Back + Forth Journal: Building a Relationship with Biological Parents
When I first became a foster parent, I believed my kids’ biological parents to be the addicted, criminal, dangerous enemy, who should be avoided at all costs. Thank the Lord, He didn’t leave me there. God placed compassion in my heart for my kids’ parents and an understanding that the family is precious to Him. I’ve since worked to build a relationship with my kids’ biological parents in an effort to show compassion, support reunification, and maintain a relationship after their/my/our child returns home.
One of the most helpful tools I’ve found to build a relationship with my foster children’s biological parents is a back and forth journal. Whenever I share about this, I get a slew of messages from foster parents about just how to do this, what exactly I say, and the ins and outs of it all. It’s a pretty simple idea, but many people feel intimidated by the idea of communicating with biological parents and are searching for direction. So if you’re looking to start building with your kids’ parents and don’t know where to start, I hope this serves you!
In NJ, most foster parents have no–or very little–contact with biological parents. There is no built-in context for connecting with parents, and it’s up to the foster parent create one themselves. For states/counties where you don’t transport to visits or have other contexts for connection, the journal is vital for initiating communication. But even for those states/counties where you see parents on a regular basis, I think it’s a helpful tool. The relationship between biological and foster parents can be very awkward and difficult to navigate. I find that I am able to communicate my heart, share information, ask questions, and introduce a depth of conversation that might not be natural in person, with an almost stranger.
I’ve learned more information about my kids’ stories, medical histories, and trajectory of their cases from biological parents than I’ve ever learned from workers.
I want to care for my kids’ parents whether I think they’re worthy of it or not–because I’ve experienced so much mercy myself. But there are added benefits to building a relationship–for the child and, quite honestly, for myself. It’s served their/my/our children well to have two moms who are willing to work together to make the reunification process as seamless as possible. I’ve been able to “bridge” care (a fancy foster care word for helping ease the transition) because my kids’ parents know and trust me and are willing to listen to my input and ask questions. The added “personal benefit” is that because I’ve worked to keep my kids’ parents informed and involved when they were in my care, I’ve often found that parents are willing to do the same, once the kids are back in their care. I’ve receive updates and pictures, I’ve had lunch with my kids and their moms, I’ve had kids come to the house to visit. I’ve been able to stay involved in my kids’ lives in a meaningful way, which has benefitted everyone involved--mom, the child…and me!
Check with the worker first. While I don’t think we should assume our kids’ parents are dangerous, we also shouldn’t naively assume they are all safe.
I introduce myself and explain why I am a foster parent. For me, this means saying straight out, “I’m not trying to adopt your child.” If you are hoping to adopt, I would not communicate that. Almost without a doubt, once the parent gets to know me, they share how relieved they are that I am a “good” foster parent. So many of our kids’ parents were in the system or have watched friends or family deal with the system, and it’s left them wary of foster parents. We know we’re good parents, but they don’t! I try to express right away what kind of foster parent I am by sharing how I will care for their child as one of my own (while not forgetting whose child they are!)
Limit the personal information you share. I don’t talk about my other children and, unless specifically asked, don’t share how many children I have. Yes, I have 5-6 children, I’m tired, and I’m physically and emotionally overwhelmed. But it’s probably not going to instill confidence in them to hear that.
Ask questions about their preferences and routines. I ask questions like: How would you like me to do her hair? Any songs or books that you sing or read? What is your nighttime routine? What is his favorite show/activity/toy? What kinds of foods does she usually eat? Anything you’d like me to know about your parenting style? Yes, this could open a can of worms of demands, but it could also shut down the battle for control that often ensues. If parents feel like they have a voice with you, they’ll be more likely to feel like you’re in it together and talk rather than yell, fight, or report.
Share things that the child is experiencing and accomplishing. Tell them that the baby is cooing, that he is making new friends at school, that her new favorite show is My Little Pony, that he had a doctor’s appointment and is 40th percentile for height. Share every day details about how they spend their time and big life things that every parent would want to know. Two things to be careful of:
Don’t share overshare anything that could lead to worry, which could lead to interference. I usually underplay struggles, hard behaviors, and health concerns, until reunification is imminent and it serves them to be aware.
