It's Okay to Grieve: Foster Parents & Reunification

Carmen and Jeremy Howard found themselves caring for children and teens in need long before they became licensed foster parents. Now, four years into their journey as official foster parents, they’re opening up about the grief, love and ultimately joy that comes with supporting the reunification of children with their biological parents.

My husband and I have been foster parents going on four years now. We love fostering. Even before we were licensed we would always find ourselves in situations where we would be helping a child or a teen in need. This was either by mentoring or giving them a place to stay for a few months. We were only married a month when a grandmother in our community was struggling to take care of her two grandsons — one with cerebral palsy and the other a teen who needed extra attention — and came to us asking for help. One of the young men stayed with us almost two years before he went back to live with his grandmother. It just made sense that several years later, Jeremy and I would find ourselves becoming licensed foster parents.

Now, fast forward a bit. We received the call for our first placement in February 2014, just two months after our license was finalized — a 7-and-a-half-month-old infant weighing a whopping five pounds. We were elated! Little did we know that this child would start us on a very long journey of twists and turns that stretched us emotionally in more ways than we could ever have anticipated. We have struggled with infertility for many years. I am 42 years old, and I have pretty much come to grips with the fact that I will not have biological children. We have looked at private adoption in parallel of the potential to adopt through foster care but we haven’t adopted a child yet.

In foster care, the immediate goal is to place a child in a temporary, safe and loving home. The second goal is to work toward a safe reunification between the child and their biological family. For some new to the foster care system, the idea of reunification is difficult to understand.

There is no amount of training agencies can provide that will prepare you for the grief you will potentially feel when these kids stay with you for several months and possibly years, and then reunification happens. It’s just hard. Plain and simple. As foster parents, we must believe that the healthy attachments they build while with us are tools that they will have access to for the rest of their lives. What we do does make a difference even though I look at them as the true heroes — not us.

I think there is another layer of grief that comes when you don’t have biological children. It’s just different. You become the mother and father to a child for the first time, and there is a bond that many first-time foster parents are typically not prepared for. That was us — we were all in. We loved this kid from the first time we set eyes on him. In our hearts, he was ours. We were setting ourselves up for heartbreak. But even though we did some things we would do differently now, the overall experience is something I would do over and over again to gain the relationships and the understanding we have today.

Fast forward again to when we met our foster son’s biological mom and dad. Our first Family Support Team (FST) meeting, the first time at court, the first time meeting. Yep, all the feels! But, what I didn’t expect was to feel compassion for his mom. I immediately let my defenses down and began to comfort her. After that meeting, I promised her that he would be safe, and that I would take care of him for her while she couldn’t. Within six months she and I had begun journaling every week, which eventually turned to phone calls, and then visits in our home, birthday parties, etc. When she became pregnant with another little boy, I even gave her a baby shower. Some people struggle with the safety factor in being this close, but all I can tell you is to weigh each situation. If you don’t try, how will you ever know if it would work or not?

Our little guy went home around the second week of January 2015, a few days past his first birthday. Man, the hardest thing I ever had to do. There were many wet pillows and puffy-eyed mornings to match. The conversations with his mom were so easy and transparent. She let me grieve. She cared for me during that time. She checked up on me. She was thankful for us. She helped me just like I had helped her.

Because of our relationship during his time in care, she allowed us many opportunities to visit with him after reunification. We babysat, had sleep overs, visits at their house, etc. We encouraged her and dad to stick with the services and plans they had been given. We really wanted it to work for them. Unfortunately, they hit a bump in the road when their second baby boy was born and reverted back to familiar patterns. Both boys came back into care with us by April of that same year. 

The system and the process of reunification do not always work. Even when everything seems to be working, there can be a lot of reasons why reunification ultimately does not work out. Foster parents who strive toward family restoration and reunification are special people! We have not only set ourselves up for heart break, but we’ve also faced feeling disappointed, betrayed, and deceived. However, by being supportive of the reunification efforts, we’ve realized that we can gain trust from the team of case workers and even the birth family. 

As a foster parent, we can lend support and a helping hand that is personal and tangible in a way that the “system” cannot. That makes things so much easier for everyone and you can advocate for the child(ren) better in a trusted capacity. If a child does reunify with their family, your relationship with them gives you a long-term role in all of their lives. If there is a chance that the child(ren) come back into care you are a familiar, safe place for them to come back to. The family can be more at ease knowing you are involved and the children could have less of a traumatic experience in the transition. In some cases, you may even be the only “family” these people have. 

We have experienced all of this in the past four years, and it has caused us to advocate strongly for supporting reunification and being a support person for the birth families. Of course, it is case dependent but at least give it a try. You might just be pleasantly surprised!

Since becoming licensed, we have had seven kiddos in our care, and with each placement we put efforts for reunification at the forefront. One placement was a 16-year-old mother of two whom, after a year with us, was reunified with her mom. We still see her on holidays and birthdays, and we just recently celebrated birthdays for both of her daughters with their friends and family. These are moments I will cherish forever.

Additionally, our current placement’s mom is developmentally delayed and I spend every Wednesday with her at a playgroup she has in her community. I have grown to love the people and what that playgroup represents. It is a place for me to build a relationship with her. It’s also an opportunity for her to spend time with her son, and I can also glean from and gain friendships from all the moms that attend. Bottom line, supporting the plan for reunification can work. It doesn’t have to be scary. It doesn’t have to be hard ALL the time. You need to tell yourself ahead of time I am willing to be all in. Not just for the child but if the mom and/or dad, grandmother, aunt, or uncle want and need you, then you will be there for them as well. It’s never failed us and I am expecting that it won’t fail you either.

 Did you know that people like YOU are the biggest need in our local foster care community? Join us at one of our upcoming free, no-commitment information sessions to learn more about how you can get involved and make a difference in the lives of youth in your neighborhood. 

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