Monthly Archives: January 2016

It Takes A Village

Musings on Terminology in the Foster Care World

famhandprint

I recently had the privilege of supporting a birth parent on my caseload as she surrendered her parental rights so that her two year old daughter, A, could be adopted by her foster parents. The Judge explained the proceedings to A’s mom to ensure that she understood the finality of her decision and asked for a final verbal confirmation. A’s mom had an opportunity to speak through her attorney and expressed her gratitude for the foster parents and their ability to provide the stability she would not be able to offer her daughter. After this the group scrambled to find a pen, because somehow, between three attorneys, one Judge, and a case planner, nobody had a working pen. One borrowed pen later A’s mom signed a series of documents and all legal ties were severed between a child and the woman who gave her life. Twenty-four months worth of court dates, meetings, treatment referrals, and family visits culminated in a fifteen meeting hearing. It was beautiful and heart-breaking all at once and I left the court room in total awe of A’s biological mom and the strength and courage it must take for a parent to make that kind of sacrifice, the epitome of a parent wanting what is best for their child. A’s mom never completed a single mandated service and did not frequently visit but she loved her daughter dearly and wanted to give her the best quality of life possible, even if that meant asking someone else to raise her baby.

Since this hearing I have spent a significant amount of time processing the role of language in foster care, especially when it comes to engaging birth parents in discussions concerning permanency options for children other than reunification. Words have a significant amount of power in our world, often times more than we realize. There are many terms in foster care vernacular that could benefit from an updated label but none more than the term surrender. When I first started reflecting on this issue I typed the word surrender into google and found the following sentences presented to give the definition:

1 The enemy finally surrendered after three days of fighting.

2 The gunman surrendered and was taken into custody.

3 The troops were forced to surrender the fort.

strength

Those examples do not evoke a sentiment of strength and sacrifice but rather an idea of weakness and lose. When a parent is presented with the option to surrender their parental rights I believe that many are intimidated by the terminology (and the word’s negative connotations) and refuse to even entertain the arrangement because it seems like they are giving up on their children. Although not everyone will understand or properly appreciate this statement I can tell you that 100% of the parents I have worked with love their children. Love is not the problem for a majority of cases in foster care, and it is no surprise that parents who love their children do not readily jump at the idea of signing papers that allow a Judge to terminate their parental rights. I would love to see a new term for this action that focuses on the parent’s strengths and what they are giving their child instead of what they are giving up. This does not negate the fact that a very serious discussion needs to occur so that parents completely understand the legal implications of their actions, but I think it would be beneficial for families navigating the foster care system if the lens could shift from a perspective of shame and guilt to one of empowerment and love.

While a non-voluntary termination of parental rights is usually not conducive to a continued relationship, conditional surrenders can allow parents to maintain a relationship with their child after their rights are terminated. While this situation presents its own unique set of challenges, it is, in my opinion, the best of both worlds for a child who cannot be safely reunified with their parents. This arrangement allows for the child to be raised in a safe and stable home while also benefiting from a connection with their biological families. You can NEVER have too many people loving a child. When it comes to establishing permanency there is no room to be selfish and if a child calling two people mom is the biggest concern in a parent’s world then it is time to re-evaluate priorities. If it takes a village to raise a child then we need to start empowering our birth families to feel comfortable inviting new people into the village because raising a child is hard work and not everyone has the resources, skills, and support to do it alone.

peopletree

It has been about a month since the surrender in court and tonight I visited A in her foster home. She is a bright, energetic, and slightly bossy toddler who loves her foster (soon to be adoptive) family very much. A showed me her new Christmas gifts and ordered me to drink imaginary tea that she brewed in her new play kitchen. Her birth mother did not attend the scheduled holiday visit that A’s foster mother arranged. This does not surprise me, A’s mom has her own hurdles to jump over on her road to recovery that may take some time, but the important thing is that the lines of communication are open and the seeds of the relationship have been planted thanks to the conditional surrender. After seven non-voluntary terminations of parental rights A’s mom was able to make the choice to give her daughter a more stable childhood while also remaining in her life. A’s foster mom texts A’s birth mom pictures and messages and is open to future visits, even though she knows not all of them will happen.

The foster care system is designed to support our children and families and I would love to see that sentiment reflected in the terminology. When I look at A running around, doll and tea pot in hand, it is easy to see the positive benefits of her mother’s decision. They say it takes a village, and A’s just got a whole lot bigger.

familystring

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized