Speaking Truth in Love

by Shannon Iacobacci, Collaborator
Sometimes as foster parents we find ourselves in situations we don’t understand or know how to navigate. The hardest one…our own personal feelings. We’ve signed up to care for kids that have suffered some form of abuse or neglect from the very people that are supposed to love and care for them. Their safety was compromised, and we have volunteered to help heal their wounds the best we can. We pour out our love for them, provide for them, and hold them close through emotional roller coasters when they come. And then what?
 
The family visits arrive, court dates occur, and it seems as if our “mama bear” mode kicks in. The question we need to ask ourselves is, “Am I feeling these feelings for my foster child and what they are going through, or because of my own selfish wants and needs?” It seems harsh to put it so directly, but we need to. We need to evaluate our own reasons for foster care. Are we REALLY doing it for family reunification, or is our desire to create or build our family through adoption? Do we TRULY support families in crisis to help them get their children back?
 
I challenge you to deeply look inside your motives and ask these deep questions. If you answer no to these questions, I challenge you to seriously reconsider foster care. I mean this in the kindest and most empathetic of ways, and because of my personal experience. You see, if our ultimate desire or goal is to create or build a family, can we truly and wholeheartedly support family reunification? Can we put our own personal desires aside to do what needs to be done to support this family in being together again? Or will we automatically “fight for the kids?” Will we be looking for every slip up, every flaw that does not fit our perfect mold of how we would raise the child ourselves? Are we willing to see cultural differences as just that, or as parenting flaws? Are we willing to take a back seat and support children in continually loving their family?
 
I’ve been there. On both sides of wanting to build my family, but also in full support of reunification. It’s a difficult balance, and one I had to keep in check throughout the process many, many times. Full disclosure, I failed at times. My personal desires of wanting desperately to build my family sometimes clouded my vision and promise. I found flaws, sometimes I looked for them. But at what cost? Would it be worth it? Could I look at my child in years to come and tell them I kept them from a family that wanted them? That I fought so hard to keep them with me that it destroyed the family they could have had? The answer…No. I could not. I had to change. I had to let go of my own selfish desires and help families reunite. I couldn’t hide behind “if it’s in the best interest of the children” paraphrase we hear. It’s ALWAYS good for the children to be with family unless they would be in danger. Did every child that came in my home, stay with me? Absolutely not. Did some, yes. For various reasons that are their personal stories to tell.
 
I have helped families reunite, even across state boundaries. Did it hurt? Absolutely. My heart grieved for many of the children that didn’t stay. But they needed to go. They deserved to be home with their family. Children in foster care don’t WANT to be in foster care. No matter how hurt they are from their families, their hearts will always long to be with them. Adoption does not suddenly take that desire away whether it’s through foster care or any other form. It is our job as adoptive parents to validate those feelings, support those feelings, and help them when the timing is right for them to seek their family. We are to be there for them when they are developing relationships with their family, and what that looks like for them. It will look different for everyone.
 
If you are having a hard time with what to do to support birth families in the foster care system, here are a few things I learned to do.
 
1. Empathy goes a long way. It is not an us against them. Putting yourself in their shoes helps with empathy. Would you be angry if your child was taken from you? Worried? Judgmental of their caregivers? Absolutely. Kindly let them know how their child is doing and how you are helping them. Give them pictures of their child during the days with you. If you have found something that works in comforting their child, share that with the parent. It’s a collaboration. If they ask you if you are wanting to adopt their child, or would we, try answering with saying something like, “We are in support of reunification. Our goal is to help you with reuniting with your family, we are second choice, not first.” I have had to say this to parents and family members many times, and it has seemed to lessen their stress and lower their guard some to work together with you.
2. Graciously bring the child’s gifts home. Often parents will come to the visit with gifts for their child. These gifts may or may not be age appropriate, but that’s ok. Kindly take them with a smile and hold on to them. If age appropriate, let the child play with them.
3. Speak positively. It is crucial that all talk about family needs to be done in a positive way. It can be difficult at times, but for the benefit of the kids, nothing will break their trust in you more than hearing you talk bad about their family. When sharing information with social workers and attorneys, etc., I would speak with them away from the child’s hearing distance.
4. Participate in all visits as allowed. Times are much different than before with COVID and family visits. A lot of visits have been on facetime recently. It is important for foster parents to participate in these calls with their foster children. Is it the same as face to face? Of course not. But even infants can recognize voices and faces so that when a face to face visit happens, or a change in placement occurs, there is a sense of familiarity for the child that may lessen the difficulty of transitioning back home with their family.
5. Offer help with the system. The system is hard. And parents navigating the system are up against some major challenges. If you have tips for them or know ways to help speed up the process, offer this to them. Share with them what the practical steps the courts are asking them to do. Chances are, when they see you are here to help them, they will be kinder to you as their child’s caregiver.
 
I encourage everyone that feels they have the heart for foster care to dive in and help families reunify. And I encourage everyone to self-evaluate the true reasons for entering the foster care system as a foster parent. Myself included.
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