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A New Way to Foster Parent

Several cities and states now encourage close contact between foster and birth parents -- a difficult but beneficial relationship.
 
 
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Editor's note: The following article originally appeared on Child Welfare Watch.

Allen Rose was watching cartoons in the kitchen of his foster parents' Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone when his father picked him up for the weekend. His dad leaned over and kissed his nose. "Mommy," the 3-year-old boy said, smiling.

"I'm not Mommy. I'm Daddy," said his father, Tom Rose.

Allen giggled and looked over at his foster mother, Allyson Green, the woman he knows as Mommy.

When Bruce Green, a car inspector for Metro-North Railroad, walked into the room a few minutes later, he picked Allen up and swung him over his shoulders. Allen screeched his pleasure.

Allen calls Bruce Green "Dad," too. "Sometimes when he says 'Daddy,' it's confusing," says Tom. "He has two dads and one mom."

The Greens, in turn, consider not only Allen, but Allen's father to be part of their extended clan, which includes numerous current and former foster children -- and sometimes, their birth parents. "Tom and Allen found a new family," says Allyson Green, a petite woman whose voice still carries the lilt of her native Belize. "When they go home, I will still be a part of their life if they let me."

But in the meantime, before the two leave for the weekend, Allyson Green makes Tom take moisturizer for Allen's eczema. "The other day Tom didn't have the right lotion," she says.

This is the kind of relationship between foster parent and birth parent -- cooperative, loving, supportive -- that child welfare officials around the country would like to see develop with greater frequency.

Traditionally, foster parents and birth parents had very little to do with one another. Child welfare officials often assumed birth parents were potentially violent or threatening to foster parents, or were simply difficult to deal with, and agencies routinely advised there be only limited contact between the two families. That attitude changed about a decade ago, when foster care agencies around the country began following the lead of the Family to Family foster care model, developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The Baltimore-based foundation designed Family to Family to give children in foster care as much stability as possible and to help them find permanent homes quickly. A key principle of Family to Family is that when foster and birth parents cooperate, foster children can find permanent homes -- be it through reunification or adoption -- more speedily than they would have in traditional foster care arrangements.

To that end, several cities and states now encourage what was previously considered counterintuitive: close relationships between foster parents and birth parents. The new model asks that foster parents serve as "resource parents" who are there not only for the foster child, but for the child's family as well. These parents are a combination of parent, coach and cheerleader to both the foster child in their care and the child's parents.

Though in recent years resource parenting has become more widely used, empirical evidence that it accomplishes what it sets out to do is scant. No one knows for sure whether it truly gets children into permanent homes faster. "There is a dearth of research," concedes Denise Goodman, an independent trainer and national consultant on resource family issues.

But anecdotally, almost everyone agrees it makes for a less traumatic experience in foster care and helps ease a child's transition back to his or her family. "We can definitely see patterns when the birth parents and the foster parents work together," says Goodman. "We see far less conflict, but it is purely anecdotal at this time."

"If the parents are empowered, there is a much better chance of them staying involved with their children," says Mary Odom, assistant executive director for family foster care and adoption at SCO Family of Services in New York City. "We are all creatures of habit. If you have no input into your child's life except for visiting two hours and then you are gone, you are not the parent and you are not there."

An ongoing relationship with the foster family also gives parents somewhere to turn for advice and support when things get tough after the children return home. Numerous foster parents report providing babysitting and other assistance for their former foster kids.

The concept of resource parenting is now ingrained in the Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP), the training many states and cities use to certify foster parents. MAPP includes a segment on foster and birth parent cooperation.

In New York City, where Allen Rose lives with his foster family, the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS) has also unveiled new initiatives designed to improve relations between the two families, like parent-to-parent "icebreaker" meeting within three to five days of a child's placement in foster care to help break down barriers between the two sides.

"It's an opportunity for the birth parent to share information such as 'She doesn't eat broccoli, she wets the bed at night, this is the name of her best friend at school,'" says Lorraine Stephens, ACS deputy commissioner for family planning services.

