Communicating with Birth Parents: A Part of the Journey
by Allonna Stovall
Our journey into the world of fostering children began on a Monday. It was December 29, 2008. My husband and I received the call we had been awaiting since August. "We have three children that need a home tonight," said Shari. "Would you be interested?" The call came around 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon and those same children were around our table for dinner by 5:00 p.m.
What a whirlwind of emotions! We were all a little overwhelmed, to tell the truth. Excited to be helping children who needed us, all the while realizing that the children were in need of much more than just a "home" that day... they were in desperate need of a family.
As that first evening wore on with dinner, play time and baths, I found myself with questions that I would have loved to ask their birth mother or a family member, had they been available. It was bedtime that made it most evident that we needed a way of communicating with someone in the children's family about some of the challenges we were facing. For example, our three year old foster son cried for three hours straight when it was time to go to bed. Was that normal for him? We didn't know. Perhaps he was used to a nightlight, a favorite blanket, or a warm glass of milk before bed? Autistic, he could not speak. We had no answers. Having an answer to those questions would have really made the next two weeks’ worth of bedtimes more comforting for him and less anxiety ridden for us!
Over the next several months I began to recognize an important truth. Birth parents do have a role to play in the fostering/adoptive process. Getting to know my foster children's birth mother helped me to realize another truth: she was not the monster I had once assumed her to be. In fact, I found quite the opposite. She was a lot like me, and I her. She was smart, loved to read and draw, and she loved her children. She began to open up to me about herself: a mother, 33 years old, spent time in the foster care system as a child. She had made a series of choices that were "less than perfect" and was living through some of the challenges of those decisions. It was at that time that I was presented with a choice of my own: to judge her, or to make the commitment to understand her. Ultimately I made the decision to include her in the journey we were on.
This being our very first foster care placement, we were not sure how much or how little we wanted to involve her. Within a few weeks of the placement, the birth father was no longer a viable part of the case so my husband and I decided that I would, cautiously, take the lead in engaging the birth mother. I began by inviting her to a dentist appointment that I had set up for her children. Next, a doctor’s appointment, then a series of counseling appointments. We were very attentive to the actions and reactions of the children during these encounters and proceeded with extreme caution. We needed to safeguard the children's emotions. It was not, I repeat, not, a cake walk! There were cancelled appointments, no-shows and some pretty lame excuses. However, we learned throughout that period of time to be patient with her and to set boundaries.
It can be done! Our family is proof. We now find ourselves in a unique relationship with our adopted children's mother. Currently we are able to speak over the phone at birthdays, holidays and other special occasions. We have even exchanged Mother's Day cards and gifts. We are able to move forward at a pace that is comfortable for our family and for her.
We believe that, while each case is different, there can and should be a measure of open communication between the fostering family and the birth parent(s) during the fostering and adoptive process. It will look a little different each time you receive a placement into your home. You will ultimately need to use your own best judgment about how to proceed in a way that is healthy and safe for your family and for the children you are caring for. Whether there are notes sent to and from supervised visits or calls placed to children on a disposable cell phone, the open line of communication may, in fact, be the key to bridging the gap between "us and them." Remember, they are a special part of the journey!
Allonna Stovall biological, foster and adoptive parent. She has seven children, three by birth, three adopted, and one foster child who is in the process of being adopted.