parent-child visits: managing the challenges, reaping the rewards

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  • Views on Foster Care and Adoption in North Carolina

    fostering perspectivesNovember 2010 Vol. 15, No. 1 www.fosteringperspectives .org

    Sponsored by the NC Division of Social Services and the Family and Childrens Resource Program

    Parent-child visits: Managing the challenges, reaping the rewardsAfter she entered foster care,Donisha learned she would haveregular visits with her family.She says that to her:

    That word visitation waslike a rainbow suddenlyappearing out of a dull sky. . . . just knowing I couldbe reunited with my familymade me overjoyed.

    Donishas reaction is easy to understand. Itcan be wonderful to spend time with someoneyou love after a separation.

    Yet visits can also be extremely difficultfor everyone involved. If you are a foster andkinship care provider, you know this well.When a visit occurs, it is sometimes accom-panied by visit-related upheaval in the childsemotions and behavior, complex schedulingand logistics, and other challenges.

    Luckily, there are things you can do tomake parent-child visits easier for yourselfand the children in your care. First, how-ever, it will help to understand why visitsare so important.

    Understanding the RewardsYes, they sometimes make us sweat with un-certainty and cause us temporary discom-fort, but research and experience clearlyshow that parent-child visits can make apositive difference in childrens lives. Regu-lar visits can: Maintain parent-child attachment Calm childrens separation fears Empower birth parents Encourage birth parents to face reality Allow birth parents to learn and practice

    new skills and behaviors Help child welfare agencies and the courts

    assess and document parents progress Help children and foster parents see the

    parents realistically(Hess et al., 1992; Cantos & Gries, 1997)

    Research also tells us thathow frequently parents andchildren see each other makesa big difference. Children whoare visited often by their birthparents are more likely to bereunited and spend less timein foster care (White, et al.,1996; Mech, 1985).

    Frequent visits also affectchildrens well-being. Children visited fre-quently by their parents may be: Less likely to have emotional outbursts,

    tension, and conflict Less likely to be referred for psychiatric

    services Less likely to engage in delinquent or

    antisocial acts such as vandalism,stealing, and running away

    More likely to be seen as likeable byteachers and peers(White et al., 1996; Cantos & Gries, 1997)

    One study showed that children visited atleast once every two weeks had fewer behav-ioral problems and exhibited less anxietyand depression than children visited infre-quently or not at all (White, et al., 1996).

    By helping improve childrens behavioral,emotional, cognitive, and social functioning,visits can help make foster care placementshappier and more stable, which is a goodthing for children and foster parents.

    Managing Childrens Behavior ChangesFoster and kinship care providers need toknow how to manage the challenges that sur-round visits. To provide you with concretesuggestions in this area, on the next page weoffer ideas excerpted from Changes inChildrens Behavior Before and After ParentVisits, from the University of PittsburghOffice of Child Development. Although tar-geted to foster parents of children age fiveand under, many of these suggestions arerelevant to all children in foster care.

    10 Ways Social Workers CanSupport Foster Parents

    Around Visitation1. Keep foster parents abreast of any changes; have

    an ongoing discussion about visiting

    2. Facilitate pre-placement visits between the childand foster family whenever possible

    3. Tell foster families what kinds of behaviors theycan expect to see on the part of birth parentsand children before, during, and after a visit

    4. Involve foster parents in meetings with thebiological family and providers (shared parenting)

    5. Ensure foster families receive ongoing education,particularly about the reasons for and effects ofvisitation

    6. Facilitate peer support by connecting fosterfamilies to each other, particularly through localand state foster parent associations

    7. Discuss with foster families how they will handleany visit-related problems, and make sure theyknow you are open and available to discuss anyissues or concerns they have

    8. Avoid overcomplicating visitation for fosterfamilies by placing too many children fromdifferent families or too many children withspecial needs in one home

    9. Involve foster families in the planning of the visitschedule; always keep the familys schedule andneeds in mind when planning visit times andlocations

    10. Encourage and appreciate foster parents for theirefforts to support visitation and to work withbirth parents

    Learning tomanage thechallenges of visitsbrings rewards tochildren, birthparents, agencies,and foster parents.

