Supporting birth and foster family relationships has the potential to minimize the trauma that children experience when they are removed from home; nurture the child’s relationship with birth parents, siblings and extended family; provide birth parents with support to improve their parenting skills and facilitate reunification; benefit foster parents by reducing conflicts with birth parents; and ensure that relationships are preserved after reunification.
What the Research Says
Research has demonstrated that frequent contact between children in foster care and their birth families improves a child’s behavior and adjustment to being in care. Furthermore, positive relationships and interactions between the foster and birth families support frequent visitation, creates a sense of belonging for children and improves parenting practices. A research summary is available here.
Recommended Policy Approaches
Shared parenting: The birth and the foster parents work together as partners to parent a child in foster care in the context of a trusting relationship that is supported and facilitated by a caseworker. The practice originated as part of the Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP) foster parent training curriculum. Shared parenting is prominently featured in the 2018 version of trauma-informed MAPP. Shared parenting often includes the following:
A phone call between a foster parent and a birth parent shortly after a child’s placement. Generally, the foster parent initiates the call and shares some information about herself, such as her fostering experience, who lives in the home and daily routines. The call is also an opportunity for the foster parent to learn more about the child, e.g., favorite foods, how to comfort the child, and any special health needs.
Face-to-face meetings between birth parents and foster parents to share information about the child and to begin the process of developing a birth parent/foster parent relationship. These meetings are generally facilitated by a caseworker and take place soon after a child’s placement with the foster family.
Recruitment of parents who are interested in mentoring and coaching birth families
Half of the children in foster care will return home to their birth families. There should, therefore, be greater emphasis placed on recruiting foster parents willing to provide temporary care and partner with birth parents on behalf of children for whom reunification is the permanency goal.
Policy should be clear about what information about the child—such as health and education records—must be shared with the foster parent. The more the foster parent knows about the child, the better equipped she will be to establish a child-centered relationship with the birth parent.
Special considerations for kinship care
A kinship foster parent is likely to have a pre-existing relationship with the birth parent that presents unique issues, strengths and challenges. These relationships may be colored by conflicting emotions. Caseworkers need specialized training on family engagement practices, such as family team decision making and how to help caregivers and birth parents manage and leverage their relationships for the benefit of the child’s safety, permanency and well-being.
Shared Parenting: Potential Benefits for Foster Parents
Creating supportive relationships and sharing information with birth parents may: Creating supportive relationships and sharing information with birth parents may:
- Enhance child development, learning, and well-being by encouraging the child to return to the child role
- Decrease children’s defiant behavior by reducing the children’s desire/need to demonstrate loyalty to birth family
- Provide information and insights that enable foster parents to meet children’s needs earlier and in a more effective way, thus helping children and reducing foster parent frustration
- Reduce conflict with birth parents over various issues (e.g., grooming)
- Increase birth parent support for foster parents by reassuring them their children are being well cared for and that foster parents do not seek to replace them
- Create a positive connection between the foster parents, the child, and the child’s family that will not have to end, even if the placement does
Examples of Existing Policies and Programs
North Carolina Shared Parenting Policy
North Carolina, which has a state-supervised, county-administered child welfare system with significant private agency involvement, began practicing shared parenting in 2005. Caseworkers resisted the practice at first, because they were concerned that it would add to their heavy workload. They ultimately embraced shared parenting because direct communication between birth and foster families meant they no longer had to act as middlemen. Some county child welfare administrators thought the practice was optional because it was not in policy. In response, the state Division of Social Services adopted a formal policy in 2008, which was revised in 2015.1 The policy covers the purpose and strengths of shared parenting, preparation for the initial shared parenting meeting, safety, confidentiality, role of the social worker and post-permanency.
Policy now mandates that every county and private agency implement shared parenting as part of every foster care case. Shared parenting is taught to every prospective foster and adoptive parent by a team consisting of an experienced foster parent and a “MAPP leader,” a county or private agency licensing worker trained by one of three master trainers.
