Making Your Voice Count


James A. Kenny, PhD

“I don’t think that the family therapy is helping,” said one foster parent. “We all have to go three times a week. We’d do better if it were changed or stopped. But I’m afraid to bring it up or argue for fear we’ll have our foster children removed – or be blackballed from any more placements.”
In addition to counseling, foster parents often have something to say about medical care, school issues, visitation with the birth parents, and whether and when to change the permanency plan to adoption. Their knowledge and opinions need to be heard. But unfortunately, they are too often afraid to speak out.
Foster children would benefit from an honest discussion of alternatives. Yet, the foster parents may feel they are “just foster parents,” or that they are not important decision-makers. Although the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) said foster parents should be heard in court, too often they are afraid to speak their minds for fear of retaliation.
Four players usually manage the decision-making process. Three of the players, the caseworker, court-appointed special advocate (CASA), and the judge, have real power. The fourth player, the birth parents, can guarantee the return of their child by complying with the guidelines set forth by the welfare department and the court. Foster parents, the fifth players, have no formal power.
Yet foster parents are the only players who have 24/7 day-after-day knowledge of the children in their home. They know and they care and they must have input. However, because of their lack of formal power, they must use other strategies to make their recommendations known and to influence the decisions that shape a child’s entire future.
Getting along is a good strategy for being heard and getting one’s way. Since foster parents cannot mandate decisions, and are not likely to win any heads-on confrontation, they need to find a way to work together with the caseworker and CASA.
Caving in meekly to what the others recommend or being silent in fear of retaliation should not be an option. Rather, foster parents must learn how to present their knowledge and opinions without threatening the other players. One does not have to be confrontational to be effective.
Knowledge is power, and therein lies the foster parents’ elemental strength. They must find productive ways to present this everyday knowledge about the child to those who make the critical decisions. Foster parents cannot mandate or order their information to be implemented. Rather, they must act as salesmen in presenting what they know and believe.
Here are nine rules that will help foster parents advocate more effectively for the youngsters under their care.
1. Communicate with your caseworker on a regular, even weekly, basis.
Don’t wait for a crisis. Stay in touch. A phone call, a mailed journal update, or an email may be sufficient. Build a normal and steady routine of contact.
2. Keep a daily journal.
Record school successes and failures, medical concerns and doctor appointments, and positive and negative behavior. Note how visitation with the birth parents went. You may add your own opinions and judgments, but keep these separate from the factual information.
3. Begin all communications on a positive note.
Learn to begin with at least two positive remarks. Every face-to-face contact with the other players should start with two uncritical comments or compliments. This tried-and-true strategy is used in mediation, labor-management negotiations, and in sales. Praise their office décor or what they are wearing. Offer a smile. Ask a question about something of theirs that you notice, perhaps a family picture or a sports trophy. Thank them for inviting you.
4. Use “I” messages.
All good communication must be informative. You are an expert on what you think and feel, not what you suspect the other person thinks. Practice using “I” instead of “you” in your discussions. The “I” message avoids criticism and judgments about positions other than your own. People are more apt to hear what you have to say if you don’t spend your time criticizing their contributions.
5. Listen.
Keep your mind open. Consider what others have to offer. Respect their thinking. People are more likely to listen to you if you listen to them.
6. Work regularly with the CASA.
Keep them informed of the everyday progress and setbacks along with the caseworker. Use the same communication techniques.
7. Work with the birth parents.
Remember, reunification must be the initial goal. Treat them with courtesy, cooperate with visitation, and help them learn how to parent when possible. They can make good allies if later you wish to adopt the child.
8. Stand up for your child.
State what you think is best and why. Don’t blame or impugn the motives of others. Find a way to get your information to the caseworker and, if necessary, into court before the judge. Don’t be hesitant for fear of being blackballed. Remember, the best decisions can only be made if all sides and opinions are adequately presented.
9. Regard court as a last resort.
The courtroom is an adversarial setting. Arguing in court may sometimes be necessary, but it is far better to have matters resolved beforehand. If you feel you will have problems presenting important information in court, hire an attorney who is familiar with foster care policies and laws.
In Summary
If foster parents wish to make a difference, then the key is getting along. Use your communication skills to be sure that the information necessary to make informed decisions affecting the child’s entire life and future is available to the welfare department and in court.
Then, if you still feel strongly that the child’s best interests are being ignored, follow through with your role as advocate. Hire an attorney to be sure your information and recommendations are fully presented before the judge.
The child in your care needs your knowledge and love. He needs you to stand up for him. Do your very best to get along with those in power. But if you cannot, then stay the course to be fully heard. The child is the most important party to all these efforts, and the child’s best interests are paramount.