Friday, November 11, 2011

CW101 - Visit Logistics

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

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.)

Frequency

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.

Location

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.

Supervision

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!

17 comments:

  1. I really didn't like hearing "suck it up". But oh, that is so true!!! There are parts of being a foster parent where that is exactly what we have to do.

    I totally agree that a more frequent schedule is better for the kids when reunification is the goal. I'm so saddened by the area of the country where we live. My kids are only allowed one hour one time a month. And ALL visits must take place in the CPS office. They don't even have playrooms. The kids are simply shuffled into an empty office with their parents.

    We had to petition both our licensing agency and CPS in order to be given permission to supervise visits for our foster daughter so she could see her mom more frequently. And under no circumstances were we going to be allowed to let the bio mom into our home for a visit. Fortunately - that little girl went home the day we were given permission to increase her visit schedule and supervise the visits ourselves. Unfortunately she came back in to care exactly 11 days later. We're not willing to supervise visits at this time because we don't know if they are moving towards reunification again or not.

    I do agree though, behaviors are "worse" when the visits are farther apart.

    I love hearing about this from your perspective! It's also quite interesting to learn how different things are across the country.

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  2. While I am in full agreement in the importance of visitation for young children (I bring my foster son to non-contact visits with his mom in jail every week...during his nap time so that he can maintain some bond with her), please be careful with how you approach foster parents. I know that for me, I WANT to do what is in my child's best interest, but it makes it a much more positive experience for everyone if the social worker includes me as a team member and at least attempts to accommodate my child's schedule rather than telling me that I HAVE to do something. We want to work to towards the same goals and it is much easier to do that when our needs and concerns about visits are at least acknowledged rather than dismissed. The love and grace you show to birth families also needs to be extended to foster families b/c it empowers us to be that much more supportive of our child's birth family and as you said...THAT makes the biggest difference in the child's transition home.

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  3. I've been thinking more and more about this post all day.

    I agree. It is very, very important for them to take the child's schedule into consideration. I know it's difficult. But if you've got a kid that gets their schedule messed up two days a week or more – and then you have "behaviors" as a result of the visit and the messed up schedule – you find yourself living in a constant state of dysregulation. And that is absolutely no good and will burn out the best of parents.

    I also agree with your comment about showing love and grace to the foster families. Just knowing that they support MY efforts too is very empowering.

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  4. I completely agree and please know that when I am interacting with foster parents in person, I try to be very sympathetic and accomodating. But in this post, I am trying to let foster parents know the reality of the situation. Especially when foster parents refuse to have any part of the visitation - but then complain about when the agency can work them in. Unfortunately, this is the reality in most of the cases I work.

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  5. I know that the child's schedule is important, and believe me I try to take them into account. But again, when foster parents refuse to be part of the process, it means trying to get everything done with agency staff schedules, visit room availability, and that is not conducive to most kids' schedules.

    When foster parents are willing to transport and supervise, then visits can happen much more naturally. There can be much more flexibility in schedules when only two (foster and birth parent) schedules have to be taken into account. Instead of the 20+ that have to be managed when it is left solely to the agency.

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  6. I am horrified to hear that visits have been cut down to once a month for a while county! That is just downright unethical and inconceivable. I'm so sorry for that little girl.

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  7. So you are dealing with a lot of foster parents who are resisting visits and complaining. That's not easy and that is frustrating especially if you are doing the best you can and have explained that to them. Just know that not all foster parents are like that. Your posts are filled with so much useful and important information, but it can be difficult to accept information and near impossible to change behavior when foster parents feel on the defensive.

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  8. It's not just our county either. I believe it's the entire lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Positively horrible and so unfair to the children and parents!!

    I struggle with what we should do next. Our little girl has severe special needs. I fully supported reunification the "first time around". But since her mom publicly abused her just 10 days after Pumpkin went home, it's harder for me to decide if we should supervise more frequent visits now that she's back in care or not. (By and large the case workers don't really want the foster parents involved in anything down here so I'd have to push to get them to allow us to do anything extra for Pumpkin and her mom.)

    As for the two littlest ones that we're watching over, their mom isn't working her case plan at all and they are not going to be reunified. As things stand now they will be going to a grandmother about 10 hours away from our home. It's not possible for them to even have visits with Grandma.

    I understand the importance of visits. But they really stink sometimes!!

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  9. Not to excuse further abuse, but I find it hard to believe that Pumpkin's mom got any real help if your area can't even provide consistent visits! Like I said above, frequent contact reduces the risk of abuse in park because it gives parents ample oppurtunity to learn and practice new ways of interacting and disciplining their children.

    Also, horrified that you and Grandma can't be encouraged and enabled to work out visitation between the two of you!

    Visits do stink sometimes, even I feel that way! But I just try to look at the big picture - either its going to help reunite a family, or at least we will honestly be able to say "we gave it the best shot possible".

