Ryan and Amy Benton realized early in their quest to become foster parents how astronomical the need is in Oklahoma for more families to offer their homes and hearts to foster children. But like so many potential foster parents, they weren’t sure of their emotional capacity to help a child return home to live with the very biological parents whose actions had placed their children in state custody.
“The need is huge, but we were scared of what it means to be a bridge family,” said Ryan, referring to working as a team with biological parents toward reunification. The Bentons’ first thought was, “I don’t want these people in my home.”
Judith Cope, foster parent recruiter and trainer for Sunbeam Family Services and a foster mom herself, agrees these fears are normal. Potential foster parents often don’t realize that bridging and reunification are priorities, or they think they might not apply to their particular case. The purpose of foster care is first and foremost restoration of the family, which means most foster parents will be helping their foster children return to a safer, more stable home.
“Beyond providing love and affection to a child, you really sign up to be a mentor to a parent,” Cope said. “You’re fostering a family.”
For the Bentons, the turning point came when they realized the long-term impact they could have on parents and families by supporting biological families and helping them realize a new “normal.”
“In a lot of cases, the [foster] kids you have aren’t going to be the last kids these biological parents have,” said Ryan. “Not only are we able to change the family norm for these kids, but we also have an opportunity with the parents to give them a chance to see family working in a different way.”
The Bentons’ first foster children were a brother and sister, ages 1 and 3. They invited the biological parents into their home and involved them in the things they already did as a family. Ryan recalls the biological dad tearing up because he couldn’t remember the last time they had had a family meal together. Ryan described their work toward reunification as “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
While reunification is typically the initial goal for foster children, it’s not always the end of the story. In the Bentons’ case, the biological parents’ rights have been terminated by the state and the couple will pursue adoption of their foster children. Still, the Bentons are determined to keep the biological parents engaged in the lives of the children.
“In my perfect world, I want the birth parents to be an active part of our kids’ lives,” said Ryan, who doesn’t want his kids to wonder where they came from or think they entered foster care through some fault of their own. “They have parents who love them but didn’t have the capacity to keep them safe and they have another family that’s been called to love them.”
Approaching bridging with grace
When it comes to reunification, one of the most common, knee-jerk reactions for potential foster parents and community members alike is that a parent whose child has been removed from the home shouldn’t be able to get that child back.
Jena Collins, child placement coordinator for foster placement agency Anna’s House, said it’s critical for foster parents to understand biological families love their children but have made mistakes. Those parents must work through a specific treatment plan with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) to reunite with their children. While friction and frustration often remain between foster and biological parents, the foster parents who take time to empathize with a biological parent’s background and situation find bridging a little easier.
“There are broken families who need help,” said foster dad Jeff DeGiacomo. “No one wants to see addiction, anger, abuse or any other negative factor destroy a family, but it happens every day. There are innocent children in these families who need a nurturing, supportive environment while their family walks through difficult times.”
Sarah Latham, who has experienced both reunification and adoption in her foster parent journey, imagines herself in the biological parents’ shoes, wanting to be able to care for their own children but struggling to do so. She describes foster care as a “ministry to the whole family.”
“It would mean so much to have the support of strangers who loved my child in their home and loved me enough to meet me where I was and help me become the parent I longed to be,” said Latham. “It is truly a privilege to be able to instill hope and confidence in the hearts of parents who desperately want to raise their own children.”
Cope has fostered seven children, all of whom eventually returned home. Perhaps the most important lesson she’s learned along the way is to humanize the biological parents she interacts with. Cope was 24 years old when she fostered her first child and often felt angry with the biological mother for what she had put the child through. Her relationship with the biological mom of her second placement changed her mindset entirely.
“She had been a foster child herself,” said Cope. “She had been through shelters and various homes. No one had ever given her a chance or modeled relationships [to her]. How can we expect her to perform [as a mother] at the level you and I would after she’s been through all this trauma? It’s simply not possible.”
Cope believes being a foster parent has even more to do with mentoring a parent who has been failed than caring for that parent’s child. Most biological parents have never experienced healthy relationships, so they have no idea how to have one with their children. In many cases, these families have had no access to parenting resources and oftentimes their work with foster parents and OKDHS is the first time they have experienced lessons in how to parent safely and successfully. In several cases, Cope has become the most stable, healthy relationship in the lives of the biological parents she’s mentored.
“If I can show one family they can be restored to the point of being capable to take care of children, I want to be that support system and give them that opportunity,” she said.
Bridging reduces trauma to the child
Like the Bentons plan to do, keeping foster kids connected to their biological families, whether or not they can successfully be reunited, causes less trauma to that child in the long run. Trauma is inevitable for foster children, even if it simply stems from being removed from the only home and parents they have ever known.
“You go from seeing a parent every day to [seeing them] two hours per month,” Cope said.
While it’s imperative that a child be removed from an unsafe situation and biological parents have the time and space to make necessary changes to their situations, the long-term impact on the child remains.
