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.
In states and counties now encouraging the interactions, parents may keep in contact over the phone or face-to-face. Foster parents are taught to speak positively about birth parents and are encouraged to do small things like place a birth parent's picture in the child's room.
"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.
Encouraging more contact with birth parents helps alleviate a longtime problem of older foster youths sneaking away to see birth parents even though they weren't legally supposed to have contact, said Illinois Department of Children and Family Services spokesman Kendall Marlowe. In the last several years, the state has pushed for courts to allow birth parents to visit their children while in foster care whenever possible.
"We were prohibited by courts from helping families that we knew older youth were re-establishing contact with (biological parents)...it was only right that we look for ways to build a better bridge between an older youth and the family that had brought them into this world," he said.
Programs in several states are also providing better resources to help biological parents navigate the legal system or fix the problems that land their child in state custody.
An Oregon program in several counties helps birth parents who are battling substance abuse and whose children have been placed in foster care navigate the court system. The mentors, who are also recovering from substance abuse, help train new child welfare caseworkers, teaching them not to dwell on past mistakes, program director Ruth Taylor said.
In parts of New Hampshire, birth parents who have been through the child removal process serve on policy committees and help draft questionnaires when kids are being removed to make the process more sensitive for birth families. Better Together With Birth Parents is looking to expand statewide.
A Washington program in 25 counties found success offering birth parents better legal representation after their children were taken into foster care. Experts said the program sped up the legal process, allowing children to return home more quickly or cut ties with unfit biological parents so they could be eligible for adoption.
"It has been very difficult for biological parents to get information, to be treated in a way that encourages them to participate in planning for their children," said David Sanders of Seattle-based advocacy group Casey Family Programs.
Miami foster mom Maritza Moreno says the concept wasn't really addressed when she went through training four years ago and that some foster parents were wary that birth parents would resent them. Around that same time, Florida made a more formal statewide push to encourage co-parenting.
A few years ago, Moreno walked into court with her foster baby and froze in fear when she saw the child's father. But her heart melted when she saw how tenderly he held the baby.
"It completely changed me and my perception of biological parents," said Moreno. "They are people who have made mistakes. They're in this terrible situation and they're afraid as well. The love this man had for his son really touched me."
Northern Virginia foster parents Randy and Marisa Smith mentored Richard Williams as he sought to regain custody of his young son Moses. They invited Williams to their home in Burke for play dates, helped him pay for gas on the long commutes and showed him how to help Moses break his habit of biting others. Williams was ultimately awarded custody of his son, but said the Smiths are like family. They recently took Moses on vacation with them and helped celebrate his 5th birthday.
The Smiths have worked with about a dozen foster kids and their parents in the past five years.
"We love these kids and want them to have another life and help these parents connect with their kids and develop that bond and help their parents get their act together," said Randy Smith. "Sometimes they need that motivation because they've been beat down by the system."
In South Florida, Austin-Knight was filled with fear and questions before her first meeting with Krista King, but the two ultimately bonded.
King, who has fostered more than 70 kids in the past seven years, reassured Austin-Knight that she would always be included in her children's lives.
Over the months, the Kings took the kids to meet Austin-Knight for meals, invited her to the house for visits, made sure the kids bought her holiday cards even celebrated some holidays together. The Kings later fostered another one of Austin-Knight's sons and ultimately adopted that child, who's now 5.
Her teen son, who's now 18, has moved back home. Her daughter is also an adult and no longer living in foster care.
But there were bumps in the road.
Krista King didn't allow Austin-Knight to buy her kids presents, worrying she was trying to buy their love. She wouldn't let Austin-Knight exchange text messages with her children at first, which Austin-Knight resented.
"There was a lot of ups and down between us in the beginning," said Austin-Knight, who is pursuing an MBA. Both said they are grateful to the Kings and visit them often. "She went out of her way many times to do nice things for us."