving their skills. After the visit, the family and coach evaluate how the next visit could be improved. Visit coaching can be provided in a variety of ways and settings by case workers, foster parents, case aides, CASAs, parent advocates, therapists, and others so long as they have been trained in visit coaching principles and methods.
There are four Visit Coaching Principles (Beyer, 2008):
- Empowerment: Visit coaching builds on the family’s strengths.
- Families are supported to take charge of visits- making them as homelike as possible.
- As soon as possible, coached visits occur outside of the office in parks, schools, libraries, the family’s home, or the foster home.
- The coach guides while appreciating the unique ways the family shows love for their children.
- Siblings, whom the child does not live with, are important and families are assisted with sibling visits.
- Visits become a celebration of the family by taking pictures, making a family album, and telling family stories.
- Empathy: Visit coaching supports families to meet the unique needs of their children.
- Standing in the child’s shoes, the family and coach agree on the child’s specific needs to be met in the visit. When more than one child is visiting, the parent is coached to recognize each child’s different needs.
- At least one identified need must be met during the visit.
- The effect of adult lifestyle choices versus meeting the child’s needs will be an ongoing topic of discussion between the coach and the family.
- The coach makes it possible for each child to have “just you, just me” time with the parent in every visit.
- Responsiveness: Visit coaching helps families manage the conflict between adult and child needs.
- Visits are anger-free, depression-free zones: families learn how feeling victimized, how their anger, or how their sadness get in the way of meeting their child’s needs.
- Families are coached to understand their child’s need for stimulation and expectations that fit his/her age.
- Separate time is made available for discussions with the worker, so the parent can concentrate on the child/children during visits.
- Play led by the child, such as singing, dancing, reading, and crafts are opportunities to give 100% attention to the child during visits.
- Active Parenting: Visit coaching helps families learn how their child’s behavior is shaped by the adult’s words, action, and attitudes.
- Families are helped to improve the fit between their limit-setting and the child’s temperament and behavior. They are coached to see the effect on a child when the adult is too controlling or too passive.
- Families are helped to stop viewing the child’s behavior as “bad” or “hyper.”
- Families are involved in the child’s school, activities, and medical appointments. Through redirection and play, parents practice skills to prevent escalating and confrontational behavior.
Visit Coaching was created by Marty Beyer. She is a child welfare and juvenile justice consultant with a Ph.D.in clinical/community psychology from Yale University. She was invited by ACS, the New York City child welfare agency, to train private foster care agencies and the staff at the ACS family center, in visit coaching. She has developed a visit coaching certification program, supported by her Visit Coaching manual and DVD’s produced by ACS. Marty Beyer can be contacted at email@example.com
Resources on Visit Coaching:
Visit Coaching Article by Marty Beyer: Focus – Newsletter for the Foster Family-base Treatment Association. Fall 2008. Volume 14/Number 3.
Article: Visit Coaching by Marty Beyer.
Visit Coaching Manual and Videotape or ACS visit improvement information contact: Tanya.Krupat@DFA.STATE.NY.US or Paula.Fendall@dfa.state.ny.us / 212-676-6943
Beyer, Marty. Visit Coaching: Supporting Families to Meet the Children’s Needs. Juvenile and Family Court Journal Volume 59 Issue 1, Pages 47 -60.
Family Alternatives, a private foster care agency in Minneapolis, MN conducted a 3-year research initiative to identify best practices in family visiting in response to the growing research on the topic as well as their own experience with children living in the foster homes they serve. They put together the Familyconnect guides to provide a hands-on, practical tool for foster parents, children, and birth parents. The guides are designed to help: reassure everyone of the importance of family visits and connections; normalize typical reactions and difficulties related to family visits and provide strategies for communicating and working with one another in a child centered way. The information in the guides is organized according to five themes: emotion, communication, preparation, connection, and transition.
CWLA Press, Toolboxes For Permanency Series, Toolbox #2, Expanding the Role of Foster Parents in Achieving Permanency, by Susan Dougherty (2001)
The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Family To Family; Tools for Rebuilding Foster Care, Recruitment, Training and Support, The Essential Tools of Foster Care.
A Guide to Partnering with Resource Families
This guide, produced by North Carolina Division of Social Services with support from Jordan Institute for Families, seeks to provide tools and strategies that can be used to build, refine, and sustain partnerships with resource families.
Permanency Planning Today, Spring 2009 contains the following:
- From the Desk of the Director
- New Mexico’s Ice Breakers for Foster and Birth Parents (Reprinted from Children’s Bureau Express)
- Familyconnect Guides: Putting the Pieces of Family Visits Together
- Immigrants and Refugees: The Intersection of Migration and Child Welfare (From a Webcast Interview with Dr. Ilze Earner and Dr. Alan Dettlaff)
- Highlights from An Introduction to the Practice Model Framework (Adapted from Document by NRCOI and NRCPFC)
- Addressing Racial Disproportionality in the Child Welfare System (An Interview with Joyce James, Assistant Commissioner, Texas CPS)
- Listening to Parents (Youshell Williams, Reprinted from Rise Magazine)
- Willing to Listen (Sylvia Perez, Reprinted from Rise Magazine)
- Tidbits from the States
Werth, M.(2008) Icebreaker Meetings. Focus – Newsletter for the Foster Family-base Treatment Association, 14(3), 1-3. Retrieved 3/5/09