Helping Families Navigate the Foster Care Process
An online masters in social work degree can lead to an exciting role as a family social worker. One notable component involves playing a part in the foster care process, which can be complex and emotionally stressful for those involved.
Your role as a social worker in helping all involved to adjust to the new situation in a healthy way is crucial. While child welfare workers ostensibly are tasked with overseeing the process of removing children from neglectful or abusive households and rehoming them, social workers are often are the ones who will work most closely and extensively with the families so as to create a harmonious placement — as well as help all family members emotionally process the transition. The specifics of this process may vary depending on states and the different child welfare systems in place; however, this article offers step-by-step guidance to the basic process, for both children and foster parents.
Adults looking to foster a child need to recognize the challenge of being a stable parent for their newly arriving child. Regardless of age or the presence of conscious memories of their biological parents, children in the foster care system may have emotional trauma from having suffered abuse or neglect at the hands of their biological parent, or having lost them at a young age. According to research done by Casey Family Health in Seattle and made public by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, data suggests that of the 40 percent of youth in foster care, roughly 80 percent exhibit a serious behavioral or mental health problem requiring intervention.
Some of the ways that social workers can help guide foster parents toward healthier relationships with their children include:
- Verifying that the foster home is safe and has the resources to care for the child once they are placed.
- Discussing any behavioral or emotional issues that the children may manifest — or already be manifesting — and strategies for coping.
- Putting together a comprehensive list of resources — emotional, physical, and emergency — that can help if the family needs them in a crisis.
Children, when placed in the foster care system, often experience grief and anxiety. Whether it’s over being deprived of their biological parent’s care or concern over their new living situation, these children are vulnerable and thus can benefit from the intervention of social workers to ensure that they have the emotional and support tools needed to navigate a difficult time.
Helping foster children to form healthy bonds with foster and adoptive parents, giving them the chance to work through their emotions related to being removed from their family home, and even just acting as a person to talk to can be essential during the fostering process. Given the often chaotic nature of the child being placed into foster care — even when in response to being removed from an abusive or neglectful household — children can struggle to form emotional attachments to adults or their peers.
For both parents and children
One key area in which social workers can assist families is to help develop visitation plans for biological parents that are minimally disruptive to the foster family. If appropriate, research suggests that biological parent-child visitations can be healthy for children and help them emotionally process all the changes they’ve experienced. However, since these visits can be fraught for a variety of reasons — owing largely to the circumstances of the child’s removal from a home in the first place — having a social worker there to supervise the visit can be essential. Often, these visits may take the form of an “ice breaker” visit. As a liaison between foster or adoptive parents and the biological parent, with a social worker as a facilitator or intermediary, these meetings can put all involved at ease and showcase that the child is being put first.
It is worth noting that, as researched published in The Impact of Continued Contact with Biological Parents upon the Mental Health of Children in Foster Care suggests, while some degree of biological parent visitation can be healthy, children often report emotional distress after meetings with biological parents post-fostering. To avoid what many experts characterize as a stressful and disruptive outcome, the environment in which this contact takes place should be tightly controlled and visits supervised.
Social workers can also be invaluable tools for foster parents and children by developing strategies to help all parties feel at peace at the conclusion of a foster relationship. Regardless of whether the child settles in with an adoptive home or is returned to his or her biological family, the need for ongoing support and intervention by a trained social worker is paramount.