"There is a magic moment when the child first comes into care, when the birth parent knows more than the foster family," says Michael Wagner, director of permanency at the Children's Aid Society in New York. "This allows the birth parent to work in collaboration with the resource family instead of in competition, and the resource family gets to see the value of the birth family."

But implementation of and follow-up on resource parenting is difficult to track, and some child welfare workers believe this kind of collaborative parenting is more of an aspiration than a reality, especially in urban areas like New York where staff turnover is high and potential foster parents are in short supply. If a foster parent does not want to work cooperatively with a child's parents, caseworkers can have a hard time changing their minds. Some agency executives say they try to hold foster parents to the highest standards, but ultimately they don't want to drive people away if they are otherwise doing a good job caring for children.

It can be especially challenging to convince women and men who have been foster parenting for decades to change their stance toward the children's parents, says Wagner. When these people began in the field, they often saw themselves as providing the first stable homes these kids had ever known. "We were changing what they signed on to do," says Wagner.

***

Achieving a positive relationship between parents and foster parents can be like setting up an arranged marriage -- many end well, but some people are not meant to be together no matter what.

Most parents enter the relationship angry or at least resentful. After all, they've had their child taken from them by authorities who deemed them unfit. How foster parents deal with that anger can set the tone for months and years into the future.

Yet at the time of the initial placement, the question of how well parents and foster parents might get along is rarely considered. Many children come into foster care suddenly, sometimes in the middle of the night. With emergency placements, children generally go to whatever homes are immediately available. Agency officials say there is no time to carefully consider which foster parents will best mesh with birth families.

For Allen Rose and his father, it took four foster families to get the relationship right.

When Allen was born in the spring of 2005, he tested positive for exposure to drugs. The boy's mother was addicted to drugs, and when Allen was a few months old, she entered a rehabilitation program where she could be with her son. She quit the program, however, and Allen ended up in foster care. Allen's mother no longer sees her son. Tom Rose, who says he had been sober for nine years before these events, also relapsed, and eventually entered a rehabilitation program himself.

Allen arrived at the Green household at the age of 14 months, after other foster arrangements had collapsed. (Agency workers decided that in one of his foster homes Allen was not getting the care he needed. A different foster mother left the city for vacation.)

Tom Rose admits he initially bumped heads with the Greens. "The second time I visited, [Allen] had a shaved head and new clothes. I was cursing under my breath," Tom recalls. Other things got him angry too: Allen calling Allyson Green "Mommy," and food restrictions.

But Allyson Green would patiently explain to the boy's father that she wasn't putting Allen on a restricted diet arbitrarily, but because sugar and chocolate made the boy's moods and eczema worse.

"Tom complained about everything. He complained when I put jeans on Allen with a car on the pocket, saying I was raising a thug," she recalls. "I would tell Tom all the time, 'I'm here to help you with Allen. I love him, but I know you love him more because you are his parent.'"

Tom says a caseworker at the agency sat down with him and explained that the Greens were good people with an established record as successful foster parents. It would be easier, the official said, if he could work on letting his anger go.

Allyson Green worked on her issues, too. "I needed to pray a lot. I needed to learn to let him come around," she says.

And, in time, he did.

The Greens, who have a reputation at their foster care agency for being exceptional foster parents, make it a point to include mothers and fathers in their children's lives, if they are willing. They've taken middle-of-the-night phone calls from the mother of one of their foster children when she struggled with her recovery program. They've opened their home to Tom Rose for unstructured time with their family, and he frequently drops in for Sunday dinner.

"The secret is to be as natural and normal as possible," Bruce Green says. "If you are a family, you don't have to put on a show. We ask folks to go to the store and take out the garbage because that's what you ask family."

Many agency officials believe that the more flexible foster parents can be and the more informal contact the foster and birth family can manage, the better the outcome for children. This can mean allowing parents to call at will instead of only at specifically mandated times, allowing the children to see their parents outside of scheduled visitations, and including parents in important moments in a child's life such as school events and doctor visits, even without direct orders to do so from a caseworker or the courts.

