Helping Children with Family Connections

Importance of birth family connections: If children lose the feeling of connectedness with their families, then they may have lost a big piece of their identity and have difficulty answering the question, “Who am I?” Whether children have a lot, a little contact or no contact with birth families, they have dreams and feelings about their families.

Fantasies adults may have about birth families: Children and adults both have fantasies about their families. Children in foster homes usually have fantasies about who their birth parents are and how life would be if they went back to live with them. Foster parents may have fantasies too such as:

  • Birth parents will “do all the right things” to get their children back
  • Birth parents will be grateful for the care their child receives
  • Birth parents will disappear

Why Foster Parents wish birth parents would disappear:

  • It’s difficult to work with birth parents. Because of their losses they may have emotional problems or may be unpredictable, angry, and inconsistent
  • Visiting with birth parents or even thinking about them may make children anxious or upset. Foster parents often report that after children visit with their birth parents, behaviors worsen
  • Sometimes we may fear that the child will reject us in favor of the birth parent
  • The child may play all the parents against each other
  • We fear more abuse to the child by the birth parent
  • Sometimes our own feelings of insecurity or inadequacy as parents may make us feel anxious about and competitive with the birth parents

Staying connected through visiting: Sometimes it is difficult to support children’s contact with their birth families due to our feelings about adults who hurt children. For all children there is some connection to the people who gave them life, even if it is mostly in their imaginations and fantasies. For children in foster care or who have been adopted these connections may be even stronger. For a child in foster care, it is very important for begin visits as soon as possible. All of us have a responsibility to the child and family to establish visits as soon as possible. If we wait weeks or months:

  • Parents may lose hope
  • Children may lose hope
  • Other activities will fill the lives of both children and their families

The importance of visits for the child:

  • Helps the child know that parents are alive
  • Helps rebuild important connections
  • Helps the child develop identity
  • Shows the child birth parents care
  • Shows the child siblings are all right
  • May dispel the child’s belief that they are bad or at fault for the placement, may help explain why they aren’t living with birth parents
  • Helps the child see birth parents more realistically
  • Gives the child hope of reunification or helps the child see why reunification is not possible
  • Helps adopted children feel loved by people from the past

Potential problems with visiting:

  • Children’s behaviors will very likely be difficult to handle after a visit because of memories and emotions that trigger the grieving process
  • Children may not want to leave birth parents
  • Child may not want to leave siblings at the end of a visit
  • Parents may make promise they cannot keep
  • Parents may show up for a visit intoxicated or under the influence of drugs
  • Birth parents may show up when a visit is not scheduled
  • Parents may not show up for a scheduled visit

Working toward understanding and successful visits: Not wanting to end the visit is typical of children who are new to foster care. It is important to remember that the more times children visit their birth families the easier it is emotionally for children. They can expect to see their birth parents again and trust that everyone is working toward re-unification or at least maintain connections. Birth Parents also react emotionally to visiting their child. One of their reactions is not showing up. Parents may miss visits because:

  • Hate to say good-bye
  • Don’t know how to respond to “When can I come Home?”
  • Lack of transportation
  • Being uncomfortable with the visiting location
  • Unpredictable work schedule
  • Afraid foster parents are doing a better job than they did

Preparing children for visits can be hard: Especially when it involves sexual abuse or physical violence issues. But any time children and families are separated and must arrange to meet; the situations have the potential to be awkward and emotionally difficult. Arranged visits are not the way children and their parents usually spend time together, they aren’t in the normal scheme of thing. Planning can turn an awkward event into an experience that is more comfortable and helpful. Foster parents can help by thinking about:

  • How can I prepare the child for visits
  • How can I prepare other members of my family for visits
  • How might I help the child after a visit
  • What information do I need from the child welfare worker to help plan the visit
  • How through visits/contacts might I work in partnership with birth parents?
  • What are the ways I might handle my feeling concerning visits
  • What might I do to promote birth parent/child connection between visits
  • If birth parents don’t come to a scheduled visit how might I help the child

Source: Adapted from MAPPS / GPS Leaders Guide, SUNY Buffalo Center for the Development of Human Services 

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