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Jan 19, 2018

Q&A with Jennifer Reister, Foster Care Licensing Supervisor, Bethany Christian Services of Michigan, Grand Rapids

Individuals and families explore foster care for a variety of reasons, including the hope that fostering a child might lead to the opportunity to adopt. But foster care and foster care adoption have different priorities. While adoption is a possibility in some cases, the first goal of foster care is reunifying children with their parents in a safe and stable environment.

What are the main differences between foster care and foster care adoption?

Children enter foster care when a judge determines it is not safe for them to remain at home with their parents. Common reasons for this judgement include domestic violence in the home, substance abuse by a parent, unsafe or inadequate housing, abuse, or neglect. Children are placed in a licensed foster home while their parents follow a court-ordered plan that moves them toward greater stability. A typical foster care placement is about one year, although some judges will extend this time up to 18 months if doing so will increase the chances of success when a child returns home. Foster care is meant to be temporary.

Adoption through foster care is possible only when reunification isn’t possible, and a judge terminates parental rights. Like international or domestic infant adoption, foster care adoption is a lifetime commitment. (Click here to learn more about foster care adoption.)

We make sure people entering our foster care program understand that we’re looking for families interested in providing temporary care for children. We particularly need families equipped to care for older children (age 8+) and sibling groups.

What are parents typically doing while their children are in care?

Most are working on an individual treatment plan that will allow them to reunify with their child(ren). If the underlying issue is substance abuse, for example, a parent’s plan could include treatment/rehabilitation. Other plans might include securing stable employment, finding appropriate housing, or attending parenting classes.

Bethany in Grand Rapids offers a course called Parenting after Trauma for parents preparing for their children to return. Developed by a Bethany staff member, the course helps parents identify and respond to hard emotions or behaviors their children may show as they transition back home. The course not only equips parents for success, but it also connects them with others who have been through similar experiences and can provide encouragement and support.

How does reunification work?

When children are in foster care, they typically have regular, supervised visits with their parents. As parents make progress toward their assigned goals, the reunification process begins with unsupervised visits, overnight visits, and weekend visits. Once the child(ren) return home, parents work with a social worker (in Michigan, this is through a state initiative called Family Reunification Program, or FRP) who provides in-home services and additional supports to help the parents and child(ren) make a smooth transition.

What do foster parents need to understand about reunification?

Transition is hard for most people, and it’s especially tough for children. Even though reunification is the goal in foster care, it can still be challenging for all involved.

  • Parents may feel vulnerable or fearful that their children could be removed again.
  • A child’s behaviors may escalate while they are living between two homes. They will have big feelings about what is happening that they may not be able to express in words.
  • Foster parents often express both joy and grief when a child leaves their home. They love and often become attached to children who have been part of their family, and saying goodbye is never easy. Yet it’s because of this love that they long to see children safely reunited with their parents and siblings.

How can foster parents help parents and children stay connected during the foster placement? 

Foster parents are sometimes apprehensive about interacting with parents, and we talk about myths, fears, and realistic expectations during training. We encourage foster parents to cheer on parents as they work toward reunification.

Foster families will often bring a child’s artwork or school project to a parent visit. Some foster parents keep a journal about what the child is learning and doing each week. Particularly for parents who have little or no support network, it can make a huge difference for them to know someone other than their case worker is behind them.

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