I’ve been a foster parent for over three years, and when people ask me about foster care, the one thing that seems to surprise them more than anything else is the amount of contact I have with my foster child’s family. This open relationship can be scary for a lot of first-time foster parents. Chances are, if you are fostering, it’s because your heart is broken over the neglect or abuse some children face, and it’s easy to vilify the people responsible for that. 

Many birth families have a negative view of foster parents too. Many of our kids’ parents are in the grip of addiction or mental illness, so much so that they likely don’t believe that they aren’t taking care of their kids. In their minds, a foster parent is part of the whole system responsible for taking their child away. Given all these factors, it’s no wonder many foster and birth family relationships are strained and adversarial, even hostile.

The good news is it’s possible to have a positive and encouraging relationship with your child’s family, one that actually benefits the child, if you’re willing to do the work to build it. It is going to be work, and it will most likely be on you to initiate it. Most of our foster children’s parents are going through their own trauma due to the child’s removal and the issues that led to the removal in the first place. You are probably the most stable, emotionally healthy person in the relationship, so you will have to take the initiative.

Here are some other tips I have found helpful:

Distance Yourself from “the System”

In my initial conversations with my foster children’s parents, and in subsequent conversations if necessary, I am clear about the role I play in their child’s case. I explain that my job is to love and take care of their child. I’m not there to judge them or their choices. I don’t decide when their child is returned to their care or even what steps they must take before that can happen. In most cases, birth families are angry at the system that has taken their child from their care, so being clear about the role I play can help break down some of those initial barriers.

Ask Them about Their Child

This is especially helpful when the child is first placed with you. Ask about any favorite toys or blankets, what they like to eat, or bedtime routines. These things help you get to know the child and ease his or her transition into your home. It also communicates to the birth parents that you know they love and care for their child and that you recognize them as the child’s parents.

Find a Safe and Appropriate Way to Communicate

A relationship with your foster child’s family isn’t that different from many other relationships in this way: Communication is key. Be aware of any policies your agency has regarding communication, and be smart about safety and appropriate boundaries. But look for ways to communicate directly with the birth parents when you can. Set up a separate email account where you can share photos or news about your child in foster care. Transport the child to and from family visits so you have an opportunity to interact with the child’s parents on a regular basis, outside of a court setting. Buy a disposable phone or use a service like Google Voice to set up a separate phone number. The important thing is to communicate directly with the parents. If your only communication is through a social worker, you will only reinforce barriers in your relationship.

Experienced foster parents, what would you add? What are some things you’ve done to build a positive relationship with your foster child’s family? Or, if you are a birth parent whose child has been in foster care, what would be helpful for foster parents to know to build a good relationship with you?

Learn more about foster care and how to become a foster parent at Adoption.com. Learn more and join in with the foster care discussion at adoption.com/forums.

Kristy O’Neal is mom to two sweet, funny, wonderful kids and works full-time in information technology. During her spare time, she likes to browse Pinterest and thrift stores, create things, and hang out with her kids. As a foster parent, Kristy cares about advocating for the needs of kids in foster care and supporting foster families. You can read her thoughts on these and many other topics at her blog.