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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 5, No. 4
October 2000

Visitation and Concurrent Planning

Concurrent planning is the process of working toward family reunification while, at the same time, developing an alternative permanent plan. Developed to prevent foster care drift in very young, chronically neglected children from multi-need families, this procedure has been used successfully with all kinds of families.

Today, concurrent planning is a standard part of how things are done in child welfare in North Carolina. Our State formally adopted this practice in 1998, in part because the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 highlighted concurrent planning as an appropriate practice to help assure timely permanence for children (Katz, 1999). Concurrent planning also fits naturally with North Carolina's goal of achieving a permanent home for all children within one year of their entry into foster care.

The Role of Parent-Child Visits

Parental visitation plays an important part in concurrent planning. Visitation patterns give everyone involved in a family's case—social workers, children, and the child's parents—an idea of how the family is progressing. Seen this way, visitation is a diagnostic tool. The frequency and relative success of visits between parents and children can provide evidence either for early reunification or for movement toward the alternative plan, be it adoption, guardianship, or custody. Regular visits for those children headed towards reunification can complement the parents' progress. Visits are a good opportunity for parents to show their motivation for getting their children back home and exhibiting new skills or behavior changes.

On the other hand, by scheduling visits social workers can document that visits have not been denied and provide occasions to document parental disinterest in the child, which can lead to timely termination of parental rights and subsequent efforts to achieve permanence.

Thus, in many cases, visitation is a key determinant in the case outcome. For this reason, social workers and their supervisors should use their influence to promote frequent parent-child visits.

Influencing The Frequency of Visits

Social workers can do three things to promote frequent parent-child visits. The first is to try to schedule visits for times and locations that work for all the parties involved—the birth parents, foster parents, children, and, if applicable, the social worker or person monitoring the visit.

When setting up the visitation schedule for families, try to schedule as many visits as the parents and other parties can reasonably attend. Because it places emphasis on making a case decision within one year, concurrent planning generates more urgency about scheduling frequent visits.

The second thing social workers can do to promote visitation is to strategically recruit, select, and train a pool of foster parents who can support the goals and tolerate the uncertainties of concurrent planning. During training and when children are placed in their homes, social workers can help support foster/adopt families by having open, honest discussions with them about the risk they are taking by agreeing to be "Plan B" (adoptive parents, guardians, or custodians) when "Plan A" (reunification) has not been ruled out.

Social workers should emphasize that the level of "risk" for the relatives or foster parents is not quantifiable. They should also make certain foster parents understand how visits fit with concurrent planning and why they are important. Without foster parent support, visits (and therefore concurrent planning itself) may be less successful.

The third thing social workers can do to promote visitation is to have frequent and quality contact with the birth parents. In Factors in Length of Foster Care: Worker Activities and Parent-Child Visitation, White, Albers, and Bitonti (1996) found a link between how often social workers saw birth parents and how often those parents saw their children. This same study also found a link between the frequency of visits and the length of time children spent in foster care: frequent visits seem to be tied to shorter stays in out-of-home care.

Supervisors can support social workers in their efforts to promote visitation by helping them examine their personal experiences and biases toward visit planning. Supervisors can also help social workers ensure "that visiting plans are individualized and that the opportunities provided for parent-child contact exceed the minimum required whenever indicated" (Hess, 1988). With their social workers, supervisors should carefully explore any plans for using visits "to reward parent progress or to test parental interest" (Hess, 1988).

In addition to monitoring the activities of individual workers, supervisors should assess whether their agency as a whole systematically promotes frequent visitation (White, Albers, & Bitonti, 1996).

Although social workers' and supervisors' roles in visitation cannot be underestimated, they are not the only ones who affect the frequency of visits. Courts also exert considerable influence in this area. For example, the courts in Santa Clara County, California order that parents visit their children two to three times a week in order to maintain bonds. This puts considerable pressure on the social workers and foster parents to keep up with the visitation pace (Wattenberg, 1997).

What to Watch for

In order to practice concurrent planning in a legal, honest, fair, and effective manner, certain mistakes related to visitation must be avoided:

  1. Equating concurrent planning with adoption and therefore minimizing reunification efforts. This can lead caseworkers to schedule fewer visits.
  2. Assuming assessment tools will infallibly predict case outcomes. This may lead to minimizing reunification efforts and decreasing visitations. Ultimately, the child's parents will support or prove wrong the assessed placement outcome.
  3. Investing in a particular outcome. Allow the case to evolve from the family's decisions and actions.
  4. Designing case plans that are not family-centered. Put another way, the agency takes on responsibility for things the parents should be doing. Parents have both rights and responsibilities. Concurrent planning supports their active role in visitation, engaging in services, and planning for their child's future.
  5. Offering foster parents and relatives an estimate of "legal risk." Let the adults take the risks, not the children. Acknowledge that foster/adopt parents are taking on the role of "Plan B" and still supporting parental visitation. This is not easy. Encourage foster/adopt parents to become involved in parent-child visits to promote more supportive relationships with biological parents.
  6. Interpreting 12 months as an absolute limit on reunification, regardless of parental progress. "There is a fine line between the judicious use of time limits to prevent foster care drift, and a rote enforcement that ignores the full picture of parental motivation, effort, incremental progress, and a foreseeable reunification" (Katz, 1999).
References

Hess, P. (1988). Case and context: Determinants of planned visit frequency in foster family care. Child Welfare, 67(4), 311-325.

Hess, P. M. & Proch, K. O. (1988). Family visiting in out-of-home care: A guide to practice. Washington DC: Child Welfare League of America.

Katz, L. (1999). Concurrent planning: Benefits and pitfalls. Child Welfare, 78(1), 71-87.

Wattenberg, E. (Ed.). (1997). Redrawing the family circle: Concurrent planning—Permanency for young children in high risk situations. Minneapolis: Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.

White, M., Albers, E., & Bitonti, C. (1996). Factors in length of foster care: Worker activities and parent-child visitation. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 23(2), 75-84.

 

2000 Jordan Institute for Families