“When [foster children] experience stresses that are extreme, it changes their wiring, changes the hormones released in the body,” said Dr. Deb Shropshire, pediatrician and deputy director of child welfare community partnerships for OKDHS. “It’s not so different from what war veterans deal with.”
Approximately 54 percent of the children in foster care in Oklahoma as of November 2015 have a case plan goal to return home. Statistics show the more visits a foster child has with his or her biological parents, the more likely he or she is to return home.
“If a custody child can see their birth parents having positive interaction with the foster parents, this can reduce the amount of stress and anxiety the child may be experiencing,” said Collette Pendarvis, Region III recruitment coordinator for OKDHS. “The more interaction, the better the outcome.”
Shawn Black, executive director of Oklahoma Association of Youth Services (OAYS), added it’s imperative for children to maintain the bond with their families so they, too, can heal.
“It allows children to know their parents are okay,” Black said of bridging. “Children often worry about their parents when they have no contact. It allows parents and children to grow and heal together when there is a supportive foster family helping care for the children and being respectful and supportive of the biological family.”
Bridging in action
The Bentons are quick to point out that their success as foster parents has everything to do with a tremendous support system. When it comes to bridging with biological families in particular, foster parents don’t have to journey the unknown and sometimes tumultuous waters on their own.
Foster placement agencies like OAYS, Anna’s House and Sunbeam Family Services not only recruit and train foster families, they also help them build relationships with biological families. Whenever possible, the agencies ensure biological and foster families meet upfront to quell fears on both sides. Inevitably, these initial meetings can be emotional for everyone involved. For biological parents, the wounds of having their children removed are still fresh.
“Once the initial emotions and insecurities are addressed and the family understands that the foster family’s goal is to help their family heal and be reunified, it is beneficial to everyone,” said Black.
Most biological families Black has dealt with don’t have a support system, so seeing the foster family truly cares for both them and their children can be life-altering. OAYS staff members encourage foster families to bridge by including biological families in doctor visits, school and church events. According to Collins, when biological families feel connected to the daily lives of their children, they can more easily focus on the improvements they need to make to get their children back.
“Bio families can think foster parents are the enemy,” said Collins. “If we can put a bio parent at ease and help them understand we want to see them succeed, that sets a foundation for developing that relationship. It’s great for foster parents to let them know their kids will be taken care of so they can get the help and support they need.”
Cope encourages foster families to bridge slowly, working up to a relationship that will be healthy and beneficial for everyone. Sunbeam case workers help foster families set appropriate boundaries with biological parents. The agency encourages regular phone communication between foster families, children and biological parents, but they do so with an app that doesn’t require the foster family to provide their phone number.
Cope points out that many biological parents haven’t had the structure other families do, so their parameters of what is acceptable will likely be different from the foster family. Case workers help foster families navigate setting specific schedules for visitation and serving as visit supervisors when appropriate.
“This isn’t a free-for-all,” said Cope. “The bio parents have to be responsible. They [foster families] can set the bar for what things are going to look like.”
Because trust is often hard for biological parents to develop, Cope cautions foster parents to not expect them to show immense gratitude for the care of their children early on. But, she has seen time and again that those relationships can and will flourish over time.
“If you have normalized that parent and see them as a player equal to you, they will be motivated to share their successes with you, like completing classes,” said Cope. That encouragement will trickle down to their children.
DeGiacomo has felt the conflicting emotions of great pain and true joy as he and his wife watched children they have fostered return home to family, knowing they gave everything they could to those children while in their care.
“The key to foster care is to remember it’s not about you, but it’s about these children,” DeGiacomo said. “When you are not focused on the pain that you might feel when you have to send a child back home or they move to another home, but rather [remain] focused on giving that child the love and care they deserve right now.”
Cope has experienced extreme frustration with the biological parents she’s worked with over the years, including a sibling set who went home briefly and eventually came back to live with Cope. She’s hoping their upcoming second reunification is successful.
“I had given my all and done my work,” said Cope. “It took awhile to get over my anger. But I truly think people change in their heart.”
Cope has realized that often their children are the only thing in the biological parents’ world worth fighting for, and that makes her want to fight for the relationship, too. She feels grateful those parents have allowed her to have long-term relationships with her former foster kids, which includes babysitting the children, the families coming to her home and simply being a listening ear when they need one. She drove to Montana last year to visit a former foster child who had been home for a year.
“I’ve tried to make sure I have laid the foundation to have a relationship,” said Cope. “These kids are an extension of my family. Their parents are my family, too.”
The journey isn’t an easy one, and for those foster parents who continue those relationships long-term, the end of one chapter is really just a segue into the next.
“Foster care is service and ministry to a whole family,” said Latham. “The foster child is not an isolated being. An open, encouraging relationship with birth parents is one of the best gifts a foster parent can give to their foster child. It’s hard to love broken children who arrive suddenly in your home, it’s hard to love birth parents who have made serious mistakes and it’s hard to say goodbye to a child who’s found a place in your heart. [But] it’s a valiant effort and it is always worth it!”