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Date published: 10/26/2012
MIAMI--When Angela Austin-Knight's teenage son and daughter were placed in foster care in 2008, she was despondent and angry. Not only had she lost custody of her children because of her drug use, but now two strangers were raising them.
She feared she would have no contact with the foster parents or her children and no say in how the kids were raised.
"You don't know somebody. You always wonder what their ulterior motives are," said Austin-Knight, a 44-year-old Vero Beach woman who has been sober for three years.
But days after Austin-Knight's children were put in foster care, she met foster mother Krista King at a park as part of an effort in Florida to encourage more foster parents to communicate with birth parents, let them talk to their children and honor their child-rearing wishes. Similar programs are in California, Virginia and New Mexico. Several other states--including Oregon, New Hampshire and Washington--provide legal representation or mentorship for birth parents.
The programs have been developed as child welfare administrators acknowledge that more than half of foster children will eventually return home to their parents--a longstanding proportion that wasn't always addressed in innovative ways. The approaches provide an opportunity to help rehabilitate the parents, most of whom lose their children because of drugs and alcohol or neglect issues related to poverty.
Caseworkers and judges decide how much contact is appropriate, and birth parents who were abusive often aren't allowed to maintain a relationship with the foster family.
As recently as 20 years ago, social workers in most states discouraged contact between foster and biological parents because the birth parents were often seen as dangerous--regardless of the reason for the children's removal. There were also concerns that if foster and birth parents were encouraged to connect, they could interact in ways that overstepped boundaries set by caseworkers, said Carole Shauffer, executive director of Youth Law Center in California. Those attitudes have begun to change, but states vary widely on whether they encourage birth parents to stay involved.
"It may not always be comfortable for the adults to navigate these relationships, but it's about the best interest of the child," said Claudia McDowell, who heads Bridging the Gap in Fairfax County, Va. The program in Northern Virginia arranges icebreaker meetings, often during the first week after a child's removal.