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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 5, No. 4
October 2000

Making the Most of Visitation

Virtually everyone who studies or is involved in child welfare agrees: Visits between children and their parents matter.

They matter because they help maintain relationships within the birth family, empower birth parents, help birth family members face reality, and allow birth family members to learn and practice new skills and behaviors. They matter because they give social workers a chance to assess and document birth family progress (Hess & Mintun, 1992).

Visits matter because they help children express their feelings and relate better to foster parents, calm some of children's separation fears, and give foster children and foster parents continuing opportunities to see the parents realistically (Cantos & Gries, 1997).

Perhaps most important of all, visits matter because continued contact with parents increases the probability that children will go home to their families (Simms & Bolden, 1991). Indeed, visits have been called the "heart of reunification" (Hess & Proch, 1992).

Visits are not, however, a magic bullet that guarantee positive outcomes. Sometimes the mere fact that a parent makes an effort to visit her child is interpreted as proof of a strong parent-child bond, which may in turn result in a premature decision in favor of reunification (Simms & Bolden, 1991). Additionally, recidivism continues to persist in foster care—30 percent of the children reunited with their birth families later return to foster care due to further abuse (Spaid, 1996).

Therefore, social workers need to know about parent-child visits. Specifically, they need to know why they are good for families, and they need to know how to facilitate and document them in a way that enhances the stability of foster care placements and promotes timely, permanent outcomes for children.

Visit Frequency Counts

The frequency of parent-child visits has a lot to do with how children view their parents, how well they adapt to foster care, and how long they are in care.

Perceptions of Birth Parents. Researchers Kufeldt and Armstrong (1995) found that the foster children whose birth parents visited at least once a week tended to rate their parents as normal or healthy. In contrast, this same study found that children who were deprived of contact with their birth parents and wanted additional visits rated their parents as problematic. Children who saw their parents less than once a month felt they suffered as a result of not maintaining contact with their birth parents (Kufeldt & Armstrong, 1995).

Adapting to Foster Care. The frequency with which they visit their parents also seems to affect foster children's behavior. Researchers Cantos and Gries (1997) studied 49 foster children and found that children who were visited frequently (either once a week or once every two weeks) exhibited fewer behavioral problems than children who were visited infrequently (once a month or less) or not at all. Overall, children who had frequent contact with their parents showed less anxiety and depression than children whose parents' visits were either infrequent or nonexistent (Cantos & Gries, 1997).

Permanency Outcomes. Frequency of visits also appears to affect what ultimately happens to families. White and colleagues (1996) examined 41 closed case records of children under 10 years of age who had been in custody of the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services. The study examined visit frequency, location, and social worker activity for each of the cases. White and colleagues found that children in care for less than 20 months received twice as many visits from their parents than children who were in care over 20 months. This suggests that more frequent parent-child visitation may be associated with shorter foster care stays.

Parent-Social Worker Contact. White and colleagues also found an interesting relationship between the frequency of contacts social workers had with parents and how often parents saw their children. Parents of children in care less than 20 months had 2.49 contacts with their social worker per month, compared to 1.55 contacts per month for parents of children in care greater than 20 months. This seems to suggest that social workers have some influence over visitation patterns and, indirectly, family outcomes.

Facilitating Visits

Many agencies are well-equipped to establish and facilitate visitation programs. However, some are not. Following are some suggestions for assessing and enhancing visitation in your agency and practice.

The foundation of a successful visitation program is the people who establish and monitor visits—these individuals must be properly informed about the benefits of visitation and trained about visitation procedures (Perkins & Ansay, 1998).

The first step in facilitating visitation should be to set up a regular, written visitation schedule. Written schedules encourage birth parents to adhere to the visitation plan and often lead to more visits (Perkins & Ansay, 1998). Since they are essential to visits, birth and foster parents should be directly involved in setting up visitation schedules. Involving them and respecting their preferences for visit times and locations demonstrates to parents that they are important members of the team.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that when the first visit is held immediately following placement (within 48 hours), birth parents may be more likely to show up for visits and more inclined to see their value (Gallimore, 2000).

Successful visitation also relies on accurate assessment of birth parents' strengths and needs. In Making Visits Work, Loar (1998) points out that most visitation plans assume that birth parents understand what their child goes through if they don't show up for a visit, and that parents have leisure and recreation skills independent of drugs, alcohol, sex, danger, and violence. Other common assumptions are that birth parents know how to:

  • Play with their children

  • Talk politely with their children

  • Enjoy their children's company

  • Separate from the visit their frustration, shame, and humiliation over losing custody

  • Read to children or read and understand court reports, contracts, priorities, major and minor requirements

Yet these assumptions do not always hold true. By overestimating parents' abilities, visitation planners can unwittingly undermine family reunification (Loar, 1998).

