Collaborating with birth families. The ‘if not, why not’ rule

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, the foster care sector (government and non-government) has traditionally recruited carers with a narrative that carers do not have to have involvement with birth families. Because of this, we now have a legacy (not everywhere but still prevalent) where:

  • Some carers who have been in ‘caring’ roles for a while have very strong views about birth families and are reluctant, worried and at times blocking family connection for children in care (this is a small percentage of carers);
  • Birth families are lumbered with many negative stereotypes which don’t take into account their own context and gets in the way of forming natural connections and working together to support restoration;
  • Children in care are significantly disconnected from family (this can be parents, siblings, extended family) due to historical minimal effort in this space and have no idea who their family are and this is a big part of their own identity.

It breaks my heart when I hear about children and young people who are missing out on knowing family because of this legacy. It is also sad that the adults who all care about a child or children in care are unable to put the best interest of the child first.

Thankfully the expectations are very different now and the starting point is ‘if not, why not’ when it comes to knowing and having meaningful relationships with family.

Recently a carer couple called me to discuss concerns they were having relating to supporting the child in their care to return to her mum. The child (infant) was in a transition between carers home and mum’s home. Mum was completely isolated (no family, friends where she was living) and the carers had repeatedly offered to meet mum and be part of her network to support her daughter to stay at home. The resistance came from the agency. They cited mum’s mental health as a reason. If the carers should be ‘protected’ from mum, how was it going to be when everyone steps away and it is just mum and her infant daughter?

These carers were prepared to play a meaningful role in the restoration and be part of mum’s support network, but in that instance it didn’t happen. The child’s mum continues to be isolated and is struggling.

Carers can be a great source of support for children and parents when it comes to getting children back home. There is huge potential for a network of foster aunties and uncles who are intentionally in it to support children getting back home and becoming part of the families ongoing support network. There cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ model as every child, family and context needs to be considered based on their own circumstances, but there is definitely an urgent need for foster carers who are in it for this reason.

No matter what type of foster carer you are or are considering, collaborating with families can happen in many ways. Some areas to collaborate include:

Collaborating to support children going home

If children could potentially go back home, the adults meet to talk about how the carers could be part of the skilling up network for parents. For example, I have been supporting one family where we started with the parent meeting children at carer’s home after school to learn and then ‘do’ afternoon routine one day per week (to start with to avoid overwhelming).

After a few weeks the carer moved into the background so the parent could do this autonomously and manage the multiple routine needs such as talking about day, emptying bags, making snacks, ensuring some playtime and homework, bathing etc.

Once the parent was confident and able to reflect on what works, what doesn’t, we then added morning routine one morning per week and went through the same process.

The staging approach enabled the parent to really focus on one area at a time and see how it benefited the children. Often when children come into care all the time they spend with parent/s is play time and whilst this is very important it doesn’t give the parent any opportunity to demonstrate parenting which is an expectation for the Children’s Court.

When children do formally go home, you of course, can continue to play an integral ‘aunty/uncle’ role through emotional and practical support. This may be that you continue to collect a child/ren from school a couple of days a week so a parent can work or they have regular sleepovers at your home to provide the parent/s with some time for themselves. There are endless opportunities.

Collaborating when children enter care and due to severity of reasons, they have to stay in care

When children do have to enter and stay in care that the adults meet separately to discuss how they can support family connection, share important health and school information, food preferences, friendships, birthdays (parents, grandparents etc).

Another important area to collaborate directly is around key contact people in the family. having phone numbers and emails for the parents is a very good start, but also consider who else is important to the child.

I heard a beautiful story recently about a carer who provides a monthly update to the family with a photo and some of the highlights. I personally don’t have that much time (as much as I love this idea), so I send photos regularly and little updates. Depending on the parent, I also call on CCs parents birthday and send birthday messages. I send intermittent photos of CC in between visits to help them know what is happening in her life.

Children who have been in care for some time and are disconnected from family

These are the most lonely and vulnerable children in care and really do deserve champion foster carers. I have been privileged to witness incredible work between foster carers and foster agencies to create a completely different trajectory for older children and young people who have this experience and where-ever possible this should pivot around family connection.

If you do choose to or are supporting children or young people with disconnection from family, then I really encourage you to challenge your foster care agency as to why. Also ask ‘who is their family?’. They may need to go and find information out but please stay true to that child’s right to

1/ Know who their family including parents, aunties, siblings, grandparents)

2/ Be re-connected in a safe and considered way (with therapeutic guidance where necessary)

If a child in your care is reluctant to see family or have anything to do with them (this will come from a place of pain), then find ways to keep the conversation open in a way that does not pressure them but does provide a place to explore what a safe relationship with family could look like. It may take longer, but it can still happen.

Note – all carers do sign up to a Code of Conduct (may be referred to as a Charter) which outlines legal rights, ethical responsibilities. and this should include working well and respectfully with family.

A couple of examples are:

NSW Out-Of-Home-Care Code of Conduct

South Australian Government Foster Carers Charter

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