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June 2000Vol. 1, No. 4State Agency, Children's Museum Forge Partnership to Strengthen Family Visitation

The Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families has forged an unusual partnership with the Providence (RI) Children's Museum to provide services to families whose children have been placed in custody because of child abuse and neglect.

In 1991, the museum approached DCYF with the idea that families in trauma might respond well to structured visits in the museum, a hands-on environment that encourages play and creativity. From that premise grew Families Together, a therapeutic visitation program operated by the museum and funded under a contract with DCYF. The State pays for the services with Federal IV-B funds for family support and preservation services. Private donations also help support the program.

Now in its eighth year, the program serves 20 families at any one time and between 60 and 75 families each year. The museum-based program is designed specifically for families working toward reunification and aims to rebuild weakened family bonds and strengthen parenting skills. Families are guided during their biweekly visits by the program's family therapists.

The museum's interest in visitation proved prescient with the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. ASFA's new requirements regarding permanency planning for children in foster care ASFA "require taking a more thoughtful approach to family visitation," notes Families Together Director Heidi Brinig. "Visitation is being viewed more as a tool for planned interventions, parent education, and family assessment" rather than simply a task to complete as part of a court order.

While the families served by Families Together receive services from other quarters as well, depending on their particular needs, "we are one of the only groups that sees the whole family together. We can learn a lot that can contribute to permanency planning requirements," Brinig explains.

Last fall, Families Together launched a pilot program aimed at reaching more families by hiring and training clinical consultants in Families Together methods and deploying them to the State's regional child welfare offices.

The consultants help regional child welfare workers develop visitation plans for families and locate appropriate community settings for visits, such as libraries, recreation centers, playgrounds, and beaches. The consultants help caseworkers in numerous ways, such as devising activities and set goals for visitation plans; preparing plans for court review; coordinating with other service providers; and developing interventions to use with families durings visits. The consultants also provide training on visitation.

"Functioning as a visitations coordinator is a very different role" for many child protection specialists, Brinig says.

The stakes for parents are high--their rights to their children could eventually be terminated. All the more reason, Brinig notes, to craft visitation plans carefully--plunking a troubled family in a public place with thoughtful planning only would set parents up to fail.

Families Together staff have expertise in mental health and child welfare. Brinig brings a background in early childhood education, social work, and clinical therapy to the mix. She and Executive Director Janice O'Donnell created the program after conferring extensively with DCYF.

Informal evaluations and anecdotal evidence illustrate that child welfare administrators and staff highly value the program. Families Together plans to have a more formal evaluation conducted, perhaps with assistance from a local college or university.

For more information, contact
Heidi Brinig
Program Coordinator, Families Together
Providence Children's Museum
100 South Street, Providence, RI 02903
Tel.: (401) 273-KIDS, ext. 131
Fax: (401) 273-1004