It's complicated. It's complex. And it--meaning foster care--centers around concurrent family planning.
As a social work intern, I spent one year training at a locked psychiatric unit for teenagers. The unit had only 18 beds. Some of the boys and girls had been separated then reunited, then again separated from their parents of birth many times. It was painful to understand, on a deep level, their loss.
What was harder was to witness the deep and searing hope these kids had--hope that their parent would return for them, would love them the way they longed for, would take them home forever and make life good. These were kids, after all--why wouldn't they hope?
Certainly not all, but some parents routinely missed scheduled meetings, counseling sessions and family visits with their child, after showing up for other visits. There was no pattern to their absence--sometimes they forgot, were sick, incarcerated, nervous, busy, had to work. But the times they showed--when the visit was good--served as a classic "intermittent reinforcement"--and we all know what kind of effect that has. Yes, it fueled the child's hope that their mom or dad would come back for good. It's a lot to hold in one's psyche--for the child, for the parent, too. And also for the foster parent.
At the same time, and in some cases, reunification can work.
This is what The County of Orange's Sharon Landis, MSW, an adoption specialist told me when I asked: "What must adoptive parents understand above all else before they decide to become a foster-to-adopt parent?"
Here is what she said:
- First and foremost, concurrent planning families must totally be committed to understanding that they are foster parents first. As foster parents, they must be ready to support and work with the birth family and the agency on all family reunification plans.
- Only when, the juvenile court terminates the parental rights, and the legal appellant system has expired, are they looked upon as prospective adoptive parents that can move towards finalization plans. We impress upon our prospective adoptive parents that there are no guarantees. We share that, unlike some community agencies that look for children to place into families--we are looking for families for "our children"--in that they are ready to do what is considered in the best interests of the child and if the juvenile court determines that it is in the best interests of the child for family reunification to occur, then they are able to support and comply.
- We also understand that being a concurrent-planning family is not for all people and that some families will need to seek out other ways to meet their family's needs.
- We also realize that there is grief and loss for concurrent-planning families and foster families. This is an inherit part of the foster care system; everyone who is involved with the care of children in out-of-home care has grief and loss issues.
- Children have profound losses when they come into care; they have lost their sense of safety, their family, their possessions, their community, and their sense of self. Adults who are involved in the care of children also can have tremendous losses but we educate our families that we need to trust that they can look to their adult relationships and support system for healing and direction with their loss issues.
- We, as an agency, need to know that they can remain committed to helping our children on their grief journey. We encourage them to become part of the professional team as they parent children in child welfare. Together, the team brings diversity, knowledge and support on behalf of the children we are helping to heal.