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March 2020Vol. 21, No. 2Are We Sincere About Valuing Families?

Written by Jerry Milner and David Kelly

If we are sincere in our statements that family comes first—that families matter and belong together—our child welfare system is the proving ground we have before us. If we are sincere in our proclamations that foster care is a temporary option of last resort, we must do everything we can to prevent unnecessary removal and support and enhance the parent-child relationship when a child is in foster care. If we are sincere in our commitment to follow federal law, we must do all in our power to strengthen and protect the integrity of the parent-child bond while a child or youth is in foster care. As a field, this requires all of us to view foster care as more than a "placement" and far more than a bed. For the vast majority of children and youth in foster care, foster care can and should be a vehicle to promote healthy reunification—the most direct way to follow the law.

If the goal of foster care is to provide for temporary care while a child achieves reunification, why do we continue to hear young people recount their histories with statements such as, "I was in care for 18 years with 18 placements," or "17 years with 17 placements," or "12 years with 21 placements"? Why do we continue to hear about young people "emancipating" from foster care to return to their families of origin when agencies have done little or nothing to prepare the young person or the family for getting back together? Why do we leave familial and particular parental resources unsupported, undeveloped, and underused?

What should we make of instances where a parent in recovery may go months, a year, or longer without seeing her infant that was removed at birth due to positive toxicity?

Why do we continue to see and hear standard procedures in courts and agencies that assume parent-child visits will be limited and supervised and where parents must effectively earn greater visiting privileges? We talk about the importance of parent-child relationships. We have laws and regulations that speak to the need to "normalize" the foster care experience. Yet, our actions often speak louder than our words. 

Our words say that foster care is temporary, supports parent-child relationships, and meets children's needs for safety, permanency, and well-being. Our actions too often say that foster care will go on for years, that we hold parents at arms distance or alienate them, and that physical safety trumps both permanency and well-being. How do we reconcile the contrast between our words and our actions?

We can begin by taking family time seriously.

Without time together, how do we expect parents and children to grow and heal together?

Without time together, how do we expect parents to practice parenting and children to learn routines and structure and feel cared for in uninterrupted ways.

The simple answer is that it is not logical or reasonable to expect separated families to reunify unless we prioritize and value making sure they spend meaningful time together.

In our time in the field, we have each encountered situations where courts and agencies treat family time—all too often referred to as "visitation"—as reward or punishment. We have seen it used as a privilege a parent must earn, much in the way an inmate earns privileges in the penal system. We have seen visitation suspended or canceled when a judge or a social worker feels a parent has not complied with expected behavior or case-planned goals. We have seen visitation cancelled due to positive drug tests days or weeks before scheduled visitation. And, in our travels to now 42 states in nearly 3 years, we have heard from attorneys, judges, social workers, parents, and young people working in the system or with lived experience that such practices remain commonplace today.

This needs to stop.

Absent an immediate danger, we should regard family time as a critical reasonable effort to reunify, and we must prioritize it. Research makes clear that there is a strong relationship between high-frequency, meaningful family time and reunification.

Failure to treat family time as a critical reasonable effort to reunify is a threat to child and family well-being and an impediment to permanency. In order for family time to actually support the child's and family's well-being and promote permanency, it must be more than an arranged hour or two of time between a parent and child in a sterile environment where neither feels free to interact naturally.  Family time should provide opportunities for parents to carry out parenting responsibilities and for children to see their parents as people who care about them and are trying to meet their needs. Family time should provide the most normalized environment that is as safe as possible given the abnormality of foster care itself.

When we ensure that normalized family time is an essential part of the foster care experience and fully engage parents in the process, we provide them with hope that reunification is possible, that parenting can be successful, and that they can surmount the difficulties they may face in dealing with whatever brought their children into foster care. Without such hope, parents run the risk of becoming overwhelmed, discouraged, and disengaged and believing that they cannot actually meet their children's needs. This, in turn, can lead to the circumstances behind the stories we hear—spending 17 or 18 years in foster care. When we engage parents actively in the lives of their children while they are in foster care, we create opportunities for decreasing the trauma of separation, for faster routes to permanency, and for healthier children and young people who feel loved and cared for despite the difficult circumstances of their lives.

When we begin seeing parents as partners who care about the well-being of their children instead of pariahs, we can change the dynamic that has historically clouded visitation—now referred to as family time—and change the experience for children and young people in care.  Family time can help us get there.