Fostering and birth parents
it is important that carers have a general understanding of the effects fostering can have on the birth parents of children in foster care. This is simply because a child or young person will, in most cases, be thinking that their birth family will play a part in their lives. It is important that there is regular and ongoing contact between children and their parents. Children can feel relief at being removed from a traumatic and chaotic situation but they will at the same time be dealing with feelings of sadness and loss. This means their feelings will be confused but having regular contact with their parents can help deal with these feelings. Past research shows that some children in care will devote time every day to thinking about their family. This is also the case where they have experienced neglect or abuse.
For foster carers, seeing the fostering situation through the eyes of the birth parents provides a greater insight into the situation as a whole. A child or young person’s developing identity – as well as their ‘inner landscape’ will be influenced through contacts with their birth parents. Their developing sense of self will also be affected if contact is rare or extremely minimal. The assumption is that a looked after child will, if circumstances allow, be able to return to their birth family. So contact with their family – including any siblings if appropriate – is advisable. Keeping in regular contact with their birth family can also help reduce the anxieties of the child or young person. This promotes a greater degree of placement stability.
In simple terms contact is defined as being -
- Direct contact: this means regular meetings between the child or young person and their birth family members. It can also include ‘significant others’ - members of the wider family for example. Direct contact can also include phone calls, texting and emails.
- Indirect contact: this can mean cards and letters sent to a child or young person from a birth family member(s). This is most often through a third party.
How fostering can affect the birth family
Most parents who have had a child or children taken into care experience a range of emotions. These can be powerful including sadness, anger, grief and worry – these can result in a sense of bereavement. Birth parents who find themselves subject to child protection procedures – especially court proceedings, can find this a very stressful and often distressing experience. These reactions can continue after it has been accepted there is a need for their child to be placed in care. It is also very common for the parents to feel abandoned once the court proceedings are over.Birth parents can also experience a loss of identity as well as a loss of control: these responses are not fixed and can change as circumstances change. No two situations are alike with different birth parents feeling varying levels of responsibility; sometimes anger is felt toward the child going into care; other parents can think it is a good thing their child is being looked after if they have been struggling to look after them. There is research which has established some common responses from parents which are useful to be aware of –
- a proportion of parents may have accepted the need for care at the time, but later be critical of the lack of support and then want the child or young person returned home
- a proportion of parents blame the child for being difficult and ending up needing to go into care
- a proportion of parents express anger with professionals at the time their child goes into care, but later assume some responsibility for the situation
- a proportion of parents are angered by their child going into care and remain so. They have not accepted the need for their child to be in care and blame social workers
- a proportion of parents do accept their responsibility and recognise their child needs to be in care. They value support from social workers as well as appreciating the work of the foster carer(s).
The care planning process for a foster child needs their birth families to be involved right from the start. They need to be engaged with the decision making process and where possible and appropriate, the inclusion of grandparents and siblings. When fostering children, carers should be aware that many of the parents of looked after children have experienced difficult and insecure attachments when children themselves. They are also likely to have faced one or a number of problems that may include relationship difficulties, poor mental health, substance misuse, alcohol or drug addiction or poverty.
The role of the social worker
Foster carers will be closely supported in their contacts with birth families by social workers. A child or young person is more likely to lose contact with their parents the longer they remain in care: it is very important that carers work with families to help support contact.
- determine the wishes and feelings of the child
- regularly review the contact arrangements
- influence the quality, safety and frequency of contact
- give consideration to the reason for contact
- where contact has ceased or is infrequent if the placement is long term; social workers will seek to restore contact if it is thought to be in the interests of the child or young person.
An essential role is played by foster families in assisting birth parents to stay emotionally connected to their child or young person. When this works well, it can be of enormous benefit and facilitate reunification.
Foster carers should be aware that, when possible and advisable, developing good relationships with birth families is going to result in the best care for the child or young person. When meeting birth parents taking an interest in their child’s routines – likes and dislikes, favourite meals, hobbies etc. can reassure the parents. This will establish the idea that everyone is working in the best interests of the child or young person.
"My link worker has been very helpful, she is easy to talk to and reliable."
"I enjoy being a foster carer, I find it very fulfilling."
"The reward has been from my foster child seeing her blossom and flourish."