At our IceBreaker meeting, she nervously clutched her hands and looked down at her shoes, “This caught me off guard. I wasn’t planning to be here again.” She was a young mom struggling to find the words, to find her place. I looked at her and said the words I had practiced in the car all the way to the DHS Child Welfare office, “Do what you need to do. We will care for your girls until you are ready.”
And just like that, the ice was broken.
I showed her a picture of our family. “Can I keep this?” I was caught off guard, but I guess it makes sense. What mom wouldn’t want to see the faces of those caring for her kids, to reassure herself that they are good and safe?
The little one squirmed in my lap. She popped her fingers out of her mouth and wrapped them around my neck, “Mama!” She was talking to me, her foster mom. Her older sister was digging through the bag on the floor, looking for more crackers. “More, Mom! More!” She was talking to her biological mom.
Working with biological parents whose children have been removed and placed in foster care is a delicate dance. They have given birth, but you are giving care. In a sense, you are both parents of the same kids.
Icebreaker meetings are a huge step toward bridging this great divide. Icebreakers bring both sides together at a planned time with a neutral mediator. The kids are often present which helps reassure them that their biological parents know where they are.
After icebreaker meetings, biological parents are often more trusting and less hostile toward us as foster parents. Suddenly we have an understanding, a rhythm. We are working toward a common goal, and the kids have one less burden to carry.
At the end, I have returned babies to their mama’s waiting arms, with tears streaming down my cheeks for the pain of being the mom that has to let go. She gave birth and now she is going to give care. I step off the floor in this dance of a hundred difficult steps.
Unfortunately, I have met too many biological parents on accident, in parking lots and courtroom hallways and DHS waiting rooms. Neither of us is prepared for the other. The fear and doubt and anger is so thick you can almost taste it.
The foster parent is often seen as the bad guy by biological parents struggling with poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, or domestic violence. Some have just given birth. Some are entering rehab. Some are trying to find jobs or stable housing. Some are just plain angry with the system, with the caseworker, with you.
And you are doing the tough work of caring for their kids 24/7. You are the one remembering birthday parties and dentist appointments and soccer registrations. You are dealing with sad tears and wet sheets and temper tantrums. You are doing the best job you possibly can, so it hurts when bio parents lash out at you with angry words and false accusations.
It is an awkward, halting, difficult dance, but icebreaker meetings have taught me to listen, to feel respect and compassion for those who are struggling. At the end of the day, we are just parents, learning to move in a tight circle around these beautiful kids and not step on one another’s toes.
After that icebreaker meeting, each of us moms carried a little girl out to my car. She buckled them in, kissing their blonde heads and reassuring them that everything would be okay. For the first time in a month, the girls were calm and quiet as we drove out of the DHS parking lot.