Natural Parents, Children and Foster Parents Continue Fighting Lone Battles

December 10, 2010

Although the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and foster care agencies have been in contract for over a decade to ensure that foster parents and biological parents of children in foster care have open communication with each other to create healthier relationships, New York state’s foster care system is still waiting for this to happen.

Research carried out by various organizations over the years proves that such a model can yield positive results in the lives of everyone involved.

In 1992, the Annie E. Casey Foundation presented the Family-to-Family strategy, which encourages healthy relationships among the three members that form this triangle, namely foster parents, foster children, and their biological parents. When this model was presented, the public agency responsible for child welfare, ACS, made all foster care agencies in New York state sign a contract which required them to apply this model immediately upon their respective foster families. However, the execution of this model has not been observed so far.

The need to build bridges

The need to build bridges between foster parents and biological parents is especially important because most of New York’s children and youth enter foster care due to incidences of neglect, and not abuse.

Mike Arsham, Executive Director of Child Welfare Organization Project (CWOP) tells, “Office of Court Administration statistics pretty consistently show that about 85% of NYC parents facing Article 10 proceedings in Family Court are charged, not with abuse, but with neglect.”

According to David Tobis, Executive Director of a community service organization named Fund for Social Change, the term “neglect” has a number of definitions. “Neglect can be educational neglect, where a child is disruptive at school,” he says. “The school may call ACS and say it’s a difficult child, resulting in the child being taken away from his parents. Another reason could be inadequate housing, or if there’s not enough food in the house, or if the child’s personal hygiene is not being maintained,” he explains.

Hence, when children are taken away from their natural parents on charges of neglect, the argument that they should not be able to meet with their parents while living in foster care appears flawed. This is because in cases of neglect, it is the parents’ situation, and not the parents’ personalities, which is the problem; and communication with parents does not have negative affects on children.

Family-to-family connections “common sense” today

Executive Director, New York State Citizens’ Coalition for Children (NYSCCC), and author of Another Mother: Co-Parenting with the Foster Care System, Sarah Gerstenzang has been working to encourage interaction among children, their natural parents, and foster parents for several years. “Humans are built one way. They need to maintain the connection,” she says. Herself a biological mother of two children and an adopted daughter, she explains that unless the biological parents are violent or unpleasant, it should be obligatory to connect them with their children when they go into foster care. According to her, “Not just kids in foster care, but even international adoptions are becoming more and more open. It has become an accepted standard. It’s not an experiment anymore. It’s sort of common sense. Connections with all parts of the family are becoming increasingly common.”

The NYSCCC organizes a conference every year, based on workshops that train foster and natural parents to work together. Apart from carrying out this conference and providing guidance to parents seeking help over the phone, the organization also has a number of resources on its website, which can be accessed by both kinds of parents to help each other in connecting the circles.

An opportunity for natural parents to get involved

CWOP primarily works to help reunify children in the foster care system with their natural parents. Still, Mike Arsham sees the Family-to-Family strategy as an effective way to bring foster children closer to their natural parents, even it does not necessarily mean reunifying with them. “Without any hesitation, biological parents would welcome it,” he says. They would like to meet with their children somewhere other than a cubicle, in an informal setting. They would like to tell foster parents how to do their children’s hair and what food they like. They would see it as an opportunity to get involved in their child’s life,” adds Arsham.

Is the model workable amidst resistance between biological and foster parents?

In a system where biological and foster parents have inherently disliked each other, the question arises as to how possible is it to implement this strategy. Gerstenzang says, explaining the biological parents’ perspective, “Definitely, initially there is a lot of anxiety between biological and foster parents. This is because when your children are taken away from you; it’s not what you are choosing. In some way, your life is out of control and it’s natural for (biological) parents to feel angry. Also, some times, biological parents feel judged by foster parents.” Things get better “when foster parents make an effort,” she assures.

Sylvia Hooper, who was a foster youth in the past, has now co-founded the Foster Parent Advocacy Foundation Inc (FPAF), a non-profit organization that is helping 50 foster parents in the system because she feels they are not being helped by foster care agencies and ACS case workers as much as they should be. On possible rifts between natural and foster parents, Hooper says, “Birth parents often feel like the foster parents are stepping on their toes. They say the agency has worked them up against each other. As a result, the child is in jeopardy. He feels like it is pick and choose between natural and foster parents.” They should be made to realize that “it’s okay to live with and like your foster parents and still love your birth parents,” she adds.

Not having a workable bond between biological and foster parents has very negative effects on the child. Gerstenzang explains the situation, “It’s as complex as a child’s parents getting divorced. The children have no control over the situation. It’s really terrible for a child to be between two parties that don’t get along with each other.”

New York State encourages parent-to-parent contact – on paper

The New York State Foster Parent Manual 2007 explicitly states how foster children’s relationship with their natural parents should be like. Interestingly, according to FPAF Inc co-founder Dorin Matthews, “In a number of cases the Foster Parents Manual isn’t even handed to foster parents by foster care agencies.” Thus, in such conditions, foster parents are not even aware that they are supposed to try and build positive relationships with their foster children’s natural parents.

Research shows some bonds are simply unbreakable

Whether there is an initial resistance between the two types of parents or confusion in the child’s mind, Sarah Gerstenzang mentions a report by Children’s Rights which found out that if the case worker did not encourage foster parents to meet with their foster children’s natural parents, the three parties still ended up seeing each other behind the case worker’s back. A report titled The Long Road Home – A Study of Children Stranded in New York City Foster Care was published by Children’s Rights in November 2009. With a sample of 153 children who were in foster care in New York City, having a goal of Return to Parent or Adoption for two years or more, the survey report found out that, “Parents and resource parents acknowledged the importance of strong parent-resource parent collaboration, and said that caseworkers and foster care agencies needed to do more to facilitate these relationships.”

Here is the report:


Ambiguity at ACS

John B. Mattingley is credited with designing the Family-to-Family model while he worked at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In 2004, he was appointed as the Commissioner of ACS and is currently serving in the same position. Ironically, even though the model’s creator himself has now been ACS’s Commissioner for over five years, the rigid implementation of the model is yet to take place.

“The ACS usually gets away with saying that they’re working on it,” says Arsham. “This model is an unusual approach in which nobody loses. It does not follow the way traditional foster care works. Finding good foster parents is hard these days, so the authorities don’t want to put pressure on the existing foster parents to practice this model,” he explains. In fact, according to FPAF Inc, there are currently 16,000 foster children in New York City whereas the number of registered foster parents is only 12,000.

Talking about the days when she used to be a foster youth, Hooper tells that back then, she did not know if the model was supposed to be in effect. “Any type of contact would have helped! I would have been able to share my concerns that way,” she reflects.


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