Training Matters

 

Vol. 4, No. 2 • April 2003

Supporting Partnerships Between Birth and Foster Parents

In some parts of North Carolina social workers, birth parents, and foster parents meet together to discuss the care of children in foster care.

These meetings, which we call shared parenting meetings, happen whenever foster parents willing to form relationships with birth parents come into contact with social workers who see the potential in this kind of relationship and are willing to bring the two parties together.

The resulting shared parenting meetings can help birth parents preserve and strengthen their bonds with their children and develop their skills as mothers and fathers. In some cases, these meetings even help parents make the changes needed to heal and reunify their families.

Unfortunately, because shared parenting meetings have been practiced sporadically and inconsistently, many foster children and birth parents in our state are missing out on this useful intervention.

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Debbie Gallimore, a contract trainer for the N.C. Division of Social Services, wants to change all that. An adoptive mother and former foster parent, Gallimore teaches the courses Shared Parenting and Supporting Parenting Partnerships. As she teaches these courses, Gallimore strives to ensure that child welfare workers know how to arrange and facilitate shared parenting meetings whenever and wherever this technique is needed.

Shared Parenting

In its most basic sense, shared parenting occurs when two or more adults have joint responsibility for care, nurturing, and decision making for the same child. As parents or as children, most of us have experienced shared parenting with spouses, babysitters, grandparents, etc. (NYSCCC, 2002a).

What makes shared parenting relationships work is communication, cooperation, mutual support, good planning, joint decision making, and role clarity (NYSCCC, 2002a). Shared parenting in child welfare is a conscious effort to bring these qualities to the relationships among birth parents, foster parents, and social workers.

Shared parenting is a departure from the way things typically have been done in child welfare. Historically, agencies have aligned themselves with children to protect them from their parents. Yet in so doing, they jeopardized the connection between parents and their children, which frequently undermined agencies’ efforts to preserve or rebuild birth families (NCDSS, 2002).

Teamwork and Trust

Shared parenting is an approach designed to build a team focused on the welfare of the child, an alliance among birth parents, foster parents, and social workers.

“Good teams require trust,” Gallimore says. “Building trust can be easy or hard—it can happen in two seconds or take weeks.”

But few birth parents can bring themselves to trust someone they see as competing for their child’s affection and usurping their authority as a parent. That’s why, if shared parenting is to work, foster parents must be clear about their role, which is to supplement and support birth families, not to substitute for them.

Meetings at the Start

The central mechanism for building trust and teamwork in the shared parenting approach is an agency-facilitated meeting. Thus, social workers are encouraged to bring birth and foster parents together as soon as possible after children enter foster care. Under the Multiple Response System (MRS)—which, after a pilot period, will become the standard practice in child welfare in North Carolina—agencies are asked to facilitate a shared parenting meeting within seven days after a child enters foster care.

Gallimore says that some child welfare workers attending her courses question this timeframe. They argue that after their child has been removed and placed in foster care, many parents are upset and angry. In this context, social workers and others believe it is prudent to let some time pass before initiating contact between the birth and foster parents.

The truth, Gallimore says—as borne out by her experience and the experience of many of the people she has taught—is exactly the opposite. “We have found,” she says, “that the sooner after placement the birth and foster parents get together, the better the outcomes tend to be for the families involved.”

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, she says, it also makes sense. “Regardless of their feelings about why their children were taken from them, virtually all birth parents want to know where they are, how they are doing, and who is caring for them.”

If a meeting can take place immediately after placement, days or even weeks of anxiety and speculation about the welfare of their children can be put to rest. In their place familiarity, trust, and sometimes even friendship can begin to develop.

To Learn More

Workers and supervisors seeking to learn more about planning and facilitating shared parenting meetings should consider attending Shared Parenting and Supporting Parenting Partnerships, two training courses offered by the N.C. Division of Social Services.

Shared Parenting is a four-day train-the-trainer curriculum designed to train certified MAPP/GPS leaders who will serve in the role as trainer to build the skills of foster parents. Modules participants will learn to train include “Fear and Control in Shared Parenting,” “Partnering with Parents Who Abuse Substances,” and “Making and Maintaining Boundaries in Shared Parenting.”

Supporting Parenting Partnerships is a two-day course that emphasizes the role that child welfare workers play in developing, encouraging, and facilitating relationships between foster and birth parents. It addresses issues such as fear and control, as well as the benefits of supporting, building, and maintaining all of the attachments for children in care. This training helps workers develop creative ways to support birth and foster families as they work together to ensure the child feels the support of both sets of parents.

For more information and future course times, consult the current N.C. Division of Social Services child welfare training schedule, which is available at <http://ssw.unc.edu/fcrp/training_schedule/trainsched_welcome.htm>.

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Benefits of Shared Parenting

By encouraging birth and foster parents to share decisions and work together as a team, shared parenting:

  • Maintains the birth parent/child relationship

  • Improves birth parents’ self-esteem

  • Helps foster parents form a realistic picture of birth parents’ strengths and deficits

  • Gives birth and foster parents more information about the child

  • Allows the foster parent to model appropriate behavior and parenting techniques

  • Helps birth parents develop an understanding of the child’s needs

  • Facilitates eventual reunion

  • Promotes ongoing support for the family after the child returns home

    Source: NYSCCC, 2002b

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References

New York State Citizen's Coalition for Children. (2002a). Shared parenting: Connecting circles for children. Ithaca, NY: Author. Online <http://www.nysccc.org/linkfamily/Realities/sharedparent.htm>.

New York State Citizen's Coalition for Children. (2002a). Tips on promoting birth parent-foster parent teams. Ithaca, NY: Author. Online <http://www.nysccc.org/linkfamily/Realities/caseworkertip.htm>.

North Carolina Division of Social Services. (2002). Select handouts from Shared Parenting [curriculum]. Raleigh, NC: Author.

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