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Four questions about shared parenting

Rethinking foster care with parents and caregivers on the same team

Carol Lee, Senior Editor

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In a recent Bethany blog post, Caryn shared how she and her husband, Joe, fostered children with reunification in mind. That intention shaped how they saw their role and how they engaged each child’s parents. Caryn said:

When we transported kids to their weekly visits, we had time to make small talk with their parents. These moments were our opportunity to make a face-to-face connection. At home, we made photo books and wrote letters to parents. We tried to involve parents in decisions about their children, like, “What do you want them to wear for school pictures?” or letting them take the rein for doctor’s appointments

We never wanted to create a power struggle with the kids’ families. So, our posture was to back off and make it clear that we were a team, together, for the kids.

Caryn and Joe were practicing shared parenting, an emerging best practice in foster care that produces better outcomes—for children and their families.

1. What is it?

Shared parenting in foster care—also called co-parenting—describes a mutually beneficial relationship between parents and caregivers (which could include foster parents or kinship care providers) while the child is in care. It recognizes that caring for a child’s well-being means supporting their family’s well-being—kids do better when their families do better. Shared parenting keeps reunification at the forefront with parents and caregivers working toward the same goal.

A hallmark of the shared parenting model is direct and regular communication between parents and caregivers. This can look like an introductory call between the caregiver and the parent soon after the child’s placement. It can look like texting photos of the child’s activities. It can look like a short, reassuring “goodnight” call between the child and the parent before bed.

When the adults regularly connect, caregivers can learn helpful information, such as the child’s medical needs, bedtime routine, favorite foods, and cultural norms. Parents can stay engaged in their children’s lives, and children can be assured that their parents are doing OK, reducing instances and intensity of fear-based behaviors.

Until recently, foster care has been widely seen as protecting children from parents—from whatever home environment led to the child’s removal. So, while parents were working on their reunification plans, they had little information about who was caring for their children and often minimal contact with their children—sometimes as little as a one-hour, supervised visit per week, as determined by a court.

Every case is different, but many children are in foster care, on average, for more than a year. With so little contact between parents and their children, the traditional foster care model does little to nurture parent/child connections or prepare them for successful reunification.

2. Does it work?

Although reunification rates are just under 50%, it’s still the most common outcome for children in foster care—nearly double that of adoption, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Reunified families that have experienced this level of disruption are vulnerable. They need a great deal of support to grow stronger together, so children aren’t removed from their homes a second time.

Current foster care research shows that seeds for successful reunification are planted when parents and caregivers form strong partnerships. A 2016 study supports this. As cited by the Children’s Bureau of the DHHS:

Frequent and regular parent-child visits help children, youth, and parents maintain continuity of their relationships, improve relationships, and help them prepare to reunite. Visits can provide parents with opportunities to learn and practice parenting skills as well as give caseworkers opportunities to observe and assess family progress. Children and youth who have regular visits with their families are more likely to reunify.

A 2011 study identified parent support systems—along with education and training, mentoring programs, and substance use recovery—as a key strategy for reunification:

When foster parents support or mentor birth parents, they can enhance the ability of birth parents to stay informed about their children’s development while they are in out-of-home care, improve parenting skills, increase placement stability, and lead to more timely reunifications.

The Birth and Foster Parent Partnership (BFPP) agrees, writing in their 2020 Relationship Guide that relationships between parents and caregivers promote better outcomes for children because children feel safer when they see their parents and caregivers working together as a unified team. And for families that have little to no support network, a relationship like this can become the foundation for ongoing support after reunification, with caregivers resembling an extended family.

Shared parenting isn’t meant to be a prescribed checklist of contact but a natural way a caregiver would help keep a parent and child connected while they’re apart. This contact is intended to occur within the structure of the local foster care system and with a caseworker’s knowledge and support.

It’s important to note that child welfare departments operate differently from state to state, with some systems embracing the shared parenting model more readily than others. In 2021, for example, Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services issued a new statewide policy, making the principles of shared parenting in foster care the expectation. In states that don’t have shared parenting policies, caregivers and parents can talk with their caseworkers about their openness to increased communication and doing so can help move the needle toward this model for everyone.

3. Is it safe?

Safety is a factor that courts and case managers take seriously and assess regularly. Courts determine the guidelines around parent visitation (and other contact) with ongoing input from case management staff. Caregivers will be notified if contact is unsafe, and they should always follow the court’s direction as shared with them by their caseworker.

A related question to consider is: Will it be uncomfortable? That’s a different conversation. Building trust in a relationship takes time, and that’s especially true when forging a relationship between people with different life experiences. It’s not easy to put yourself in the shoes of someone experiencing a crisis who may question your intentions or respond out of hurt and fear. That’s why empathy is such a crucial skill for caregivers, to cultivate compassion not only for children but also for parents.

Parents with children in foster care are often cast as fundamentally unsafe people who don’t have their child’s best interests at heart. They’re often stereotyped as unwilling or unable to change themselves or their circumstances to get their children back. But no matter the tough situations families have faced, parents love their children. And parents deserve to know basic information about who is caring for their children and that their children are OK.

Shared parenting is a best-practice model for parents with a goal of reunification. These parents are working toward making needed changes and developing essential skills to successfully parent their children. Case managers should be involved to help initiate contact and support the relationship. They can help parents and caregivers establish boundaries, set expectations for confidentiality, and mediate if necessary. Over time, communication and contact will become more organic as trust builds on both sides.

4. What’s the end goal?

Shared parenting challenges the assumption that other people—even trained and licensed foster parents—are better for the child than the child’s family. And most foster parents would agree that a child safely reunited with their family is the best possible outcome.

Caryn, the foster mom at the beginning of the article, said,

When I’m first building trust with a child’s parents, I think how vulnerable it is for parents visiting their kids—knowing you’re being observed, worrying about saying or doing the wrong thing.

As scary as it is for foster parents to risk initiating the relationship, it’s so much scarier for parents who have more to lose. But it’s so worth it.

Given the trauma that happens when children are separated from their families and the complexities of an overwhelmed foster care system, it makes sense to channel public support and resources to a different model that’s better for children and families.

With the right support, many families can be strengthened and equipped to create a safe and healthy home environment. And shared parenting is a step in that direction.

Learn more about foster care at Bethany