• March 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 2

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The Judge's Role in Ensuring Meaningful Family Time

Written by Judge R. Michael Key, Troup County Juvenile Court and Troup County Adult Felony Drug Court, LaGrange, GA

While acknowledging the importance of making individualized decisions in cases where reunification is the permanency goal for a child, the failure to provide meaningful family time between the child and the child's parents, in and of itself, is a failure to make reasonable efforts to reunify. In many jurisdictions, family time will be no more meaningful than the expectations set by the presiding judge. It is important for judges to set clear expectations for family time and to model its importance by allowing sufficient court time to effectively exercise judicial oversight and to promote ownership of family time by all parties and attorneys in each case. Judicial oversight should be exercised to address the necessity for supervision, frequency, duration, and quality.

Presumptive Unsupervised Family Time

Even after appropriate inquiry, supervised family time immediately following removal from the home, and for some time following the preliminary protective hearing, will likely be appropriate in a significant number of cases. However, the presumption should be that unsupervised family time is in the child's best interest, and supervision should be required only if the child welfare agency can establish, by at least a preponderance of the evidence presented in court, that supervised family time is necessary for the protection of the child and that unsupervised family time is not in the child's best interest. The issue of supervision should be considered at the first hearing and at every hearing and review thereafter. Even where supervised family time is initially appropriate, there comes a point when, if the family cannot visit unsupervised, consideration needs to be given as to whether reunification is still an appropriate permanency goal or whether the case plan needs to be revised and additional services should be provided.

Frequency and Duration

Child development experts say that daily contact between a parent and a child should occur to maximize bonding and attachment. Even considering the resource challenges in child welfare, it is not unreasonable for the judge to adopt minimum standards as to the frequency and duration for family time. Georgia's family time practice guide (see this issue's Strategies and Tools for Practice section) makes the following family time recommendation: 1.5 to 2 hours, three times per week, for children from birth to 3 years; 2 or more hours, at least two times per week, for children ages 3 to 12 years; and 1 or more hours, one or two times per week, for children ages 12 to 18 years. While there are certainly factors in individual cases that make the provision of this level of family time difficult, any downward deviation from these recommendations should be limited, supported by evidence, and approved by the judge.

Quality

Family time should be as natural and family-like as possible, both in terms of setting and dynamics. It is important for the judge to monitor quality as carefully as frequency and duration. Giving families the very best opportunity to maintain parental relationships contributes to positive outcomes for children removed from their birth families in terms of child well-being and successful and timely reunification.

Incarcerated Parents

The narrative changes when family time is viewed through the eyes of the child. Nowhere is that truer than when talking about family time with incarcerated parents. Instead of asking why incarcerated parents should be allowed to visit with their children in foster care, ask why children in foster care should not be allowed to visit with their incarcerated parents. The right to visit is valued more when it is expressed as the child's right. Considering the negative impact even a short-term loss of contact has on children, denying family time because parents are incarcerated inflicts significant trauma on the children and undermines the reunification plan. For an article on family time between children and their incarcerated parents, go to https://georgiacourtsjournal.org/a-very-special-thanksgiving-at-the-troup-county-jail/.

Milestones

With effective case planning, implementation, and monitoring, the time frames for moving from supervised family time (when required) to unsupervised family time to the transition home should be reasonably predictable within some acceptable range. Hope drives reunification, and it is hard for families to maintain hope when they have to look too far down the line. Hope survives best when gains can be made and celebrated in shorter periods. Milestones can be set so that, if parents work their case plans and make appropriate progress, there is an expectation of moving from supervised visitation to reunification at targeted intervals.

It Takes a Village

As with many other challenges in the child welfare arena, other stakeholders see family time as something for which the child welfare agency is responsible and fail to accept their own legal and ethical responsibilities. Attorneys for parents, attorneys, guardians ad litem for children, and court-appointed special advocates should hold the child welfare agency and the judge accountable for ensuring that children in foster care have meaningful family time with their parents, but they should also be full partners in making that happen. These advocates can sometimes identify nongovernmental resources to allow for more family time and continuously monitor compliance with the family-time plan and milestones. 

Can Family Time Be Expanded Today?

The enhanced guidelines remind us to frequently ask what is preventing the child from returning home safely at every hearing and review. It should be the same with family time. Waiting until the next hearing to consider expanding family time delays permanency and prolongs the harm done by separating children from their families.  

This article is not intended to be a research-based authoritative work; rather it is intended to spur thoughts and conversations about the role of judges and other stakeholders in ensuring meaningful family time for children in foster care.

For support for the positions contained herein and for guidance on how to implement meaningful family time, see the Georgia Family Time Practice Guide: A Guide to Providing Appropriate Family Time for Children in Foster Care at http://www.gacip.org/family-time-practice-guide/ or contact Judge Michael Key at mkey@troupco.org.
 

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