For many parents who have had their children removed by child protective services or other agency, the emotional sting is made all that much worse by restrictive court-scheduled visits supervised by overworked and sometimes uncaring caseworkers. Often, parents are only allowed to see their children for one hour every two-weeks. The visit usually takes place in a room located in the county’s human services department. Parents report that these visitation rooms are often filthy and full of broken toys, with almost no activities to encourage family interaction. Not only does it take time for the children to warm up to the parent who they haven’t been allowed to see in weeks, once the rapport is established, there is precious little time to strengthen the parent-child bond. It’s against this backdrop that parents must renew the bond with their child and interact without upsetting the caseworker who is watching and taking notes on everything. If you’re enduring the pain of court-ordered supervised visits, here are a few tips to help you make each visit count.
- For infants and children under two. Bring a blanket from home. Before you go to the visit, sleep with the blanket a couple of nights. When you’re visiting your child, wrap them in the blanket or hold it near them while you sing to them. If you don’t know any children’s songs, learn some. Ask the caseworker to take the blanket to the caregiver. For very young children, when they hear the words to a song that you sang them or smell the blanket that you held them in, it will help to remind them of you in a positive way. Don’t forget to bring your own bottles, diapers, and wipes. You don’t want to be unprepared and have to ask the caseworker for supplies. Be sure she’ll make a note that you came for a visit and were not prepared.
- For toddlers. After not seeing you for a prolonged period of time, your toddler might take some time to warm up to you. Trying to force a hug or physical contact might make things worse. Bring some brightly colored blocks, pieces of fabric, painted clothespins, or other safe, simple toy. If it’s homemade, all the better. No foster home can duplicate it. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does have to be something you bring every time. Even if your child doesn’t seem immediately interested, start playing. As with babies, toddlers love song and rhyme. Take a few minutes to learn a fun song that requires clapping or participation. Sing it every time you visit. You’ll find that your toddler interacts sooner, giving you more time to enjoy each other.
- For pre-schoolers. Pre-schoolers are all about creating and exploring—and that’s not easy in a cramped visitation room. To make the most of your supervised visit with your toddler, you’re going to have to bring the adventure. Try bringing some small plastic figurines or blocks along with the visit and hide them around the room when the child isn’t looking. Make up a story to go along with the hidden items and have your child help search for the items as you tell the story. You can also bring a bad of clothes to play dress-up with. Use your imagination, and your child will return to the care of the state with good memories of you.
- Kindergarten-3rd grade. This age group learns well through game-playing. Go to a garage sale or second-hand store and pick up an interactive game like Jenga or Operation, and bring it with you to your supervised visit. Talk to your child while you play. Bring some colors and paper and draw with your child. Tell a story as you draw and encourage them to join in. Then, before the visit ends, exchange drawings. Your child will have something you made together to remind them of you in a positive way.
- Older grade-school children. Children in this age group are beginning to be concerned with their appearance. Bring a hairbrush, fun hygiene products like novelty toothbrushes, or a funny pin. Bring a pictures from home to share, as well as letters from other family members and friends (if allowed by the caseworker). Ask about the friends they’ve made while in foster care, and bring them up to speed with how you’re doing. Stop by a used bookstore and bring them a copy of your favorite book when you were their age. Discuss it with them, and then ask them to take it with and read it. You both will have something to talk about during your next visit. Make sure to bring a couple of pictures of you and their family that they can take with them when the visit is over.
Even though your heart is breaking, do not become emotional during your supervised visit. If your children become upset, calm them by being as positive as you can. Assure them that you will be together soon, and that everyone is working to make sure you can all be together again, but don’t talk about any specifics. Be upbeat. Encourage them to tell you the good things that are happening to them, as well as the difficult situations. Don’t bad-mouth the foster care provider. If you sense there is a problem, discuss it when you write the documentation letter as discussed here. Remember, your child needs to interact with you in a positive manner, and you must show the watchful caseworker that you are capable of supportive communication with your child.