We are all familiar with the concept of a family tree, that symbolic representation of an individual’s immediate and extended family. With a little help most children can draw a family tree on which they can place themselves, their siblings, their parents, and grandparent, as well as extended family members such as aunts, uncles, and cousins. Membership in a step-family may enlarge a family tree. But the process of creating one remains fairly simple.
That is not the case for children and youth in foster care. They have a birth family, as well their foster family. They may have lived for an extended period of time in a group home where staff and other children became like family to them. Also, most children in care have lived with more than one foster family. Given this reality, the concept of a family tree may not be relevant for your foster child.
It may be helpful to both your foster child and you to think of them having a family forest. A family forest can have multiple trees representing the different families of which a child has been a member. There is room for birth family, other caretakers, previous foster families, congregate care settings such as group homes, as well as your family.
On occasion, someone such as a social worker may help a foster child draw their family forest. Doing so provides a way for a child to better understand where they have been and how they ended up in their current home. It can be a very useful tool to help a child make sense of their life and to identify people who have cared about them.
As a foster parent, the concept of the family forest may help you better understand your foster child’s world. When you think of them as having lived with multiple families, some of their behaviors may make more sense. If they have seen other families come and go in their life, they may have a harder time planting roots in your family. It may take them a very long time to accept that a move to another family is not imminent.
The concept of a family forest can also serve as a reminder that there are people in your child’s past who still are important to them even if they see them infrequently or not at all. It can help us work harder to help foster children maintain connections with the many people who populate their family forests. Foster children usually benefit from ongoing contact with people who have cared for them in the past. As long as such contact is safe, it can help a foster child understand their own story and struggle less with feelings of loss and abandonment and, consequently, become more able to develop healthy and loving relationships.
If it takes a village to raise a child, isn’t it fair to say that it also takes a family forest to keep a foster child from getting lost?
Written by Diane Kindler, MSW, LICSW