  • 2

    Understanding the childs response to birth parent visitsThere are no foolproof ways to guar-antee that visits between childrenand their birth parents will be suc-cessful. But knowing about behav-iors you might see and taking a fewsteps to prepare a child and facili-tate the visit should help.

    Before-visit symptoms. Childrencan be affected by knowing that avisit with their birth parents is ap-proaching. Here are some of the symptomsyou might see in your child before the visit: Nightmares and sleep disturbances. Unrealistic expectations about how the

    visit will go. Anxiety.After-visit symptoms. Children can expe-

    rience a variety of feelings after visiting withtheir birth parents. They also might behavein ways that are difficult to cope with. Feel-ings and behaviors you might see from yourchild after a visit include: Nightmares and sleep disturbances. Crying, sometimes excessively. Sadness. Disappointment. Acting out, such as stomping feet,

    displaying antisocial behavior, andignoring family members.

    Anger. Ambivalence. Withdrawal. Anxiety.Preparing for the visit. It is important to

    do what you can to prepare the children fora visit with birth parents. Here are somesuggestions: Make the necessary changes in your

    familys schedule to accommodate thevisit.

    Work with the birth parents to plan andschedule visits.

    Keep the child informed of planned visits. Have some special before-visit rituals to

    comfort the child, such as arrangingspecial clothes or fixing the childs hairin a particular way.

    Be realistic with the child about whichfamily members will and will not be atthe visitsfor example, mom only, momand dad, grandparents, etc.

    Be open about which non-familymembers will be at the visit. These mightinclude a social worker, othercaseworkers, yourself, etc.

    Provide extra emotional support to yourchild before the visit.

    and showing extra affection. Do thisregardless of how the visit went, butespecially when a visit does not go well.

    If the child is consistently unhappy ordistressed after visits, report this to thesocial worker.

    Report any suspicion of child abuseimmediately.

    When a visit is canceled. A canceled visitcan be hard on a child. Here are ways tosupport the child when that happens: Provide additional comforting when visits

    are canceled, for whatever reason. When telling the child about a canceled

    visit, do not blame. Simply explain thatthe parent made certain choices, thesocial worker had to reschedule, etc.

    Assure the child that he or she is not thereason the visit was canceled, he or shedid not do anything wrong, and he orshe is still loved.

    Try to do the activity with the child thatwas planned with the parents, if possible.

    Spend extra time with the child.When to seek professional help. Changes

    in a childs behavior after a visit do not nec-essarily mean the visit hurt the child. Thechange might, for example, mean the childhas a secure attachment with the parent andthat he or she is upset about having to leavethe parent again. However, if the behaviorchanges are severe or overly disruptive tothe foster family, professional help may benecessary, and the situation should bebrought to the attention of the childs socialworker.A publication of the University of Pittsburgh Office of ChildDevelopment made possible with help from the Frank andTheresa Caplan Fund for Early Childhood Development andParenting Education. Additional topics in the You and YourFoster Child series are available at Other helpful publications onparenting, children, youth, and families from the Universityof Pittsburgh Office of Child Development are also availableonline at

    Make a game out ofbefore -visit time. Youmight, for example, let thechildren play the socialworker by having themask questions and playthe role. Find out what the childwould like to do at thevisit and try to arrange the

    activity. If his or her idea is not realistic,work with him or her to come up with amore practical plan.

    Talk about any itemstoys, books,etc.they would like to take to the visit.

    Facilitating visits. You always should tryyour best to make visits between childrenand their birth parents go smoothly. Hereare a few steps you can take that might help: Try to have the visit take place in your

    home or in the birth parents home ratherthan in an agency office.

    Volunteer to provide transportation toand from visits.

    Help birth parents by being a model ofappropriate parenting behavior.

    Reinforce the birth parents confidencein their parenting skills when they showpositive change.

    Respect the birth parents and treat themfairly.

    When appropriate or necessary, observevisits.

    Be careful when talking about the birthparents. Tr


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