What would you say to someone who, minutes before your first meeting, had just been told by a judge that their children were to go into the temporary physical custody of someone else?
Would you let them know that your role is to support them? Or would you simply give them the time and space to process the grief and shock that they are experiencing?
According to Jenny Keefe, SaintA Family Preservation Program Manager, these decisions are a constant consideration for Family Services Coordinators. “We meet with parents immediately after their temporary physical custody hearing and talk to them about when and where they will visit their children while they’re in out-of-home care.”
When the court order calls for visits with a supervising adult, Wisconsin state law requires a family interaction (formerly called a supervised visit) to be offered to parents and their children within five working days.
“Once parents learn that their children will not be returning home with them, coordinators offer them a time within the first three to five days to interact with their children,” explains Keefe. “But any parent knows that three days feels like an eternity when you’re separated from your child and don’t know if they’re eating or sleeping or with whom they are living.” While most children go to a foster home, some are placed with relative caregivers.
Related reading: Become a SaintA foster parent.
Peace of Mind
Family preservation team members are trained to provide parents some peace of mind while they are waiting to see their children. Coordinators might contact the foster parents to set up a phone call between the biological parents and children prior to the first visit together.
Knowing supervised family visits are unfamiliar and at a location that’s new to the children, coordinators will often ask the foster parent or relative caregiver to drive the children there. When possible, this eliminates the need to introduce children to more new people, such as drivers.
“You can imagine the rush of emotions children and parents feel when they see each other for the first time after being separated,” says Keefe. “These interactions take place at our Family Center, so children are often confused about why they’re spending time with mom or dad in a room that’s unfamiliar to them.”
It’s not uncommon for children to cry at these very emotional, first reunions with parents. Some children cry uncontrollably because seeing mom or dad reminds them of the trauma of being removed from the home. Other kids have the widest smiles as they run with open arms cross the Family Center’s front lawn to greet their parents coming up the sidewalk.
Initial Assessments + Action Plans
After the initial family interaction, Coordinators develop a more consistent plan for visits for the next thirty days. At the same time, they complete an initial assessment on the family.
The assessment includes observing and supporting parents during their family interaction times with their children and several one-on-one parent meetings.
Two evidence-based assessments, the Adult Adolescent Parenting Inventory and the North Carolina Family Assessment Scale, are used to help drive conversations with parents. The rest of the assessment methodology is largely decided by Family Services Coordinators, like Tim Martin.
“I approach each family assessment meeting slightly differently, depending on the parents’ situation,” says Martin. “Where they are in their own journey affects how I approach them.”
As part of the family assessment, a Family Services Coordinator observes and facilitates supervised interactions for three weeks and has one-to-one meetings with biological parents. Family Services Coordinator, Vickie Ortiz-Vazquez, views these assessment meetings as just as important as facilitating that first visit for the family.
“Meeting with biological parents in order to hear their story is key, because they have taken care of their kids for some time and they have strengths as parents that we need tap into,” says Ortiz-Vazquez.
After the family assessment, the Coordinators meet with the Child Welfare team to share their recommendations for services for the family.
“Oftentimes, the recommendation will include assigning a SaintA Family Preservation Specialist to the family for the next four months in order to provide support services and consistent parent coaching during family interactions,” explains Keefe.
In these cases, the Family Services Coordinators will step back from the relationship they’ve formed with parents and children to make room for the Family Preservation Specialists. The goal now is permanency and whenever possible, reunification.
“The close work we do with families in the first thirty days makes it hard to say goodbye when it’s time to transition a family to another service,” says Carly Bolli, Family Preservation Coordinator. “But, our assessments continue to be a big part of the care plan, so we feel good knowing we have gotten families started out the right path.”
That’s all part of the design, says Keefe. “The relationships we build with families, from that very first moment at the courthouse, helps us connect them to resources and other natural supports that will create a more resilient and stable family in the long-term.”