• February 2019
  • Vol. 20, No. 1

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Family Time Is a Critical Well-Being Intervention

Written by Dr. Susan Cohen Esquilin, Ph.D., ABPP-Clinical, and Jey Rajaraman, chief counsel, Family Representation Project-Legal Services of New Jersey

In many child welfare cases, the removal of a child from parental custody marks the first time the child has ever been out of the care of one or both parents. Whatever the reason for the removal, it is a traumatic event for the child, siblings, and parents. A child who is removed from his or her family and placed in foster care fears the unknown and feels scared and hopeless. The parents are also traumatized. They may worry about where their child is, who is taking care of him or her, and whether his or her special needs are being met. Separation between a parent and child is a known trauma. People involved in the child welfare system are faced with the question of how to prevent trauma and minimize the impact of separation. Recognizing the importance of protecting these connections and ensuring parents and children have continuous contact is paramount. The time spent together between the parent and child should be in an environment that reflects the child's home and community.

The development of a collaborative relationship between the parent and foster parent can help increase the amount of family time or visitation, if foster parents are willing to supervise visits that require oversight. In addition, this relationship can reduce stress for a parent whose anxiety decreases when they can speak with the child's caretakers about the child's needs and adjustment. Collaborative relationships between parents and foster parents also increase the quality of parent-child visits, when children and parents feel secure in knowing that reunification is supported by foster parents and that the relationships between the adults is a positive one.

Visitation or parenting and family time is essential for a child's well-being while he or she is placed in out-of-home care and away from his or her family. The objective purpose of parenting time is to maintain the parent-child attachment, reduce a child's sense of abandonment, and preserve their sense of belonging as part of a family and community. A child needs to see and have regular contact with his or her parent(s), as this relationship is the foundation of child development. In the majority of these cases, reunification between the child and his or her family is the primary goal. Visitation maintains and supports the parent-child relationship necessary for successful reunification.

The importance of family visits for children in out-of-home placements cannot be overstated.

Research shows that frequent and lengthy parent-child visitation achieves the following:

  • Supports parent-child attachment and reduces children's sense of abandonment while in care.
  • Increases the well-being of children in out-of-home care. For example, children with frequent family contact show higher verbal and nonverbal IQ scores.
  • Positively affects the parents' feelings about the child placement, including reduction in parental worries about their children.
  • Is strongly associated with placement outcomes and with fewer months in care—that is, both family reunification and other permanency outcomes, such as adoption and kinship guardianships.

Frequent and lengthy family visits for children in out-of-home placement is critical to family reunification, shortening the time spent in out-of-home care, enhancing the social and mental well-being of children, and encouraging parents. The standards for parenting and sibling time mandated by statutes, regulations, and case law are clear. However, the practical compliance with these standards continues to lag behind the intent of the standards.

New Jersey has long recognized parent-child contact through parenting time. In an effort to ensure that parenting-time schedules are specific to the circumstances of the individual family, New Jersey has created a form order and visitation judicial bench card for child welfare matters. Starting in 2018, courts must include a visitation schedule for the child and his or her parents, siblings, and other family members. In cases where ordered parenting time does not occur, courts must engage in a thorough review of the reasons and develop a plan to mitigate barriers (e.g., transportation, work and school schedules).

Ensuring families receive meaningful family time requires active engagement of all involved to ensure that barriers to visitation are not only identified but eliminated. Child welfare case workers must be creative in case planning, and state and local child welfare agencies must support front-line case workers to achieve these outcomes. Development and continued support of positive parent and foster parent relationships is crucial. Judicial involvement and oversight through the use of bench cards and form orders can further support assurance that meaningful visitation will be effectuated.


  

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