Practical ways to teamplay with bio parents

This is a continuation of my last post, In Defense of Bio Parents.

Confession: Everybody says that foster care is “all about the child,” but the truth is that in my county it is all about the bio family. That means every reasonable effort will be made to a) avoid removing the child from his home in the first place, and b) return him if it is humanly possible.

Fostering is not about rescuing children. Fostering is, by nature, about giving families a second chance.

Because of a shifting focus in that direction across the state system, bio parents and foster parents today work more closely together than they did thirty years ago, (ideally) equipping bio parents to return to the caregiver role as soon as possible with new tools and skills. This can be both intensely frustrating and intensely rewarding.

For me, the hardest aspect of fostering (I mean in a daily rub-you-the-wrong-way way, not in a big-picture saying-goodbye-to-my-kiddos way), is parenting alongside people I do not especially like or trust. It’s as though we are divorced from each other and trying to negotiate how to raise our kids – all of the angst with none of the history – a relationship full of landmines. Believe me that though I may sound calm and compassionate here, there are times I want to scream at them and punish them and make them pay. I want them to feel like snot for doing this to innocent children.

Yet at the same time, successful team-playing has become one of my greatest delights. I love the fostering process, and I’ve come to believe passionately in second chances for the whole bio family, not only for the children. But that means learning to step in the places that will not blow up in my face, to defuse the explosives and disarm the enemy.

Here are some practical ways I’ve found to get on the same team, and to offer goodwill and support.

  1. Acknowledge the elephant in the room.

I am not sure why it feels so awkward to talk about the fact that *I am caring for *their children, but there are enough layers of shame and insecurity here to wrap the world in. Particularly troublesome are the first times we meet. What can we say? How is this relationship going to look?

Sometimes there is enough friction or embarrassment that I can only bridge the gap by empathy – trying silently to put myself in their shoes. But as soon as I feel they can hear me, I’ve found it best to say the words I can. “I’m sure this is a very tough time for your family.”

This is the elephant: they are in the middle of the greatest loss of their lives. If we ignore this, we seem callous, wrapped in our own agendas. It’s best, if possible, to acknowledge their position, this great unnamable failure and loss. There are many kind things to say that do not overpromise, or wound. “We want you to know we are on your team.” “We will do everything we can to help.” We’ll do our best to take good care of your children until they can return to your home.”

  1. Ask their advice.

So, the state decided this set of parents was unable to parent their children at this time. I may be the parenting expert here, if I like to consider myself such (I don’t – I have enough faults of my own to keep me eating humble pie by the plateful)… I may be the parenting expert, but they are the expert on this child.

How does he like to go to sleep at night? What kind of oil do they use in her beautiful black hair? Is she comfortable climbing stairs? Do they prefer his hair cut short or left to grow? What are her favorite foods?

I do not pepper them, and I am careful not to ask anything potentially embarrassing – anything that might reflect negatively on their care. But as topics come up, I ask.

I learned this the hard way, when by great trial and error I found ways to work with our special needs son’s excessive body fluids – and later heard his mom tossing off ideas they’d used to deal with the problem. I thought “I worked for weeks and months to find those same methods of coping – and some I never did find. She already knew.”

When I ask bio parents for advice, all purposes are served: I am given the useful information I need, the child has more continuity and better quality of care, a sense of team is cultivated because we are working together, and the birth parents are given back some of the respect that has been stripped from them. I am working to earn their trust here. It always goes better when they know I honor their role.

  1. Give gifts.

Early in the relationship, I like to give something small – a picture our shared child colored for them, or some printed photos of the kiddos having fun.

Later, I try to remember special days, like Mother’s Day or dad’s birthday. I buy a small gift, and help the child prepare a card, even if they are too young to find it special themselves. Handprints are beautiful, or photographs again – anything that says “You are still my parent and I love you.” I don’t want to be the person shoving them out of this child’s life. I am here to build bridges, not burn them.

I know it’s working when they start reciprocating. I still get messages on Mother’s Day from some mothers of our former foster children, wishing me a happy day. And one of my most treasured possessions came from a bio mom: a handmade baby quilt she created while I was pregnant with Jenny, and gave to me.

(Not that Jenny would smile for me or anything. I’m still annoyed about that, two years later…)

  1. Make them laugh.

This is harder than it sounds. I mentioned layers in this relationship, and there are so many that humor is usually the last thing we are thinking of. But when they laugh, I know I’ve won. I have disarmed them enough to start forming a relationship.

