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February 24, 2020 Practice Points

Five Tips for Lawyers to Secure Family Time

A few resources from the Children's Bureau to keep in mind while you advocate for visitation.

By Kathleen Creamer and Cathy Krebs

On February 5, 2020, the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Children, Youth, and Families issued an informational memo that provides resources and recommendations for providing family time (often referred to as visitation) for children and youth in out-of-home care in a way that aligns with best practices and research. When done well, the memo asserts that family time can “strengthen the family, expedite reunification and improve parent and child wellbeing outcomes.” 

From that memo, here are five tips for lawyers to secure family time:

  1. Understand the role of trauma and the power of connection. Separation of children from their parents, even when necessary to keep them safe, is deeply traumatic.  Research shows that quality family time can help to mitigate that trauma and that it increases the likelihood of reunification, expedites permanency, lowers levels of depression for children, and improves emotional well-being for parents and children. 
  2. Seek tailored family time plans that encourage meaningful and natural interaction. The standard visitation schedule where all parents are assigned a set amount of supervised time with their children may meet the needs of the agency, but it rarely meets the individualized needs of children. Instead visitation should be viewed as “family time,” with a focus on the length and quality of the time that a child spends with not just their parents but with separated siblings and other important family members. Family time should occur in the most natural setting possible and include normal parenting activities such as sharing meals, attending medical appointments, and school events such as a school performance or an extracurricular activity like a sports game. The frequency and duration of family time must consider the needs of the child, including age and stage of development, and the capacities of the parent.
  3. Family time should be unsupervised unless there is a clear safety threat. Best practices indicate that there should be a presumption that family time should not be supervised. Simply because a child is in state custody does not automatically mean that family time must be supervised. Just as children in foster care benefit from normalcy in their foster homes, they also benefit from having as much normalcy as possible in their family time, which means bringing in outsiders to supervise only when truly necessary.
  4. Recognize that “acting out” is often a normal response to the trauma of separation. Research indicates that ending or reducing family time in response to a child’s “negative” behaviors before or after a visit is problematic. Instead it is important for to be aware of the complex emotional responses that children may experience and display. Simply ending or reducing family time may further exacerbate the trauma of the child. Where a child struggles before or after a visit, the best approach is to first provide additional support and consider whether an increase in family time could help the child adjust.
  5. Consider the parent’s circumstances and challenges when crafting family time plans. Too often, parents are “set up to fail” by being given visitation schedules that conflict with their other objectives. When scheduling family time, it is critical to take into account a parent’s circumstances including work schedule, transportation, and other commitments. Also, limiting family time as a consequence for a parent’s lack of progress is harmful to both parents and children. Family time is a right shared by the parent and child and should never be used as a reward or a punishment.

For additional resources see:  Five Tips for Advocating for the “Most Connected Placement” and Five Tips for Prioritizing Extracurriculars as a Key Intervention for Youth.

Kathleen Creamer is managing attorney in the Family Advocacy Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Cathy Krebs is the director of the Children's Rights Litigation Committee.

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