Insights for Counselling Foster Families

Lori McIssac Bewsher

[Excerpt from Counselling in Relationships]

The following excerpt comes from our book, Counselling in Relationships –  Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections.  The chapter, Foster Families, encourages thinking broadly about all the relationships involved in the success of a foster family. Building trust, using curiosity, and appreciating the layers of influence from both trauma and resilience are emphasized in this chapter.

It is generally assumed that children will have their social, emotional, physical, and developmental needs met within their family of origin. In some circumstances, children who are not having these needs met consistently must be removed from their family home. While the concept of foster care has existed in some form throughout history, the role of foster families has become more formalized through the evolution of child welfare services (Rymph, 2017).

Foster families play a critical role in the delivery of services provided by community agencies mandated to protect children. This presents a unique family relationship system as children living in foster care generally maintain relationships with both their family of origin and members of the foster family (Chateauneuf et al., 2018). As the term would suggest, a foster family provides substitute care when the family of origin is unable to do so. Within these pseudo-family relationships, individuals are selected to provide physical care and safety without the opportunity for bonding or the benefit of attachment development.

When a fostering relationship is successful, the foster child can experience consistency, emotional responsiveness, and predictability with at least one healthy adult relationship.

Foster care systems have had to respond to changing family structures and social needs. These systems have been appropriately criticized when the standards of care have failed to meet the needs of the children they are meant to protect. The fundamental assumption in fostering is that a substitute family is preferable to a family of origin when abuse or neglect has occurred. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and the foster care system has often been condemned for these failures (Middleton et al., 2019). Increasingly, there is recognition of the need to shift to trauma-informed systems of care for child welfare. Policies and practices have neglected to consider, and have at times perpetuated, the impacts of colonization and intergenerational and collective trauma for many families (Blackstock, 2009). Indeed, in Canada and the U.S. it has long been noted that there is a disproportionate representation of Indigenous and other racialized children in foster care and child welfare systems (Jacobs, 2014; Woods & Summers, 2016). This is a critical part of understanding and evaluating current models of foster care systems. In this chapter I focus on the part of this work that involves the direct relationships necessary for meeting the specific needs of children in care.

The concept of fostering has changed and evolved over many years and has expanded to include therapeutic residential programs and group living facilities as the availability of traditional foster family homes has declined (Smith et al., 2015). Regardless of its structure, providing foster care generally requires temporary substitute caregivers for a child who has attachments to another family unit.

Foster care systems create and impact many relationships. This chapter considers the broad range of relationships that are present beyond the foster child and foster family members. Relationships within the foster care system can include the child, the family of origin, members of the foster family, facility workers, and community agency workers. There are also relationship changes for the foster child in education, recreation, and social settings. Relationships are a critical component to the foundation of the social, emotional, and developmental growth of a child.

Through my work with foster families, I have learned the importance of identifying the child’s relationship networks as well as the value of understanding both their family of origin and their foster care relationships. Recognizing the impact of these connections will ultimately benefit the child in the foster care system. When children have been abused or neglected, it is essential that they have the support of healthy, attuned adults to provide soothing and regulation. The primary focus of the foster care system is to provide these healthy, attuned caregivers to children who require these relationships on a temporary basis. However, these relationships may also exist in their family of origin or other relationship networks. The underlying belief in fostering is that children can adapt to a change in caregivers as long as they are provided with opportunities to develop healthy attachments and receive predictable, consistent care (Ludy-Dobson & Perry, 2010).

I first became aware of the impact of relationships in foster care while working as a case aide with a child welfare agency. I was assigned to provide transportation for an 8-year-old boy from his foster home to visits with his biological parents and to other appointments and activities. We were spending a lot of time together. I knew we had a positive connection, and we both seemed to enjoy our long car rides together. One day he appeared unusually sad and sullen. When I prodded him as to what was on his mind, he declared that he loved me and tearfully expressed that he did not want our time together to end! I was taken aback as I knew from all my years of training that there should not be any love in our relationship, and only a professional, caring connection should exist. But in this little boy’s tear-filled eyes, I knew that his love for me was genuine and that it was likely fed by my presence as a consistent, caring, and healthy relationship in his life when he did not have many available to him. As the years went by, I never forgot about this little boy who loved me. I am hopeful that our relationship helped him build trusting and secure relationships with others later in his life.

When a fostering relationship is successful, the foster child can experience consistency, emotional responsiveness, and predictability with at least one healthy adult relationship, which forms the basis of a secure, healthy bond that is the foundation of attachment. Once an attachment relationship begins to develop, the child is better able to successfully attach to other caregivers as opportunities arise. Ideally, the child will be able to develop positive relationships with all of their caregivers, including members of their family of origin. Foster parents can strengthen these relationships by seeking opportunities in which attachment can develop, such as in responding to a child’s plea for physical or emotional nurturance.

Being removed from a parent or guardian is a traumatic experience. While the child welfare system is responsible for evaluating the benefits and risks of removing a child from their family of origin, the future impact of this decision is often unknown. As a new social worker, I witnessed the unintentional but harmful impact of placing children in foster homes that were not able to fully meet their needs. For children of cultural, religious, or ethnic backgrounds that differed from their foster parents, important parts of their identity were overlooked in providing what was presumed to be a physically safe space for them to live. An important aspect of working with foster families is ensuring that they have adequate training, support, and understanding of the needs of the children in their care (Kufeldt et al., 1995).

Counselling strategies can be complex due to the number of relationships that exist within this structure and the various needs of individuals; however, for the counsellor, there is an opportunity to support family members in being able to demonstrate their individual strengths and contributions to the family unit.

Read the full chapter in our upcoming book, Counselling in Relationships: Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections, available for pre-order on our website.


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Author: Lori McIsaac Bewsher (MSW, RSW)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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