Working with Birth Parents

There are three parts to the adoption triad – the adopted child, the adoptive parents, and the child’s birth parents. Working with the birth parents is a vital part of a successful adoption.  Workers and adoptive parents need to understand the importance of the birth parents in a child’s life.  Part of the way to accomplish this is to understand the CORE issues that apply to all the members of the adoption triad.  For more information, please see the CORE Issues section.

CORE issues are the basic issues that underlie everything people deal with in life.  Problems arising from them are common among children raised in out of home placements.  They are ongoing throughout their lives.  The issues are relational, meaning they have their source in relationships and affect every relationship a person has or tries to have.  They are experiential, meaning that the effects of the CORE issues are part of a person’s daily life and impacts how that person experiences his world.

Often times, what the birth parent has been through is not recognized or acknowledged by workers or adoptive parents.  The thought may be that the birth parent chose drugs or alcohol over their child or to remain with an abusive partner, but it’s not that simple.  Birth parents are given time frames in which to complete the goals set forth by the child welfare system.  After dealing with chaos and instability for months, years or perhaps a lifetime, this can be overwhelming for anyone.

Studies have shown that if the birth family does not deal with their CORE issues –

  • They have an increase in physical health issues.
  • They have an increased rate of depression.
  • They are less productive and have difficulties maintaining employment.
  • They have an increase in mental health issues.

This vicious cycle makes it even more difficult for birth parents to accomplish the goals set forth by the courts.  Workers and adoptive parents who do not understand the impact of the CORE issues do not see a person struggling but may see a person not making appropriate choices.

Much of the behavior that pains and puzzles workers and adoptive parents can be understood when it is viewed in the context of the grieving process that parents go through when they lose their children.  The stages of birth family grief are:

ShockParents cry and plead for another chance.  They can’t believe their children are gone.  They may feel like they are sleepwalking though life.  They may be angry and irrational.

ProtestParents show their feelings in more physical ways.  They may be sick, can’t sleep, are tired, or have headaches.  They may cry or lash out at anyone who seems like an enemy.  They may refuse to do anything the judge demands because to do so would be to admit guilt.  They may feel everything is hopeless and give up trying to reunite with their children.  

AdjustmentThings start settling down.  Parents regain appetite, sleep through the night, and think more clearly.  The more they see their child in a non-threatening, nonjudgmental setting, the harder they may try to reunite with their child.  Their self-esteem heightens and they are more open for support.

Just as children in foster care have lived through trauma, many of their parents have histories of childhood or adult trauma:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • domestic violence
  • serious accidents
  • community violence
  • along with the experience and the shame of having their children placed in foster care.

These experiences, if left unaddressed, can continue to impact individuals well into adulthood.  Parents’ past or present trauma can make it difficult to work effectively with case workers and resource parents toward reunification with their children.  Even if there is not a record of a parent’s personal history of trauma, recognizing that trauma may have played a role in their lives will help you more effectively support and work with the entire family.

A history of traumatic experiences can result in the following:

  • Parents may have difficulty keeping themselves and their children safe and healthy. Some are overprotective, while others may not recognize real dangers that can threaten their children.
  • Parents may resort to coping in unhealthy ways, such as using drugs or alcohol.
  • Parents may react more strongly and/or negatively to things—or have a harder time understanding and controlling their emotions.
  • Parents may be more susceptible to further trauma, such as domestic violence.
  • Parents may have an invading sense of loss of control, particularly during and/or directly following their child’s removal from home. Often parents will re-experience this during case planning processes, visitation, court hearings, or when they or their child receive services.
  • Parents may find it difficult to trust others, especially people in positions of power—caseworkers, judges, and even resource parents.
  • Parents may be more vulnerable to trauma reminders—or triggers—when a sound, smell, or feeling brings back the experience of the trauma all over again. Reminders may cause parents to overreact to situations that others would not find difficult. Situations that trigger parents can include:
    • Children’s behavior during visits,
    • Case conferences and court hearings, and/or interactions with resource parents or other authority figures.
  • Parents may find it harder to modify or control their behavior and/or words. They may become numb or shut down—even when interacting with their child—or misread your words or intentions. These difficulties can indicate the presence of trauma reminders.

There are some strategies that can help workers and adoptive parents work with birth families.

ENGAGEMENT:  defined as a process of joining together to get things done for the safety, permanency and well being of children and families.

Discussion points:

  • Sometimes engagement is equated with attending a meeting, signing a plan, completing a class, attending a visit, etc. Others might call this compliance.
  • Difference between compliance and engagement- true engagement in child welfare goes beyond signing a plan or the preliminary phase of intervention.

Engagement is:

  • Linked to progress in helping process
  • Predictive of better outcomes
  • Critically important given the short time frames, limited resources, and high stakes for children and families

Crucial to the engagement process is the early phase of work with clients – forming a relationship, developing trust, establishing goals.

One of the first things we need to do when engaging is LISTEN.

It is vital to engage at the beginning and then maintain engagement throughout the process.

Engagement is also about dialogue – 2-way discussion that brings people together in order to discover and share information.

Everyone has an equal part of the process – workers’ and adoptive parents’ job is to work WITH them.

Go where the family / child is – get to know them, find out their needs – this builds trust and relationships will build.

It is important to learn more from a family/child with each interaction with them.

One of the worker’s roles is to allow them to take action to make the goal happen.

It is important to understand and be willing to fine tune engagement skills.

Remember that engagement is a partnership – with the partners working toward a common goal.

Birth parent participation and attendance in child welfare programs has been demonstrated to reduce the recurrence of maltreatment, as well as contribute to the reunification of families and improve emotional adjustment in children.

Encouraging birth parent participation in parenting and prevention programs contributes to:

  • reductions in maltreatment incidences
  • the reunification of families
  • improved emotional adjustment in children
  • opportunity for birth parents to demonstrate responsibility

Institutional mistrust, the complex issues that families face (substance abuse, domestic violence, unmet basic needs), and practical barriers (transportation, child care) create a serious impediment to the engagement process.

Strategies to improve the engagement of birth parents in the child welfare system include:

  • early outreach to parents
  • practical assistance
  • building supportive relationships with peers, foster parents, and child welfare workers
  • consulting parents in the decision-making process around service provisions
  • family-centered practices

Facilitating positive connections between adoptive parents and birth parents can:

  • increase family connectedness
  • reduce childhood trauma
  • expedite permanency
  • increase the likelihood of reunification

The attitudes of adoptive parents and child welfare workers toward birth parents can affect the engagement and involvement of parents.

The uniqueness of every family contributes to the complexity of creating an effective strategy for engaging birth parents.  The removal of barriers to participation and improving the quality of relationships between caseworkers and birth parents can significantly increase engagement in child welfare programs, which will help strengthen families.

Why is it so important for workers and adoptive parents to understand birth parents and be able to work with them?  Numerous studies have shown that it benefits the child.  The nature of the relationship with the birth parents appears to have no direct bearing in the benefits to the adopted child.  What appears to matter is that the child has either knowledge regarding their birth parents or some degree of open contact.  This knowledge or contact is important in several ways. One of these ways is improved self-esteem.  The link to their history provides a substantial benefit.  Another of these ways is decreased anxiety.  When an adopted child knows about the birth family, either through knowledge or contact, studies have shown that anxiety levels decrease.  While these benefits are seen throughout childhood, this openness appears to have more impact during adolescence.

Child welfare workers can set the stage for working with birth parents and engaging them in the process.  Adoptive parents can build on that engagement.  Ultimately, the work invested in encouraging birth parents benefits the child that has a relationship with both sets of parents.