Are Foster Care Visiting Reforms Vulnerable?

In the wake of a mom's abduction of her eight children from a foster care agency in Queens early this week, some child welfare practitioners and parent advocates are uneasy, worried that the city could roll back hard-won changes that have made foster care a little friendlier to kids and their parents. The abduction took place Monday, when Shanel Nadal fled with her eight children during a supervised visit on the grounds of Forestdale, Inc., one of the city's more highly rated foster care agencies. The Administration for Children's Services announced it will launch an investigation.

Advocates fear the results, along with critical press and political reaction to the incident, could push foster care agencies to set more draconian standards for visits between parents and their kids. Absolutely there will be blowback,, says Mike Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a self-help and advocacy organization for parents involved in the system. Too often, he says, this is how policy is formed in this city. We look at the worst possible cases and we generalize to all parents.,

When children go into foster care, ACS's standard is to allow a visit with parents as soon as possible after being removed, and then twice per week thereafter. Regular visits are considered critical to maintaining bonds between parents and their kids, most of whom will reunite with their families eventually, and many of whom return home within a year.

Over the past decade, the city has substantially reformed visiting practices to make them more comfortable and productive for families. Ten years ago, parents were lucky if they spent two hours a month with their kids, says Tanya Krupat, a program director at the Osborne Association who headed an ACS commission to investigate and overhaul family visiting. In response to a 1999 legal settlement, the administration doubled the frequency with which families are entitled to visits and worked with foster care agencies to improve the spaces in which visits happen. More recently, ACS funded an effort to take some supervised visits out of foster care agency offices altogether, allowing community organizations to host them in neighborhood settings like parks and libraries.

Forestdale, where the abduction took place, was one of the agencies to embrace visiting reforms most wholeheartedly, working with a consultant to make visits less geared toward surveillance and more conducive to families spending happy, high-quality time together, says Krupat.

Visits give parents the chance to demonstrate they are capable of caring for their kids. Workers need to know that visits are improving with each visit, that parents are engaging better, meeting the needs of their children, having happy visits,, said Paula Fendall, director of ACS's Office of Family Visiting, in an interview conducted several weeks ago for a story on visiting that will appear in the upcoming issue of Child Welfare Watch. That's the only way they can move forward to reunification.,

But child welfare reforms are particularly vulnerable to a crisis, whether it comes in the form of budget cuts, a single incident like a child's death or injury, or the exposure of poor practices. The fear, in this case, is that demands for higher security could force agencies to step back to a more institutionalized approach to visiting.

I would hate to see the pendulum swing back,, says Bill Baccaglini, executive director of the New York Foundling, a foster care agency. Was there a lapse in this case? Yes. But you can't let these things get so darn mechanical that a mother never has 30 seconds alone with her kids.,

Arsham of CWOP worries that an increased focus on security could push foster care agencies to reduce the number of visits they offer, since they'll have to provide more personnel to supervise them, and return the system to a model of visiting that's damaging to parents and kids.

You're sitting in a cubicle with your child and a case worker who is writing notes on you, which often say that your interactions with your child seem strained,, says Arsham. Well, you're sitting in a freaking cubicle with somebody writing notes on you. If that's not strained, you're not human.,