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May 2005Vol. 6, No. 4Relational Therapy With Very Young Children in Foster Care

Infants and toddlers in foster care and their birth parents have special treatment needs if family reunification is to be a viable goal. Families in Transition (FIT), a Michigan research program, addresses these needs by using relational therapy to treat birth parents and their young children together during family visitation. Through this process, the therapist guides the parent in nurturing the child appropriately, so that the child can begin to associate positive experiences with the parent.

Families referred to the FIT program by their supervising agency and the court are offered extra sessions of family visitation each week at the therapist's office. Typically, they receive two sessions per week for the first 3 months after their referral. Therapy may continue for 6 months to a year, depending on the supervising agency and the court. Each therapy session may involve a short lesson for the parents in appropriate child interaction, as well as the application of contemporary infant mental health psychotherapeutic techniques. Parents are coached as they interact with their children, and the therapist asks questions to help the parents explore their own expectations or their own experiences of maltreatment.

The relational therapy can help the parent-child relationship by:

  • Heightening parent awareness of the child's needs
  • Removing barriers to appropriate responsiveness
  • Shaping realistic expectations of parents
  • Providing insight into the connection between the parent's relationship history and its impact on the relationship with the child

Of 24 families referred to the program, the children were returned to their biological parents in 21 cases. Agency caseworkers involved with these cases noted substantial beneficial relational changes. They also felt more comfortable in their recommendations to the court regarding the final disposition of the children.

The authors of the FIT program, R. E. Lee and A. M. Stack, report on the program in an article titled "In Whose Arms? Using Relational Therapy in Supervised Family Visitation with Very Young Children in Foster Care" in Volume 15(4) of the Journal of Family Psychotherapy. Copies are available from

Related Items

Children's Bureau Express explored the topic of infants in foster care in previous issues, including:

  • "Transitions for Infants and Toddlers" (March 2005)
  • "Supporting Infants in Foster Care" (September 2004)
  • "Mental Health Support for Young Children at Risk" (April 2004)