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2007 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 12, No. 2
April 2007

Child Welfare Worker Visits with Children in Foster Care

When children enter foster care in North Carolina they are placed temporarily in the custody of their county department of social services (DSS). From the moment children enter care until they return home or go to another permanent placement, DSS agencies are responsible for ensuring these children are safe and receive the support and nurturing they need to heal, grow, and thrive.

Evidence suggests that regular, high-quality visits with the child in his or her foster home are a great way for agencies to ensure they are living up to this responsibility. This article will describe some of what we know about this subject and discuss steps being taken on the federal and state levels to enhance visits between workers and children in care.

An Invaluable Tool
During the first round of federal Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR), reviewers found a positive relationship between worker visits with children and most of the outcomes being measured, including:

  • Achieving reunification, guardianship, and permanent placement with relatives
  • Preserving children’s connections while in foster care, including their relationships with their parents
  • Assessing needs and providing services to children and families
  • Involving children and parents in case planning
  • Meeting the educational, physical health, and mental health needs of children
    (NRCFCPPP, 2006)

The reviews also identified common concerns regarding worker visits, including an inconsistent focus during visits on issues regarding case plans and goals and insufficient face-to-face contacts with children or parents to address their safety and well-being (NCSL, 2006).

These concerns raised by the federal CFSRs suggest there may be a need for state-level requirements regarding the frequency of face-to-face contact with children in care and both standards for and training on how to conduct quality worker visits with children and their parents (NCSL, 2006).

New Federal Law
There is a new federal law that seeks to turn this knowledge into enhanced child welfare practice with families.

In fall 2006, Congress passed the Child and Family Services Improvement Act of 2006 (Public Law 109-288). Part of this legislation provides additional funding to support monthly worker visits to children in foster care, with an emphasis on activities designed to improve worker retention, recruitment, training, and ability to access the benefits of technology.

Along with this funding comes a mandate: by October 1, 2007, states must describe in their state plan standards for the content and frequency of worker visits with kids in care. In addition, PL 109-288 sets forth the expectation that by October 1, 2011, all states must be able to prove that 90% of all children in foster care are receiving monthly face-to-face visits with their workers, and that a majority of these visits are taking place in the residence of the child (e.g., in the foster home).

Beginning October 2007, states must prove they are making progress to meeting the 90% standard. Beginning October 2008, if a state falls short of this standard it faces possible financial penalties.

Visits in NC
North Carolina’s policy requires child welfare agencies to have at least monthly face-to-face contact with children in foster care. It also requires agencies to have monthly contact with placement providers about the child’s needs and progress, though at present contact with providers does not have to be face-to-face.

Although in the first round of the CFSRs North Carolina was one of only 10 states that received a “strength” rating in the area of worker visits with children (NRCFCPPP, 2006), our state began seeking to enhance practice in this area even before the passage of PL 109-288. Its interest was driven by several factors.

In particular, North Carolina wants to improve the stability of foster placements. In 2003, only 52.3% of NC children who had been in care 12 months or less had experienced 2 or fewer placements. This level of performance was well below the national median of 84.2% (USDHHS, 2006).

A Pilot Project
To address these and other issues, in spring 2006 the NC Division of Social Services contracted with the Jordan Institute for Families at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work to help it develop a tool for practitioners to use during visits with children in foster care. The long-term vision for this tool, whose working title is the “Monthly Foster Care Contact Record ,” is that it will be used by all public and private child welfare agencies in the state to:

  1. Enhance the safety and well-being of children in foster care
  2. Make agency visits with children and foster families more productive and consistent
  3. Encourage honest, supportive relationships between foster parents and agencies, and
  4. Make North Carolina’s child welfare documentation more consistent and streamlined.

This tool could also help us meet the requirements of PL 109-288.

Working with an advisory group comprised of representatives from public and private child-placing agencies, foster parents, and other stakeholders, the Division has developed a draft of this tool. This version, which contains more than a dozen items, encourages workers to ask about changes in household membership, safety and supervision practices used in home, and other issues during each face-to-face visit with children in care.

To refine this tool and ensure it complements effective practices already in use, the Division will pilot test it in 25 agencies (14 county DSS agencies and 11 private child-placing agencies) between May and October 2007. Foster parent participation is an essential component of this pilot, and the Division will be working closely with the NC Foster and Adoptive Parent Association to obtain foster parent feedback about the tool’s content and effectiveness.

If the pilot goes as planned, the Division anticipates that this tool—as the Monthly Foster Care Contact Record or under a new name—could be available for use statewide sometime in 2008.

In the meantime, child welfare workers and agencies wishing to enhance visits with children in foster care may wish to consider the questions in the next article. Another resource to consider is Promoting Placement Stability and Permanency through Caseworker/Child Visits (2006), a one-day training by the National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency Planning <www.hunter.cuny.edu/socwork/nrcfcpp/info_services/caseworker-visiting.html>.

Quality Worker Visits
A quality worker visit with a child in foster care should be a professional consultation, not a friendly visit to chat about “how the kids are doing.” Among other things, quality visits should be:
  • Scheduled to meet suggested national or prescribed state standards and the needs of children and families.

  • Mostly in the child’s home (i.e., the foster home) and at times convenient for children and foster parents.

  • Planned in advance of the visit, with issues noted for exploration and goals established for the time spent together.

  • Open enough to offer opportunities for meaningful consultation with and by children and parents.

  • Individualized. For example, they should provide separate time for discussions with children and foster parents. This provides the opportunity to privately share their experiences and concerns and to ensure that issues that might not be disclosed when other family members are present are identified and addressed.

  • Focused on the case plan and the completion of actions necessary to support children and families in achieving the goals established in their plans.

  • Exploratory in nature, examining changes in the child’s or family’s circumstances on an ongoing basis.

  • Supportive and skill-building, so children and families feel safe in dealing with challenges and change and have the tools to take advantage of new opportunities.

  • Well documented so that the agency can follow up on commitments and decisions made during the visit.

Adapted from the National Conference of State Legislatures, 2006

 

 

References for this and other articles in this issue