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  10. I totally understand and putting you on the defensive was not my intent.

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  11. Pumpkin's mom didn't get any real help. I was told at one point in time parenting classes had been stopped as well due to budget cuts. -- Not that traditional parenting classes would have been appropriate for Pumpkin's mom due to Pumpkin's severe needs. But they would have been better than nothing. Quite honestly, I'm not sure what happened other than an 8 month period of time in which Pumpkin lived with me and a doctor told Mom once to make sure she gives Pumpkin her medicine.

    I'd love to work something out with our other two and their grandma. But even I can't figure out how that would look with Grandma living so incredibly far away from us. Besides, the judge wasn't satisfied on Monday when we went to court that Grandma was completely suitable. So, we wait for three more months.

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  12. I really liked this post, as a new social worker in a child welfare agency.  I look forward to the rest of the series.  I especially like your encouragement of incorporating more natural parenting opportunities.  Many of our visits take place in the community, and one particular case has been ongoing for 6 months or so, with the parent and teenaged special needs child meeting 2x/wk in a park or office for an hour.  This is a new case for me, but I'm told the visits might as well follow a script.  I think it's time to move visits to the home or other natural locations, even if it's shopping for groceries, because the parent is severely lacking in parenting skills and has shown no improvement thus far.  

    You have given me some great ideas to start incorporating with my cases, especially for those kids in foster care.  Even if it's just incorporating frequent phone calls between visits, it will help to keep the bond.  I can't wait to get more ideas from your future posts!

    As an aside, I am appalled that any court would only order visits once a month.  The judge here differs per case...young children could get 5 days/wk, but I haven't seen less than 1 hr, 2x/wk.  I don't know what I'd do if I ever moved to an area that had such low standards.

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  13. That is fantastic Ro! I'm so glad to hear that other places are trying to increase the amount of visits! Ours are still pretty steadily 1xper week - but more and more judges are requiring much more for young kids. I have one case with an infant who is ordered to have 2 hour visits, 3 times per week. Its a huge pain bc her foster mother will not do A THING to help - but the visits are going great and they will soon be unsupervised. Good luck in changing up those boring visits! :)

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  14. I'm a new reader to your blog, and I really appreciate the info I've gleaned here.  Enjoying this series on parent visits.  I'm a foster parent, and it's so nice to hear a social workers perspective in all of this.  I honestly feel that you have one of the hardest jobs out there.  Keep up the great posts!! 

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  15. How do you handle supervising visits with your child along for the visit? We will be supervising visits with our foster girls Grandfather but will have our 3 1/2 year old daughter with us as well. The issue that concerns me most I think is that I worry that the girls will play with my daughter and not give Grandpa the quality time that he deserves at the visit.
    I totally agree with your location of visits. Visits at the office are too formal. Glad to see that you eventually try to move them out of the office. We're only 2 weeks in to visits so we're still learning. 

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  16.    This post has been bothering me for a while now. I don't ever respond to blog posts, but I feel compelled to today. Sometimes I feel like my foster child is nothing more than a name on top of a checklist to the child welfare office, and this type of post confirms it. I am hoping this is venting in response to a very specific, personal situation you went through at work in which a foster family was being particularly uncooperative and not actually a general statement to the whole community of foster carers.  It sounds like you are saying that foster parents should never speak up if we think something should be done differently. There have been times when the caseworker puts forth a time, I say "Hey, that gets her back way after bedtime, can we move it up?" "Sure." And it's done. No problem. Sometimes we have to suck it up and deal with an inconvenient schedule, but sometimes, it really is okay to move an arbitrarily picked time. 
        It also makes it sound like the child is a guinea pig. For you, it is seeing if the parent can soothe a fussy baby. For the foster family, it is sending your foster child off, knowing that the sick baby won't be soothed because the parent has not shown progress in taking care of the baby when it is well. Disrupting their schedule means the whole day for the child is hard. Not for me only for selfish reasons, but they can't enjoy a single thing for the rest of the day because they are crabby. Or they'll be tired at school tomorrow. Or worse, missing multiple days of school a week because these visits have to happen at a time that is convenient for everyone but the child. 
        If the problem is that the entire foster family routine has to be thrown off because we shouldn't cause a problem for the caseworker, who has only one empty office to work with, perhaps a more logical appeal to the internet would be to change that situation on the child welfare side, to make more opportunities to have visits in multiple ways, rather than to impose on the families. It's not like anyone is saying "the visits should never happen!", just that they should happen in a way that recognizes the various needs of the child and the people who are volunteering to care for them. 
       It's not fair to imply that foster parents are not cooperative about inconvenient scheduling because they are trying to get in the way of reunification or because it's bothersome on a selfish level without recognizing that the foster parent actually knows the day-to-day needs of the child the best of anyone involved and perhaps, occasionally, may have valuable input or perhaps even be looking out for the best interests of the child in trying to adjust (not cancel) visits.

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