Eric and Tara President
Recently we sat down with Tara President, one of our wonderful foster parents, who won the Vivienne Campbell Award this year with her husband Eric. We asked Tara about her strategies for encouraging permanency for each child she fosters.
“I’m not here to take the place of your mother. I’m here to give you life skills.”
Tara President believes firmly that foster parenting is not just easier but more successful when her foster children’s biological family is involved. Tara wants to let kids be themselves and honor their identity while they’re staying with her, and that includes continuing their relationship with their biological families in a safe and structured way whenever possible. That relationship was in the child’s life before they came to Tara’s house; to take it away would erase an important part of the childd’s identity and support system.
This is a touchy subject for many foster parents who are concerned about safety and confidentiality. But Tara, who has over ten years of foster care experience under her belt, has devised a process that is straightforward, transparent and effective for her family and the youth in her foster home. Tara’s method focuses on encouraging permanency for her foster children – she helps them stay connected with a part of their lives that was there before they met her, and will be there long after they leave her care. As CFCS helps to cultivate supportive, lifelong relationships for every child we serve, Tara’s experiences and insights are a good example of why we are so dedicated to ensuring permanency for all, and how to best approach this work.
Tara reaches out to the biological family of every child she fosters, but she always does so in a way that not only is safe for the youth and her family, but also is respectful of youth’s feelings and preferences. Over the years, Tara has come to understand the importance of mending broken connections for youth in foster care – when someone is in the child welfare system and has to move around, they can sometimes lose their connection to important people in their life. So Tara begins her process by asking each child questions about their biological family and other people who are important to them, learning about their family through the child’s perspective. After developing an understanding of the child’s family, Tara asks for the child’s permission to reach out to them. If Tara has permission from the youth and the child’s guardian, she calls their bio-family – it’s often their biological mother – to introduce herself and ask if there is anything they want her to know about or do for their child to make them more comfortable in her home. Tara makes herself available to the bio-family as a resource, someone who can provide certain kinds of care and support during the time their child is with her, but she does not position herself as a replacement for their family.
After that relationship is established, a little network can form between Tara, the child’s parent/loved one and the youth themselves. Once a routine is established for the child, Tara starts including their bio-family in that routine while also establishing boundaries that help everyone feel comfortable and respected. She lets the bio-family know that their child is safe, and that she is available to them if they have questions or suggestions. By doing this, Tara also communicates to the family that her intentions are not to cause separation, but to assist everyone in doing the work necessary for them to successfully reunite.
We know that when safety concerns necessitate the child welfare system separate a family, those familial connections remain and the family often finds any means possible to stay in touch. Sometimes this results in a child contacting their family in secret; it would actually be better for the child to have that contact under supervision, so they can receive guidance and support while they’re in touch with their family.
A vast majority of teens in foster care will return to their family after they leave the foster care system. CFCS supports youth in rekindling and developing safe, supportive and stable long-term relationships with those who matter most, whenever possible, throughout the time they’re in care. In turn, Tara works to foster openness and honesty between herself and the youth in her care, as well as between herself and their biological family. That honesty creates better communication between the two families; it makes everyone a team, rather than keeping a wall up that might not need to be there. Tara also works with CFCS and the Department of Children and Families to make sure that any additional supports the youth or family might need are provided.
The results of this “team-building” on Tara’s part have been overwhelmingly positive. This method communicates to her foster children that Tara is on their side and working in their best interest. As a result, Tara has observed youth to be happier, more motivated and better able to make safe decisions while in her home. In return, the youth appreciate Tara’s work long after they leave her care. Tara is in touch with every child she’s ever fostered. She knows their schedules and what they have going on, because all of them reach out to her at least once a year, often for her birthday. She provides financial support to a few former foster children here and there, people who at times have no one else who can help them. She and her husband Eric provide emotional support and guidance far more often, to youth who reach out both in times of challenge and celebration.
Tara doesn’t see herself as a replacement mother to any of her foster children. But she is a sort of lifeline for all of them, a connection that they know they can always come back to. And by making herself a lifeline to their biological families as well, she is ensuring the youth will have a lifetime of support, long after they leave her home.