Shared parenting proceeds through several steps, beginning with a phone call by the foster parent to the birth parent, in which the foster parent acknowledges the fear and worry being experienced by the birth parent and asks how the birth parent would like her child to be cared for. The foster parent provides assurances that she wants the child to be reunified and that she is not hiding the child from the birth parent. The next step is a shared parenting meeting, which policy requires be held within seven days of placement, although some counties hold an initial meeting within 48 hours. This meeting, which includes the caseworker, is an opportunity for more discussion of the child’s needs and preferences, as well as the nature and extent of ongoing contact. Over time, contact may be expanded to include the birth parent’s participation in school meetings and other activities involving the child. Eventually, the birth parent may be invited to visit the child in the foster parent’s home.
Although North Carolina has not formally evaluated shared parenting, anecdotal evidence suggests that it expedites reunification, lowers rates of re-entry, and facilitates adoption by the foster parent if reunification is ultimately ruled out. Shared parenting also reduces trauma for the child and the birth parent and makes it more likely that the foster parent can maintain contact with the child post-reunification.
Ventura County, CA Co-Parenting Policy
Co-parenting in Ventura County represented a complete shift from prior practice, in which foster parents had little to no contact with birth parents. Co-parenting is now an integral part of foster parent training, called 21st Century Training, which includes a presentation by a foster parent, birth parent and child on how the practice made a difference in their lives. Foster parents also receive coaching on co-parenting from Caregiver Support Specialists, who are available to deal with more complex issues, such as coordinating supports to stabilize children in the home, and Peer Partner Educators, who are experienced foster parents able to answer general questions and provide coaching on day-to-day caregiving.
Other important elements of co-parenting are use of Partnership Agreements and Child’s Needs and Services Plans. Partnership Agreements are signed by the foster parent, agency staff and the birth parent and set forth what is expected from foster parents and caseworkers. Foster parents, for example, are expected to maintain a relationship with the child and family to support continuity and successful reunification. Child’s Needs and Services Plans are provided to foster parents at time of placement and contain detailed information about the child, including traumas the child has experienced and presenting behaviors, and require foster parents to provide a phone number at which the birth parent may contact the child, as required by California statute.5
Co-parenting practice is tailored to individual cases and can include icebreaker meetings, regular telephone calls and participation in school meetings, doctor’s appointments and child and family team meetings. Visitation using the Fostering Relationships in Visitation model is also an integral part of co-parenting and allows the foster parent to provide encouragement and positive feedback to the birth parent.
Components of a Shared Parenting Policy: Some Considerations
Although there is no “one size fits all” template for shared parenting, policy can provide a useful framework to guide development of a child-centered relationship between foster caregivers and birth families. Jurisdictions interested in adopting a shared parenting policy may want to consider including the following components, partly adapted from policy in North Carolina:
- Purpose and strengths of shared parenting
- Pre-meeting phone call
- Initial shared parenting meeting:
- focus on the child
- timing, location
- involvement of extended family members
- involvement of non-custodial parents: safety concerns
- Role of caseworker
- communicate purpose and structure of meeting
- monitor birth family/foster parent interaction
- serve as resource for all parties
- Conduct of the meeting
- ground rules
- content of discussion
- child’s preferences, routines, school progress, response to discipline, etc.
- cultural, religious practices and beliefs
- ongoing visitation and contact
- Subsequent birth parent/foster parent contact, such as:
- regular phone calls
- participation in team meetings, school meetings, medical appointments
- foster parent shares information, e.g., journal, lifebook, photos, schoolwork, with birth parent
- Shared parenting and Child and Family Team Meetings: similarities and differences
- Maintaining relationships post-permanency, as determined by parties
1 North Carolina Division of Social Services, Family Services Manual, Vol. 1: Children’s Services, 1201-Child Placement Services, XI. Shared Parenting.
2 Donna Foster, Master Trainer and Program Consultant, North Carolina Division of Social Services, personal communication, August 20, 2018.
3 Illinois DCFS Permanency Planning Procedures, Procedure 315.30, Shared Parenting.
4 Vermont Department for Children and Families, Family Services Policy Manual, Policy No. 124, Family Time
5 Cal. Welfare and Institutions Code, §308.
6 Renee Lodder, Program Manager, Ventura County Children and Family Services, personal communication, October 18, 2018.