Building a Positive Relationship with Primary Parents

One of the most challenging tasks in the role of foster parent is building the compassion and non-judgmental mindset that allows you to work effectively with primary parents.  

“Primary parents” refers to parents who have been the subject of an allegation or an investigation resulting in some level of agency involvement. The child’s birth parents, families who have adopted the child, or relatives who have been taking care of the child are the primary parents.  The investigation may or may not have included the removal of a child from the primary parents’ home. Reunification with the primary parent(s) will be the goal for the vast majority of cases, but sometimes the agency must find a permanent placement for the child with someone else. 

Foster parents can understand the things that the children feel when they experience the loss of the primary family and move into foster care.  Pre-Service training will teach you about the grief cycle that the child goes through during transitions and in fact, the grief cycle that the foster parent will also go through as children move in and out of their homes.

It is also very important to remember that the primary families are also going through a grief process. This grief may get in the way of early interactions with the primary family.  It is important to understand how they are feeling to build a positive on-going relationship between the foster and the primary family  (see Understanding the Birth Parents’ Grief Process).

Ideas of things foster parents might do to develop rapport with primary families

  • Work on your own mindset. Children and teens may have mixed feelings about their family, but they are almost always hurt when the resource family expresses negative thoughts about their parents, siblings or other family members.
  • When children express negative feelings about their parents, listen with empathy and compassion but avoid chiming in with your own criticism or judgment.
  • Meet with the caseworker and the primary parents shortly after a child enters care to learn about the child’s needs and preferences, such as favorite foods or bedtime routines. Meetings like this, sometimes called Ice Breaker Meetings, help you get to know each other and set the stage for working together to help the child.
  1. Ask for input on parenting issues.
  2. What kind of food does Joanne like?
  3. What do you do to get her to sleep or keep her calm?
  4. Ask for advice in handling behavioral situations?
  5. Check our preferences on hair care.
  6. Ask what they would like their child or teen to call you.
  7. Compliment their child and the primary parent’s contribution to his strengths.
  • Joanne is good with communication. You did a good job teaching her how to get the attention she needs.
  • Share their parenting concerns.
  • I worry about Joanne too.  You’re right, her behavior is hard to control sometimes.
  • Express empathy
  • Being a parent can be very difficult.
  • Express hope
  • I know you’ll be able to do the things in your case plan so that Joanne can come home.  You may have to work hard but I think you can make the changes needed.
  • No “close of business” in working with families. Times for contacts with the Primary Parent often may happen when the child welfare support is not available.
  • Arsenic hour – be aware of the times of the day that are most problematic for the child, often this is just prior to the evening meal.  Try not to also set up contact with the primary family at this time, unless they have proved to be a comforting support.
  • Holidays and Visitation Days are often most chaotic for the family. Transport the child or teen to visits and kindly greet the primary parents. Work with the agency to help assess a positive role for you as a foster parent during these interactions.
  • Take parent with you to a training event.  As the agency to set up special trainings that are most important for you to do together.
  • Check with your agency about inclusion of the parent in your ongoing training.
  • Attend community training events together around an area of need for the family.
  • Give Primary family power and assist them to take control of the lives with their children whenever possible.
  • Help parent get to and participate in IEPs at the school or SARs at the agency. Save school papers, awards and other good news to share with the primary parents.
  • Invite the primary parents to accompany you to doctor’s appointments.
  • Parent involvement in clothes selection – either through store shopping or catalogue selection.
  • Encourage the child or teen to keep and display pictures of and mementos from his or her family.
  • When the agency tells you it is ok, share a meal like at a birthday party, Sunday dinner, agency social event.
  • Develop a work party that can be reciprocal – clean house parties – gather a small group of friends (including the primary family) that spend a couple of hours together on various Saturdays cleaning each other’s houses.
  • If/when the child is reunified with his or her primary family, stay involved as a babysitter, extended family member or family friend.

In those cases when reunification is not possible, the resource family may be asked to become the child’s adoptive family.  Many resource families assist their children by maintain some level of openness with their primary family even following an adoption.