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Wouldn’t it be great if the word “co-parenting” could be eliminated from our vocabulary? That no marriage ended in divorce or no children ever had to be away from their biological parents for any reason? That word has been around in reference to two biological parents who do not live together. Anyone raising children in that setting will tell you it is wrought with challenges even in the most congenial of separations or divorces. 

The Old View of Co-Parenting

But co-parenting has not been associated with foster care until recent years. I am a Bridge Parent for Crossnore Communities for Children at present. But about 25 years ago, I fostered in my own home.  At that time we were not encouraged, in fact, we were discouraged, from any contact with biological parents. Our case manager handled all interaction with the bio parents and even transported our foster children to and from visits. Even as recent as a few years ago, when working for another organization, we were encouraged to leave all correspondence with biological parents to our case manager or the social worker. 

As social workers were forced to take on more and more families, pieces fell through the cracks. And while we were doing amazing work with the children in foster care, families of origin were often left on their own to navigate a system they often felt was set up to work against them. “What if we gave the parents the same attention we give the children,” I wondered.  Fast forward to today and the word “co-parenting” takes on new meaning. It is now a familiar word in the foster care realm as we learn and encourage a co-parent relationship between biological and foster parents.  In fact, in the work we do with Bridging Families, co-parenting is central to our program. And we see the benefits on a daily basis.

Co-Parenting at Crossnore

What exactly is co-parenting in Foster Care? In co-parenting, foster parents share the nurturing and decision-making processes with birth parents. This often results in the child returning home sooner. It also reduces the likelihood that the child will reenter the foster care system in the future. Biological and foster parents work together as a team and are seen as such by the children. Foster parents can become role models, allowing the biological parents to observe healthy parenting skills, something they have often never seen or even had in their own childhood. 

One of the biological parents with whom we co-parented shared, “I thought parents like you only existed on TV.” Not to date myself, but I am no June Cleaver. If you don’t know about this iconic TV mom, just Google her. All kidding aside, it is very difficult to imagine a relationship with a more awkward start. From the bio family’s point of view, someone has taken a child that rightfully belongs to them and placed it with us. From a foster point of view, it can sometimes be difficult to come to terms with the actions or non-actions of the parents that caused the placement of the child in our care. Given this less than ideal start, it’s no wonder co-parenting is often the most complex and stressful part of our role. But experience has taught me that it can also be one of the most rewarding! 

So what are some strategies that have worked for me in my co-parenting journey?

Begin the Journey with Compassion. 

Try hard to imagine yourself in the biological parent’s shoes. Not for just a quick moment, but put the shoes on and walk around a little while. Get to know them. What was their childhood like? Parents can’t model what they don’t know and haven’t seen. I ask myself a lot of “what if’s.”  What if this were me? What if this were my child? Don’t expect progress to follow a straight line. Does it in your life? Instead, expect setbacks and resist passing judgment when they happen. Two steps forward, one step back is still remarkable progress! Believe in them, even before they believe in themselves.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. 

Treat biological parents with dignity and respect. Ask yourself, “How can I empower this parent to be successful?” Assure parents that you are not trying to replace them. Ask for their input and include them in all major decisions. Share with them your own family and background. Biological parents are often left to feel that the pages of their life are laid out for all to see while the foster parents may come across as a closed book. 

Stress teamwork constantly and reiterate that you are on their side to help them get their kids home. Foster good relationships around phone calls and visitations. For example, if twenty-minute phone calls two days a week are the “rule,” be willing to be flexible. When your foster child has something exciting happen, a third call that week to share it with Mom or Dad can go a long way in building relationship. Spend time together. Let them see what healthy parenting looks like. They may begin watching with a critical eye, but with time, they will see that these strategies work.

Set boundaries and Know your Limits.

As in any relationship, boundaries are paramount. The daunting part of co-parenting for the foster parent is that we are parenting with a person we don’t live with. And we’re probably starting out with less than a great relationship. Realize and remember that this is also the view as seen from the biological parent. Seek advice when needed. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but be consistent in the rules in your home. For example, if biological parents are in your home, share the rules, why you have the rules, and the expectation that they don’t change while they are with you. 

A Beautiful End Result

The end result is so worth the effort. Imagine this with me. A four-month-old who has never really known Mom. He sees her only an hour or two a week for a year or more. And then suddenly, he finds himself going home with her. Does she know he sleeps with the blue stuffed parrot he calls “Baby?” Does she know he’s prone to respiratory illness and ear infections?

Now, imagine a different scenario. During that year, Mom has become a part of the family. She knows about the illness because she has attended doctor visits with you. She knows about the blue parrot because she has often put him to bed herself under your care. Her baby has had time to bond with her and is excited to see her. In which scenario would you rather send a child you have grown to love? 

This for me, is the priceless reward for the effort!