So I admit that I googled hair care for their children – “There are websites for people like me,” I say. And dad starts laughing. “Chocolate hair, vanilla care. What kind of oil do you use in it?” Or I tell them that their kid is bossing mine to use their manners. “She’s like ‘Say please. Say I’m sorry.’” And Grandma starts cracking up because she’s the one who taught her, and I know it.

  1. Self-disclose.

Everything I know about working with bio parents I learned from bio parents (with crucial redirection from my husband, the Holy Spirit, and key friends along the way), but the first set I worked with was something special. They were simple people, not deep thinkers, not defiant. They were honestly trying their best to work with their children, but they didn’t know how to do it, didn’t know what the children needed or were capable of. One day I dropped off their son for a visit, and was about to cruise away in my little van as usual when one of them said, “What is he doing these days?” and the other said, “Yeah, we hear some things from the caseworker but we’d really like to hear from you.”

“OH!” I said.

Honest to goodness, it had never occurred to me. This thing broke my heart: first that they had to ask, and second that they were willing to!

“Well…” I said. “He’s been doing really good with eating, and he learned to climb the stairs!”

After that we always took a few minutes to talk when I dropped him off, and it turned into one of my most rewarding birthparent relationships, a bond I still treasure several years after returning their son to them. We exchange gifts, and hugs, and phone calls. They taught me so much.

I’ve tried to become more open with bio parents about what their children are doing in my home – to always have something to share, a story or a quote or a small problem we worked on. But it goes beyond that.

If there are decisions to be made about the children or I have a problem with something the birthparents are initiating, if I have a way to communicate directly with them, I take it when possible. Obvious restrictions apply, and some decisions the state must make, but we can work out so much on our own. When we communicate directly, I can shape my concerns in the least hurtful way, and I can offer the dignity of authentic and truthful conversation.

We cannot be perfectly transparent; they will not see it all. But my goal is to become something between an open door and a brick wall – maybe you could call it a warm window.

  1. Speak life!

If there is anything I love about these children we share, any qualities that endear them to me, can I assume it is not solely the result of the past few weeks or months in my home? Someone other than I formed these children and made them what they are. Every time I can, I pour on delight – in who the kiddos are, in what they’ve been given.

“She is so pretty. I think she has your nose.”

“He is honestly such a relational little kid. He’s so good at noticing other people’s feelings and caring about them.”

“He has the best sense of humor ever!”

“I really appreciate you asking. Thank you so much.”

“I think they’re adapting well here, but I know they miss you. They talk about going shopping with you, and how much fun they had last summer.”

“I can tell they were taught how to clean up after themselves. It’s amazing.”

Do you know what I am as a foster parent? I am wine and oil and glue, a healer and smoother and nurturer. I am a facilitator of reentry. I am an advocate – not only for the child to the bio parents and to the court, but also, at times, for the bio parents to the caseworker and the caseworker to the bio parents. I am a nurse, bandaging the wounds. I am a wainwright, greasing the wheels. I am a sportsman, setting up the win for my teammate. I am a janitor, cleaning up the mess after the lights go out.

I do this so, so imperfectly. I make wounds and messes of my own, and sometimes my best efforts fall flat.

But my job is to love this child as my own while giving his parents every chance to reclaim him. I know it’s a stupid, heartbreaking job, but somebody has to do it. I’m not trying to keep him, not yet – I’m trying to give him back whole.

And I am trying to convince you that you could join me.

– Shari

If you are a foster mom in the trenches and you know how hard this is and you are starting to get annoyed with me for being so high and holy and dispassionate, relax, my friend. I’m writing in your defense next time.

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Mom Coblentz
5 years ago


LuAnn Peters
5 years ago

Thanks for sharing! We are working on our foster papers. It’s good to hear from those that have fostered and how they dealt with it.

5 years ago

Hello, Shari,
I love all the wonderful food for thought and practical advice in your last two posts! I think it displays the attitude and viewpoint that Jesus would have…

I have a question I was wondering if you could help me with. Have you been to or do you know of any foster care seminars/support groups/retreats? Do you have any that have been most helpful or encouraging to you? I’d love to correspond by email on it, but I fully understand why that may not be possible, and so you are welcome to just share in the comments section or you have my email, so it’s your choice.

Blessings to you and yours!

5 years ago
Reply to  Shari Zook

Thanks! So helpful!

5 years ago

I love these posts! You have outlined the joys of fostering so well! The tips are great! relating to the bio parents can be so rewarding! I’ve noticed the more I pray and lean on God for wisdom in relating to both bio parents and social workers the better it goes!

5 years ago

You said it so well. Sometimes this job feels impossible, yet our bumbling efforts can bring surprising bits of joy.

One set of bio parents had nothing good to say about us until I gave them a beautiful canvas picture of their child for Christmas. I told them with tears in my eyes that I have a child the same age, and I could only imagine how much it would hurt to have someone else take care of him for a while. That was a turning point in our relationship, although it’s still far from some of what you described.

I’m challenged, convicted, and inspired by your words.

5 years ago

Can’t wait for the next post. This is so well written! My deepest grief with fostering is that we don’t have a whole army of Christians stepping up to the plate! I believe this is who Jesus is calling to fill in the gap. The main excuse I hear for not doing it is regarding the pain in giving up the child. Maybe you want to touch on that particular part of it in one of your posts? It is a very real, hard part of the journey. Maybe you have tips on how to walk through that… Thanks again for sharing!

5 years ago

This is so beautiful!! I’m excited how the attitude tide is turning in Christian circles I frequent. I used to feel (and still do occasionally) that in general, fostering was considered for second best kids and hopeless situations. This article has Christ’s gospel written all over it!!

Priscilla F.
5 years ago

I think you’re just trying to “preach at me” and convince me or something, that yes, this fostering is something I could, maybe even SHOULD do..! 😉 In seriousness though, my main concern would be 1) having the intrusiveness of the State in my life as a constant presence, having young, bio children of my own to look after and desiring to be the parent and not give up any God-given authority in this area regarding my own bio kiddos, and in that vein of thought, 2) fears of the effects (negative?) of having children from tough backgrounds and fearing harm to bio kids. The fear of returning foster kids to bio family is often what I hear as an excuse whenever fostering comes up in conversations with others, and while I’m sure that’s incredibly hard, I don’t feel that’s my biggest fear.

5 years ago

Hey there! Long time reader, first time commentor. 🙂 This was a very well written post, and I commend you for reaching out to bridge the gap between bio parents, foster parents and children caught in the middle. The thought and effort you are putting into those relationships is something I want to work on more, and I thank you for challenging me to reach out to help them more, not just care well for the little’s in my care. We are not all called to the same thing, but we are all called to do something. Keep up the good work!

5 years ago

Right on! 🙂

5 years ago

I burst into tears when I read your last sentence. You see, we are hoping to get our foster care license this year so we can do respite care for foster parents (there is so much to tell you about this). Because of other things we’re already doing, our background checks and child abuse training is done. We’ve just figured out how to rearrange our house so we can have the required square footages. Everything else is still to do.
I just want to tell you that I cannot thank you enough for writing these posts. They came to us exactly when we needed them and you didn’t even know.

5 years ago

Thank you for writing this series! I drank it all in and will be saving these articles for rereading later. My experience with foster care is almost nothing, just a small taste so far with a little person who comes one day and night every weekend. And yet I have already felt some of these same things in relating to bio Mom. So glad you have the talent to put all this in to words.

5 years ago

I am an adoptive parent. Times two. With children who spent their lives in the orphanage system instead of the foster system. And the biggest thing that shocked me with my first adoptee was the strong emotional connection I felt to birth Mom, even though I had never met her and had no contact with her. That was a dead end (by her choice) when we attempted to establish contact. But our second daughter’s birth mom was so relieved to be found once she got done being scared we’d tracked her down to try to ascertain if she had any other children we could adopt! (That was the furthest thing from our minds and hearts, but she didn’t know that!) Now we have a relationship that brings joy to both of us and we exchange pictures, stories, and such. She never had our daughter in her life after she was born, but she is relieved to know she is loved and cherished and appreciates the stories and photos we send her, and pictures of her school work and so on My heart is big enough for her too and having her in our lives has been a blessing. Someday we want to meet and I expect we will run to each other and hug and cry together . . . maybe not, but I think so, because we both love the same precious child.

[…] remember well all the glorious things I’ve written about teamplaying with bio families. I still believe in them. And NEWSFLASH: They don’t always […]

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