July 2012Vol. 13, No. 6Florida's Family-Centered Visiting
Parent-child and sibling visiting is an important component of family-centered practice that can help achieve timely reunification. The State of Florida has successfully implemented a community-based parent-child and sibling visiting program that is rooted in encouragement and is yielding positive outcomes. A peer-to-peer phone call in May, organized by Children's Bureau Staff in Region 4, allowed other States to hear about Florida's experience developing, implementing, and maintaining its visitation program.
The common threads throughout Florida's visiting program are encouragement and capacity building for parents. The State facilitates regular visits and the use of family teams, which are established early and composed of caregivers, relatives, or family friends familiar with the family and its situation. Visits often occur within the first 24 hours of removal and, according to Trisha Dees, a case manager from Families First, a local community-based care provider, usually within 10–12 hours. The Families First agency ensures that within the first 3 days, a progressive visitation plan is developed to help set parent, caregiver, and child expectations. "When a removal occurs, it disrupts the family's entire world. A progressive visitation plan allows them to know what's happening next and better understand what's required to reunite the family," Dees said.
Visits often take place at the parent's home—or another familiar setting—and members of the family team, as opposed to Department of Children and Families (DCF) staff, conduct supervision. These circumstances provide an environment where children and parents feel more comfortable, which can make the visit more productive and relieves caseworkers of supervision duties. Supervisors and parents are encouraged to center visits on a purpose or activity that supports bonding among parents, children, and siblings and allows parents to practice modeling behaviors and parenting skills.
The courts are involved in visitation from the very beginning of the case. At the first shelter hearing, judges are informed as to whether protective investigators have assessed the child's new living arrangement, and all involved parties discuss the earliest occasion for parenting opportunities. The Hon. Lynn Tepper, a Circuit Court judge, said there is no cookie-cutter approach to visitation, and the tone of the court should be chatty, positive, and not judgmental. "The art of encouragement is key. We have to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions specific to each family and their needs."
Steve Pennypacker, Northwest Region Director of Children's Legal Services, echoed that sentiment from the attorney's perspective: "We go to the first hearing with 'when will the parent visit?' in mind. Children start to wonder if removal is their fault, and they worry about their parents. The longer you go without visitation, the worse it is for everyone." Tepper added that regular visiting has proven a powerful incentive for parents suffering from substance abuse to engage in services immediately and seek treatment.
When asked how the State handles parents who miss visits, Tepper said, in her experience, frequent visiting reduces the number of noncompliant parents and the need to reshelter children. "When parents realize the court is not interested in finding fault and is solely invested in helping the family reunite and stay safe, a transformation occurs. There is a tectonic shift in relationship healing when parents are given frequent parenting opportunities, and the children are given the opportunity to trust again. After 2 years of implementation, we've been successful in avoiding resheltering children."
After the Federal Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) in 2008, Florida's Dependency Court Improvement Program (CIP) examined the role that judges could play in visitation. Through the collaboration of CIP's statewide multidisciplinary panel, visitation protocols were developed and included in the 2011 Dependency Benchbook. The protocols were further highlighted at the Fall 2011 Model Courts All-sites Meeting. As a result of this meeting, CIP staff began coordinating trainings on visitation throughout the State, and as interest in this issue increased, so did questions concerning the research and some of the recommendations featured within the protocols. In January 2012, Florida's CIP formed an ad hoc visitation workgroup, which was composed of child development experts, foster parents, former foster youth, case managers, agency attorneys and administrators, parent attorneys, community-based care representatives, judges, and court staff. The workgroup is revising and enhancing the protocols to further highlight considerations for judges regarding visitation safety, frequency, quality, and individualization. The revised protocols will be released this year.
Other key players in the State's visiting program are foster parents. Foster parents are trained to participate in coparenting—often transporting children to visits and testifying in court—and experienced foster parents help train newer caregivers. Foster parents work as part of the family team and with birth parents. Trudy Petkovich, President of the Florida State Foster/Adoptive Association, said coparenting teaches foster parents how to enhance outcomes for children, and it can help build a stronger family unit for the long term.
As part of Florida's Quality Parenting Initiative, foster parents also have access to training specific to their needs and questions. "At any point, a foster parent can email his or her concern and ask for a specific training, which will be online within a week. It enables foster parents to better work with birth parents, managers, administrations, the legal system, and puts everyone on the same page."
Florida State University's Clearinghouse on Supervised Visitation offers comprehensive training and technical assistance for all its supervised visiting programs in all judicial circuits. A bevy of free training materials, toolkits, manuals, and more are available on the website:
Special thanks to Trisha Dees, Case Manager, Families First, Judge Lynn Tepper, Circuit Court Judge, Trudy Petkovich, Foster Parent and President of the Florida State Foster/Adoptive Association, Sandy Neidert, Office of the State Court Administrator, Steve Pennypacker, Northwest Region Director of Children's Legal Services, and Karen Oehme, Florida State University, Supervised Visiting Program, for providing information for this article.
Children's Bureau Express last wrote about Florida CIP's CFSR-driven efforts for court improvement in "Florida's Court Improvement Program" (September 2010).