During National Family Reunification Month, KVC celebrates birth parents who have overcome adversity to safely bring their families back together. They have done the work needed to stabilize their lives and strengthen their families.
There are many people involved in the steps toward safe and successful family reunification. Foster parents can especially be a welcome source of encouragement and reassurance to birth parents and can act as their parenting partners while their children are in foster care.
Reunification Takes Time and Work
Safe family reunification is the number one goal of foster care. Every birth parent’s case plan is personalized to their situation and reunification may take longer for some than others. On average, children and youth remain in foster care for about one year. The great news is that more than half of children in foster care are safely reunified with their families. Last year, KVC helped over 830 children safely reunify with their parents after foster care.
Two KVC foster families – Bobbie and Corey Friedemann and Amanda Carpenter – share how they work with birth families to establish successful parenting partnerships. They also share tips and advice for other foster families to help them develop these relationships and promote safe family reunifications. When children and teens are removed from the home, foster care provides the safety and stability they need – and the love, too.
Foster Parents Can Ease Birth Parents’ Stress and Concerns
Before co-parenting work can begin, birth parents have to know that their children are safe and being cared for. “That’s the first thing they want to know,” says Bobbie Friedemann.
Amanda Carpenter explains that birth parents do not know where their children have been placed, and they can be a bit frantic. She begins building a relationship with birth parents by introducing herself and assuring the parents that their kids are ok. “You can hear the sigh of relief over the phone,” Carpenter says. Her reassurance gives them one less thing they have to worry about.
Bobbie Friedemann says the process of dealing with the courts, social workers, child advocates and counselors can feel overwhelming for birth parents. “It can easily feel like ‘them against the world’ and that the family may never be reunified,” Bobbie describes.
Co-Parenting Partnerships Keep Birth Parents Engaged, Focused and Present
The foster families then start establishing a co-parenting partnership with the birth parents. Carpenter calls it “tag-team parenting.” These parenting partnerships allow the birth parents to remain actively involved in their children’s lives and help make their family stronger.
Birth parents know their children better than anyone. They know the likes, dislikes, favorite foods, toys, blanket, etc.” Bobbie explains. “And they understand their children’s behaviors. Their insight is invaluable.”
For example, the Friedemann’s had a pair of siblings who physically fought each other all the time. Understandably, this behavior was very disruptive to the household. They reached out to the birth mother to help understand what was happening and why. The birth mother provided information that helped the foster family successfully redirect the kids away from the negative behavior.
Maintain Open and Regular Communication
Case plans can dictate how much contact birth parents have with their children – including visitation. Whenever safely possible, foster parents should connect birth parents with their children. “Parents of school-age children want to know how they are doing in school and adjusting to the foster home,” says Carpenter. “Parents of younger children want to know how their babies are doing.”
The Friedemanns regularly engage with birth parents. “We are foster parents to teenage girls. Not only do we talk to birth parents on the phone, but also engage with them in person as much as possible,” Bobbie explains. “We all really get to know each other over time.”
“Birth parents have gone with us to school activities and accompanied us on family trips, too,” says Corey Friedemann. “The birth parents’ continued involvement and engagement helps make the reunification less stressful when the time comes.” It is still an adjustment for the kids because they have to readjust to their family’s household routines and rules,” Bobbie adds.
Provide a Judgment-Free Listening Ear
While there are children in foster care who may never be able to safely reunify with their birth parents, all children who enter foster care are part of a family. It’s important for foster parents to understand their role at this critical time.
“We’re there to provide a temporary home that is safe and stable,” Bobbie explains. “We’re not there to replace the birth parents.”
“These parents still love their children,” adds Carpenter. “No matter what has happened, they care deeply for their children and do the work to reunify the family.” Carpenter educates other foster parents, family members and people in her community and helps dispel myths about foster parenting. “There is a misconception that birth parents are bad parents, and it’s just not true,” she says. “They just need a little help right now – and I’m helping.”
You May Even Gain Some Family Members
The experience (and connection) of co-parenting through a temporary crisis can lead to lifelong bonds between the foster and birth families. Many remain in contact long after the foster care relationship has ended and think of the foster families as family members, too.
The Friedemanns have become extended family – grandparents, aunt and uncle, dad and mom—in many cases, and very good friends in other instances. The birth family to the (once) fighting siblings are now their neighbors. “The kids and their parents still come over for dinner regularly,” Corey says. “There is always a seat at the table.”
Carpenter is still in contact with the birth mom of three siblings, who affectionately call her “Auntie Ma.” This birth mother “keeps me updated on how the kids are doing. I am happy to report that all are doing well.”
How Can You Support Families Working Toward Reunification?
One way is by becoming a foster parent. Amanda Carpenter encourages families to open their homes to foster care placements. “There are more children than foster homes,” she says. “There is a great need.”
As a member of your community, you can help support safe family reunifications. Read our article on family reunification to learn how you can get involved.