Abstract: Understanding Multifaceted Influences on Relationships between Birth Parents and Non-Related Foster Parents (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Understanding Multifaceted Influences on Relationships between Birth Parents and Non-Related Foster Parents

Sunday, January 20, 2019: 9:30 AM
Union Square 19 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Jill Spielfogel, Doctoral Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose. Birth parents are an overlooked population in practice, policy, and research, despite the fact that they experience a multitude of risks and are society’s most vulnerable parents. Family-centered practice is considered essential for engaging birth families in child welfare services, as well as increasing contact between children and their parents while children are placed in foster care. Working relationships between birth and foster parents are one component of family-centered practice, and are considered beneficial for information sharing, providing social support and effective modeling of parenting to birth parents, increasing contact between children and their birth families, and supporting family reunification. Despite policy recommendations that foster parents know and communicate with birth families, it is difficult to do in practice. This study fills a gap in the literature by exploring how relationships between birth parents and foster parents unfold over time, as well as the role of the child welfare agency in supporting better relationships.

Methods. Narrative interviews were conducted with triads of birth parents, foster parents, and caseworkers of children ages 5-13 living in non-relative homes with a goal of reunification (N = 35). Birth and foster parents were asked about their relationships with the other parent, from their first meeting to current time. They were also interviewed about how their relationship impacted them, their children, and the likelihood of reunification. All members of the triad were asked about how caseworkers supported these relationships, or how ideal casework practice could help them have better relationships. Narrative analysis of triad interviews focused the analysis on how parents constructed their stories, what their stories meant to them, and key moments or turning points in the relationship. Narrative analysis is best suited for understanding how practice models can be responsive to the lived experiences of those involved in collaboration.

Findings. Three main themes will be presented. The first theme permeated the rest of the themes, and was that birth parent vulnerability was a key aspect for understanding how they showed up in the relationship. Additional themes were that fosters parent drove the relationship (and not the caseworker), and that there was limited structure for the initial meeting between the birth and foster parent. In the absence of a standard for birth and foster parents to communicate, most families defaulted to minimal communication, which was often experienced as troubling to birth parents and their children.

Implications. A critical feminist lens helps explain how power differentials play out to further stigmatize families in care, and suggests that these dynamics must be addressed in order to most effectively support relationships between birth and foster parents. In order to reduce stigma, child welfare agencies can create more inclusive cultures that signal their commitment to reunification. Structuring initial meetings as a basis for trust could also be important for understanding how to improve birth and foster parent communication over time, thereby creating more empowering child welfare experiences for families in care.