"We have one foster mother who would tell her mothers, 'You can come and cook whatever you want, but you have to leave the kitchen the way you found it.' Many of the mothers would come and cook for their kids," says Odom of SCO Family of Services in New York City. "This same mother told another mother that she didn't do braids and made her come to the house every Saturday to braid the child's hair."

***

There have always been foster parents who practiced collaborative foster parenting even if they didn't know it was officially encouraged. When Audrey Thompson, who lives in the Bronx, took in her first foster child more than a decade ago, she did not expect to gain an entire family. But the day after Jonathan, then 8, arrived at the Thompson home, he accompanied the family to Coney Island -- where they literally ran into the boy's mother on the street.

"We turned around and they were hugging each other and crying. We stood apart and looked on," Thompson recalls. "Finally, my husband told her, 'You can walk with us,' and she tagged along."

Jonathan was one of six siblings, spread out among several foster homes in Brooklyn and Queens. He visited his siblings and mother on Saturdays in alternate boroughs. Tired of all the traveling, Thompson asked if visits could take place at her Bedford-Stuyvesant home. "This was unusual at the time," she recalls.

Thompson became more and more involved in the life of her foster child's family and, eventually, all six siblings became her foster children. She and her husband adopted the youngest two, and their mother remained involved in all of her children's lives. The two families became so intertwined that Thompson's husband helped the children's mother obtain a job as a home attendant via his employer, New Parkway Hospital in Queens.

"We could see the kids loved her," Thompson says.

Nonetheless, Thompson says she sometimes wonders if she should have been less accommodating with her foster children's mother. Maybe then the woman would have summoned the wherewithal to regain custody of some of her children, she says. None of the six siblings ever returned to her.

"Sometimes I think we enabled her because we accepted her as part of the family," Thompson says. "So I think she was quite content for us to raise the kids and for her to be there."

Another foster mother, who requested anonymity for fear the foster care agency she works with would penalize her for being critical, said she generally supported the concept of resource parenting, but found it hard to carry out. "Many parents come in with a lot of luggage and a lot of attitude," she says. "Advocates say we are a team, but sometimes that's not true. Parents have to get to know you, and then they will feel comfortable with you. We foster parents put in a lot and we put up with a lot."

With children currently in her care, this foster mother said she carefully monitors their contact with their mother. Negotiating boundaries was especially difficult because, at certain points in the case, the foster mother allowed the mother to speak with the children even when officials asked her not to. "She wasn't supposed to call, but I told her to call because the kids missed her. If they don't hear from her, it's hard on me," the woman says. She adds that she also speaks to the mom by phone when the children are not present, so they can share information.

Foster care agency officials say the best way to encourage resource parenting is to offer parents and foster parents greater training, counseling and support so they can focus more energy on forging collaborative relationships. Still, no amount of encouragement and sit-downs can mask the fact that collaborative foster parenting often involves a great investment of time and emotional reserves, and not all foster parents are equipped to handle the increased demands. "We try to make our families understand their roles with respect to the birth family, and to take on their roles as models for the birth family," says Wagner. "But that's sometimes not the role they were looking for."

***

Allyson and Bruce Green know it's likely Allen will one day return to his father's full-time custody. Tom Rose now has weekend visits with the boy, who turned 3 in May, and the two families are handling the pending change in the cooperative way they've always done.

Tom picks Allen up on Friday mornings -- and if he needs parenting advice, he knows he can call Allyson for input. If Allen is having problems adjusting to being alone with his dad, Tom will bring him back to the Greens for the night and take him again the next morning. Tom will often snap pictures of the boy as he plays in the park and at the library and send them to Allyson's cell phone. It's his way of thanking her for all the times she would call him when the boy did something new or amusing.

Perhaps most important, Tom moved to be near the Greens. He's even named them the boy's godparents. "The Greens are the closest thing to family my son has," Tom says.

In turn, the Greens have now found another way to show their love for Allen: The boy's mother recently gave birth to another boy, and they have agreed to be his foster parents.

Helaine Olen has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Salon and other publications. She is an associate editor at LiteraryMama.com.

 
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