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March 2020Vol. 21, No. 2Delaware Visit Hosts Ensure Quality Family Time for Children in Foster Care

Written by Rachael Neff, L.S.W., director of special court programs, Delaware Family Court, and JoAnn Santangelo, court improvement program coordinator, Delaware Family Court

Practice changes can be difficult to make. But with the right team, shared goals, and long-term planning, change can happen. Leadership from key child welfare stakeholders in Delaware decided that improving visitation and family time practices was important to our work with children and families. It has taken years of work, but through thoughtful collaboration we have made changes in our visitation practices that benefit our families.

How Our Work Started

The roundtable discussion at a state team planning meeting in Washington, DC, was one of the first steps that laid the groundwork for improving visitation and family time practices in Delaware. Judges and leadership from the state child welfare agency engaged in frank discussions about areas for strategic improvement in our child welfare work. Informed by data and an assessment of courtroom practice, the team determined that more could be done to ensure that families spent time with one another when children had to be placed in foster care. From this smaller team meeting, a larger multidisciplinary workgroup convened and slow changes began to happen.

Defining Goals and Seeking Support

The court improvement program sought out technical assistance from the Center for Family Representation (CFR) in New York City to support this work. CFR is known for their cornerstone advocacy approach to family representation. It provided strong guidance and acted as a sounding board for Delaware as we determined what steps to take to improve our work. The technical assistance allowed our interdisciplinary team of state agencies, attorneys, providers, and the court to further discuss common goals. We wanted families to visit in more natural and home-like environments and to visit more frequently. We also recognized that more visitation could lead to a greater likelihood of reunification. At the conclusion of one of our technical assistance trainings with CFR, it was determined that creating visit host guidelines would be critical to moving the work forward in Delaware.

Leaders and Messengers

A time-limited workgroup convened and drafted the Delaware visit host guidelines. These guidelines were created to ensure that parents had greater opportunities to visit their children when the children are placed in foster care. Our workgroup emphasized that separating children from parents is a traumatic experience and finding ways to maintain a bond with the child and parent was critical. Visit hosts are individuals who are identified by families to help support their visits without the same level of involvement as an assigned agency worker.

The workgroup succeeded in crafting guidelines tailored to current Delaware visitation policy, and the guidelines were subsequently issued to statewide partners. Completing the visit host guidelines was a paramount step in the work; however, messaging the work was another critical task. Throughout the process, the court improvement program stayed engaged with leadership from the child welfare agency, provider agencies, and others to move the work forward. Without stakeholder engagement, the effort would have failed. A judge needed to be involved so that communication could be brought back to the court. State agency leadership needed to be involved so that communication could make its way throughout the agency. State child welfare agency director Trenee Parker was central to moving the work forward. She ensured her staff understood the importance of visiting. Attorneys for children and parents stayed involved so that questions about the practice could be asked in the courtroom. Parent attorney Stephanie Reid was a leader in the project and has seen the impact of visit hosts firsthand with her clients.

Highlights from her work include the following:

In one recent and ongoing case, a single mother not only hit the ground running on her case plan elements but was able to identify a family friend who was willing and able to serve as a visit host to help increase family time between mother and son. While reunification remains on the near horizon, the infusion of the visit host dynamic has allowed the family to spend meaningful time together that would not have otherwise been possible, including Christmas Day, on the weekends and evenings, and on the child's birthday.

Reid commented, "the concept of visit hosts has been thankfully warmly received in Delaware, and we strive to identify at least one individual per case that could fulfill this vital role. I have found, personally, that cases involving visit hosts carry a different semblance —one of greater collaboration, heightened respect for the parent's role, and reduced (unnecessary) tension and adversity between the parties."

Partners to Pilot the Work

The guidelines were utilized to implement a visit host pilot project in conjunction with two participating foster care provider agencies. The contracted provider agencies engaged families immediately upon the child entering care to determine appropriate visit host opportunities. Although state child welfare stakeholders, including our court, agency, and program providers, had been involved in the visit host pilot, we found that workers with direct contact to the child and family were not as engaged in the concept and that training at all levels was needed.

Training and Ongoing Partnership

In order to address this training gap, a statewide training was held on the impact of visitation on reunification, including a review of the current agency visitation policy and how visit hosts can be incorporated into current practice. The template for this training was drafted with significant support from the Capacity Building Center for Courts in coordination with the court improvement program. Agency and program provider staff were asked to join the training and present their firsthand experience with the visit host process. While research and policy can speak to the why of enhanced visitation practice, those doing the work are the ones who discuss how these practices will be implemented.

Where We Are Now

Several years ago, visitation and family time were not receiving the attention they deserved in Delaware. We now have courtrooms where judges, attorneys, state agency workers, and provider workers talk about the quality and frequency of visitation and how visit hosts positively impact their families. Continuous quality improvement and collaboration were the driving forces to ensure that Delaware was able to incorporate a family-friendly, natural, and flexible visitation practice for children and families into current policy. By identifying our needs, developing a theory of change, implementing change and evaluation, we were able to introduce visit hosts not as a new initiative but another resource for child welfare stakeholders.

There were excellent attorneys, judges, and state agency leadership in Delaware who championed this issue and moved the work forward. Staying engaged in the long run with provider agencies and a dedicated workgroup was also a key to our success. Without these beginning conversations and an openness to try something new, change would have been impossible. Leaders were willing to challenge existing practices and ask where we could improve our work. There is more work to do in Delaware, but our practice shift is well underway to finding ways for families to spend more time together when they must be apart.