Don’t overshare how happy and joyful the child’s life with you is. In my experience, parents want their kids to be happy in your home, but they don’t want them to be too happy in your home. Sharing that your foster son is taking swim lessons and is the fastest swimmer on the team and she would be so proud is helpful. Sharing that your family went to the zoo and had ice cream and each kid bought something from the souvenir shop and everyone took a dip in the pool afterwards and fell asleep in a pillow fort together may not be. Basically, highlight how the child is doing personally, but not necessarily how they’re doing as a part of your happy family unit.
Send photos from every day, school, sports, and special occasions. Send report cards, art projects, encouraging notes from the teacher, and anything else you would want as a parent.
Encourage them. Let them know that you’re praying for them, that you believe in them, that you hope they can be with their child soon. Say things that you believe, even if you don’t feel them. It’s not a lie for me to say “I hope that your child can be with you soon” to a mom struggling with meth addiction. Because I’m not saying, “I hope your child can come join you in your meth house and be neglected.” I’m saying, “I hope that you can get clean and be healthy and make good choices and see all that your child needs from you, so that she can be with you again soon.” I’ve said many things to parents that I don’t feel, because I believe them and I’m fighting for them and I’m praying that God helps me to feel them.
Share details that would be helpful to know for the visit. She should be hungry around 5:00. He might be tired because he had a baseball game until 9:00. She’s been fighting off a cold and might have a runny nose.
Include a pen as another hint: I want to hear from you, too.
Below are two pages–the first page and a page from a couple of months in–from the back and forth journal I shared with one of my foster children’s moms. It’s not profound. There’s nothing spectacular in it. But I am asked for a sample constantly, so I’m sharing these in case you find them helpful:
I want to introduce myself. My name is Jamie. I’ve been a foster parent for five years, and I’ve cared for 21 other children. I often care for babies. *Yourdaughter* is beautiful and sweet, happy and content. She’s been sleeping through the night and eating well. She’s loving being held, played with, sitting in the swing, playing in exersaucer, and singing. I would love to be able to write, back and forth, in this journal. I can update you on things here, and you can let me know if there’s anything specific you would like me to do, ways you’d like me to care for her, songs you’d like me to sing, routines you’d like me to establish, etc. I want you to know that I understand that she is your daughter—I am not trying to take her from you and not trying to adopt her. While she is here, I will love her as my child–she’ll get the same love and attention my other children do–but I’ll do everything I can to support you also. My hope and prayer is that you will be together soon. Please let me know if there are any ways I can pray for you. We love *Yourdaughter* already! I would love to hear back from you! Love, Jamie
I’m glad you feel less alone with me on your side--because I am. *Yourdaughter* had a great week since you’ve seen her last. Everyone who meets her comments on how beautiful and happy she is. She’s so content and she smiles and laughs often. To answer your question, we haven’t been giving her baby food yet, per the doc’s recommendation. I’ll start introducing cereal and then foods one at a time, and I’ll send them along once we start! Six ounces of formula is keeping her full and happy and sleeping through the night. I think she’s going to roll over soon–she’s so close! She’s doing that thing where she’ll bend her neck around and start to fling her body but not really make it! She’s so close! We’re taking great care of her–holding her, singing your special song to her, and playing with her all day. I’m getting new pictures printed for you, and I’ll send them next visit! I prayed for this morning and do often–I believe that God can give you the strength and help you to do all that needs to be done, as hard as it is. I’m praying that He reveals himself to you in a new way and you experience His love for you! And mine! And *yourdaughters*! She’ll be ready to eat as soon as she gets there–just pour the formula into the 6 oz. of water! Have a great visit! Love, Jamie
After I’ve established communication using the back and forth journal, I take it from there. For me, this usually means sharing my phone number and encouraging periodic texts or phone calls (other’s prefer Google Voice or Facebook Messenger, and I’ve also created a second e-mail address). Then I try to invite to doctor’s appointments or special events. The relationship grows and continues from there!
This isn’t foolproof. It’s certainly not one size, fits all. You may be able to do all of this or none of it. I’m sure many of you have horror stories of efforts like this going awry. Bottom line, I believe that as foster parents, the most important part is seeking compassion for our kids’ parents and looking to involve and encourage and support them–when possible–in any way possible.