Jacqueline Israel, a former parent advocate whose children spent six years in foster care, explains how to make the most of your visits:
1. Bring Toys and Games
When you visit at the agency, the room just isn’t a home environment. I suggest that parents bring games, coloring books, activity books, crayons. Play some soft music, and bring books to read to your child. You can even bring your own visiting blanket so you and your children can sit down on the floor with Legos and blocks.
2. Make Visits a Time to Bond
During the visit, you definitely want to interact. Sometimes I see parents come and they look at the kid, sitting far apart. It’s not like visiting at a hospital. It’s a time to strengthen the bond you have with your child.
Some parents want to do homework with the children, and it’s a good thing to care about your child’s education, but if homework is troubling and causes tension in your family, I wouldn’t suggest doing that during a visit. When you’re getting frustrated, you’re not building your bond.
Don’t use your visits to complain about the situation, or dump your feelings on your child. That takes quality time away from your child.
3. Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep
One of the hardest moments is when children ask, “When am I coming home?” Be as truthful and honest as you can be, while keeping in mind the child’s age. Tell your children, “I wish I could take you home right now, but I can’t. I’m working on it, and I’ll take you home as soon as possible.”
Don’t make promises that you can’t keep. If you say, “You’ll be home next week,” and it doesn’t happen, your child won’t know who to trust, or what is true and what is false.
4. Expect Your Kids to Act Up
It’s normal for a child to feel angry or scared about being in foster care, and to act up as a result. When parents hear that a child is acting up, they start thinking, “Why is this happening? Is someone hurting my child.” They feel powerless.
You might feel very scared if you can’t help your child. You might even start acting out, becoming angry or explosive. But you can help your children by reassuring them that you’re working to get them home, and letting them know that you love them and care about them even when you’re not together.
You also want to let your child know that there’s nothing they can do to get home faster. I’ve seen children act out because they believe that if they act bad, the system will say, “This child is too bad, we better send the child home to their mom.”
5. Build a Relationship with the Foster Mom
You can help your child and your case by being polite to the foster parent. At visits, say, “Hello. How are my kids? How are they in school? Can I meet you for open school night?”
To get your children back, you have to be part of your child’s life, and the foster mom can help you with that. It’s good if the foster mom can say in court, “I met the children’s mother at the children’s doctor’s appointment,” or, “For open school night we met and went together to discuss the children’s education.”
When my kids were in care, the court could say to me, “Jacqueline, you were a bad parent for all these things you did in the past.” But I could say, “I have a relationship with my children that’s nurturing, structured and not damaging.” And the foster mom supported me in saying that.
6. Help Your Children Say Goodbye
Parents and their children don’t want visits to end. Children have a hard time because they don’t understand why they can’t go home. They cry, have fits.
Don’t prolong the visit. Help your children say goodbye, and let them know you’ll see them soon. When it’s almost time to leave, help your child get ready to go. Say, “It’s time for us to go now. Please take care. I’ll see you soon. Ask the foster parent if you can call me.” Say goodbye and leave your child with the foster parent.
I see some parents who stay with their children as long as they can. One parent follows the foster parent’s car. Don’t do that. That’s not a healthy thing for the children to see. If you break the rules, your children get the idea that they can also choose whether to follow rules. That will hurt your children in school and when they come back home.
7. Keep Visiting and It Will Get Easier
Sometimes I hear parents say, “It’s just too hard to visit my child at the agency.” But the agency is not going to say, “Take all the time you need and your child will be there for you when you’re ready.” You need to prove to the agency that you care about your child.
You and your child will feel better if you spend more time together. Even a week apart can feel like an eternity to a child, because children are having new experiences every day. One month they’re in diapers. Soon they’re saying, “You mean to tell me that light has a speed and water turns into clouds?”
Do your best to bond with your child, and the visits will get easier.