The logistics of parent/child visitation may not be as hard as the emotional fallout, but I realize that it is a major cause of stress and frustration. So, I hope this post will help make things a bit clearer for those who are involved in visits.
Scheduling is the issue I hear brought up most often. "Its during the baby's naptime!", "They bring the kids back so late!", and "They don't even care if the weather is bad or the kid is sick" are the most common complaints I hear from foster parents. Well, here is the part where I must tell foster parents the hard truth -
Suck it up.
Visits are the single most important part of a child welfare case. It is the best chance to preserve attachment between parents and children. It is the best chance of motivating parents to turn their lives around. Frequent visits reduce the stress of reunification on the child. Visits decrease the chance that the child will be abused or neglected again.
So for all those reasons, visits need to happen as often as possible - for better or worse, rain or shine, in sickness and in health...etc. Then to top it off, caseworkers are attempting to get in all the visits for all the families on their caseloads. They are also probably trying to juggle eightymillionandfour other tasks and likely fighting for space in an agency playroom. They do not have the luxury of scheduling visits around each child's ideal time of day. Baby can sleep during a visit. Its good for us to see if Mom can successfully soothe a fussy infant. We know its not ideal to bring little kids home late in the evening, but sometimes its inevitable. Unless the child was sick enough to stay home from school and also laid around listlessly all day visits are still important - parents can dispense t*lenol and most kids are still up for playing even if they aren't in tip top shape.
I know that sometimes less than ideal scheduling means a child who is cranky or tired or wound up all night. But this is one of those things where I beg foster parents to look at the long term benefits, rather than the short term frustrations.
Now, if you are willing to transport the kids or supervise visits (both of which I highly recommend) then obviously your schedule should be taken into account. But if not, and sometimes even if you are, this is still not about you. Its about maintaining a relationship between the parents and children.
So, I beg you to remember that you chose to become a foster parent - and its a big part of the job. (I don't like to throw out the "you chose this so don't complain" card often, but this is one area where I feel justified.)
In my state/county parents are entitled to visits once per week for an hour at an absolute minimum. The younger the child - the more visits they should have, if possible. It might seem counter-intuitive, but a baby needs even more frequent contact with their parents to maintain a connection.
I went to a training recently, that was given by a woman who was a foster parent and who researched positive outcomes in foster care. She firmly preached that children should "make contact" with their parents every single day. In person contact preferably. She talked about how it was less important that the time be "quality" each time - sometimes it just might be a brief 10 minutes after school, or maybe 30 minutes of lunch, or at the very least a phone call. She talked about how those frequent little contacts, with some longer more quality visits less frequently, greatly reduced the negative behavior that most children exhibit after visits. She also talked about how quickly it became apparent whether or not the parents were going to be able to resume parenting responsibilities. That when parents were given frequent contact, they either quickly got themselves into services and made progress or they fell off and realized for themselves that they were not prepared to parent. I was seriously amazed by her stories. I've gotten to see a couple of examples in my own cases, mostly with relative caregivers who are open to the parents coming to their home everyday. The children are much more stable and well adjusted. I truly wish more people would embrace this level of openness.
Unfortunately most agencies haven't "bought into" this idea and most foster parents aren't comfortable with opening up their lives to that level of contact with birth parents. I'm lucky that we work with a lot of relative foster parents, so sometimes we get pretty close to that ideal. But, frequency will be probably be once a week in the beginning. As the case moves closer to reunification, frequency increases. When visits go from being supervised to unsupervised, there is usually a decent jump in frequency and length of visits shortly afterwards. I'll talk more about this when I write about moving towards reunification. Visits decrease as the case moves away from reunification. But where I work, parents are entitled to weekly visits until the courts officially change the goal away from reunification. See my post on "Court Goals" to better understand our court set goal system.
Most of the time, its best to start visits in the agency office. This is important because you never know how parents or children will react to a visit. Things are easier to control in the office, rather than out in the community or in the parent's or foster parent's home. But as quickly as possible, visits should move out of the office playroom. Because really, the ability to see how parents really interact with their children is pretty limited in a 10X10 room full of toys. So, then there are a range of other options:
Parents' home - This is where we try to move visits as soon as possible, assuming that the physical space is safe and appropriate. Its a more natural location for the parent and the child. It lends itself to the parent being able to do normal "parent stuff" like cook a meal, hang out playing with the kids' own toys, etc. I've heard people object to this option because "its where the abuse/neglect happened" or "its too hard for the kids to leave". But I have rarely seen it actually be a problem if it happens quickly after removal. Remember - most children aren't consciously aware that abuse or neglect happened. It was "normal" to them. So, the environment where the abuse/neglect happened isn't generally traumatic. It may be hard for them to leave at first, but when routine and repetition, it usally gets easier.
Foster home - This is easily interchangable with the parents' home as the next best place for visits to occur. For all the same reasons - parents get to actually "parent" their kids! They can help cook or serve meals, assist with homework, give kids a bath, tuck them into bed, etc. That is the parenting part that can't be recreated by visits in a neutral location. And it is those things that both allows the parents to demonstrate their skill, reveals areas that need support, and creates closer bonds between parents and children. Attachement isn't created by trips to the zoo and McD's - its those little moments throughout the day, the routines, the "boring" stuff that most people take for granted. This is why I push people to consider opening their homes to children's parents. Because it is better for the child to have those moments with their parents. It is better for the child to have their parent "parenting" them instead of mommy or daddy just becoming the person who meets them at playland.
Community - If the parents' home isn't appropriate yet and the foster parents aren't willing to let visits occur in their homes, we often move visits to the community. I despise McDonald's visits, but sometimes they are the best we can do during our long cold winters. We also often use libraries, parks in summer, and occasionally other random locations. These locations can be good for observing parent/child interactions - they give caseworkers the chance to see how closely parents watch and manage children in a less structured environment. But they aren't natural settings and don't lend themselves to teaching parents to do basic daily childcare.
Visits are usually supervised by agency workers in the beginning. We often make exceptions for relative caregivers to supervise some visits too. But it is important for the caseworkers to observe the parents and kids together frequently. At my agency, caseworkers must supervise visits at least 2x a month so that they can acurately report in court. To be honest, most parents are on their best behavior at visits. I've rarely had to terminate a visit early due to the parents' behavior. In fact, I don't think I ever have.
Once its determined to be appropriate, other people can be allowed to supervise visits. We often approve family members - even if the child isn't placed with family. The importance of remaining within eyesight of the parent and child is stressed and the supervisor is told to encourage the parent to do as much of the parenting as possible. Sometimes parents need redirecting to remind them to pay more attention to their child than the other adults in the room. They may also need help disciplining the kids because they haven't learned how or because they are too nervous to do anything while being watched.
I love when non-relative foster parents are also willing to supervise visits, whether in the foster home or not. When biological and foster parents work together, the benefits to both children and both sets of parents is amazing. Even when there are concerns about safety, lack of progress, etc - I truly believe that foster parents and parents working together gives children the best chance of coming out of the system (one way or another) with less trauma.
I feel like this post has gotten long enough at this point. I will follow up tomorrow with the definition of "safe and appropriate" visits - which will hopefully answer some of your questions about why visits are allowed to continue when parents come under the influence, or when they aren't watching the child close enough, or are off their medication.
Please ask any questions you have about what I've already posted and I'll follow up on the next post!