Another important step is communicating about the visitation plan to all interested parties. This includes ensuring foster parents know the visitation schedule and what is expected of them, explaining visitation procedures and activities to birth parents, and informing foster children that visits will be only temporary reunions with family (Kessler & Greene, 1999). For more suggestions, see "Checklist for Facilitating Visits."

Finally, merely providing families with an empty office in which to meet is seldom enough. At the very least, visiting rooms should contain comfortable furniture, games, and toys. Loar (1998) suggests tailoring visitation plans to the interests of children and birth parents; they may have common activities/interests that facilitate positive interactions (Loar, 1998).

Documenting Visits

Regardless of how they go, it is important to comprehensively document visits. "Accurate and descriptive documentation of visitation patterns and progress serves the dual purpose of providing clear evidence for discharge or termination of parental rights" (Wattenberg, 1997).

Flick (1999) suggests visit documentation should include information about:

  • Who participated and what activities took place

  • The time the parent arrived and the length of the visit

  • The interactions between the participants (level of affection)

  • The extent to which the parent exercised his or her role (setting limits, disciplining child, paying attention to child)

  • Whether the social worker needed to intervene

  • How parent and child separated

  • What happened after the visit (parent's or child's reactions)

Conditions That Optimize Visiting

  • Social worker is committed to visiting

  • Social worker has empathy for parents

  • Foster parents/kin are committed to visiting

  • Agency requires written plans for frequent visits

  • Agency resources promote visiting; this includes a room with comfortable furniture and games or other activities for families

(Hess & Proch, 1988)

Conclusion

When properly planned, facilitated, and documented, frequent visits between foster children and their parents can be positive experiences that result in equally positive outcomes.

References

Bondy, D. & Davis, D. (1990). Mental health services for children in foster care. Children Today, 19(5), 28-33.

Cantos, A. L. & Gries, L. T. (1997). Behavioral correlates of parental visiting during family foster care. Child Welfare, 76(2), 309-330.

Flick, J. (1999). Placement in Child Welfare Services Curriculum. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work.

Gallimore, D. C. (2000). Personal communication. September 6, 2000.

Gardner, H. (1996). The concept of family: Perceptions of children in family foster care. Child Welfare, 75(2), 161-183.

Hacsi, T. (1995). From indenture to family foster care: A brief history of child placing. Child Welfare, 74(1), 162-181.

Hess, P. M., Mintun, G., Moelhman, A., & Pitts, G. (1992). The family connection center: An innovative visiting program. Child Welfare, 71(1), 77-88.

Hess, P. M. & Proch, K. (1992). Visiting: The heart of reunfication. In B.A. Pine, R. Warsh, and A. N. Maluccio (Eds.), Together Again: Family Reunfication in Foster Care. Washington, D.C.: CWLA, 119-139.

Kessler, M. L. & Greene, B. E. (1999). Behavior analysis in child welfare: Competency training caseworkers to manage visits between parents and their children in foster care. Research on Social Work Practice, 9(2), 148-171).

Kufeldt, K. & Armstrong, J. (1995). How children in care view their own and their foster families: A research study. Child Welfare, 74(3), 695-716.

Loar, L. (1998). Making visits work. Child Welfare, 77(1), 41-59.

Maluccio, A. N. & Fein, E. (1994). Family reunification: Reasearch findings, issues, and directions. Child Welfare, 73(5), 489-505.

Palmer, S. E. (1990). Group treatment of foster children to reduce separation conflicts associated with placement breakdown. Child Welfare, 69(3), 227-239.

Perkins, D. F. & Ansay, S. J. (1998). The effectiveness of a visitation program in fostering visits with noncustodial parents. Family Relations, 47(3), 253-259.

Simms, M. D. & Bolden, B.J. (1991). The family reunification project: Facilitating regular contact among foster children, biological families, and foster families. Child Welfare, 70(6), 679-691.

Spaid, E. L. (1996). Why few foster kids find adoptive homes. Christian Science Monitor, 89(20), 3-6.

Wattenberg, E. (ed.). (1997). Redrawing the family circle: Concurrent planning—Permanency for young children in high risk situations. Minneapolis: Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.

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2000 Jordan Institute for Families