Vol. 5, No. 2 • May 2001

Involved foster parents can be crucial to successful visits

When it comes to the issue of visitation and foster care, the focus often centers on the needs of children and biological parents. Frequency of visitation is an important factor in determining reunification, so it is logical that the needs of children and biological parents are most commonly considered.

Unfortunately, this can leave foster caregivers on their own to contend with the complex issues surrounding parent-child visits. These issues include the foster parents' feelings of anger toward birth parents, dealing with visit-related upheaval in the child's emotions and behavior, scheduling and logistical challenges, and meeting the needs of the visiting child and others in the home. In fact, without adequate involvement, education, and support, foster parents may be uncommitted to parent-child visits. In the worst cases, their attitude or actions may even undermine the success of visits or lead to disruption of the foster placement.

Yet the opposite is also true. Foster parents who understand the purpose and process of visitation and who see themselves as part of a team of professionals contribute to visits by:

  • Helping prepare children for visits
  • Comforting, reassuring, and talking with children following a visit
  • Providing transportation to and from visits
  • Allowing visits to take place in their homes
  • Building birth parents' confidence and supporting their efforts to change by accepting them and treating them with respect
  • Modeling healthy parent-child interactions and teaching proper child care to birth parents
  • Providing information and being a link to the social worker and, in some cases,
  • Monitoring visits

To ensure the foster parents they work with contribute to visits in these ways, social workers need to know how to give them adequate support.

Supporting Parents

Foster parents and kin caregivers can most fully support visitation when they see themselves as part of the team serving the child and family. This perspective is brought about through ongoing education and by involving foster parents as professionals and colleagues.

Ongoing Education

One of the best ways to support foster and kin caregivers is to make sure they understand their role. To do this, it is important to build on and reinforce what foster parents learn in their required preservice training. This may include sponsoring local workshops, directing foster parents to helpful books, or facilitating their attendance at in-service training events, such as Finding Teaching Moments, that are described in the N.C. Division of Social Services' training calendar.

Interaction with social workers is also an important source of information for foster parents. During informal discussions, particularly with new foster parents or those who do not appear to appreciate the benefits of visitation, social workers should help foster parents to:

  • Understand the benefits of visitation to children
  • See how involvement in the visitation process may help children and their families
  • Recognize that despite being challenging, children's negative behaviors or withdrawal following visits indicates healthy attachment and distress over separation; they are not necessarily indications that the visits are harmful for the child.
  • Learn ways to manage the disruption of the household routine caused by the child's reactions to visits.

By expanding what they know, foster parents will significantly increase their ability to support children and their families before, during, and after visits.

Promoting Foster Parent Involvement

Treating foster parents as a formal part of the team serving the child is another way to maximize the contributions they make to parent-child visits. To do this, social workers should make sure foster parents are at the table when the birth family, older children, and other providers are defining the child's needs or setting up the visitation schedule.

Keeping the family's schedule in mind when planning visit times and locations is a professional courtesy that makes a big difference to foster families and foster children. For example, "if a foster parent is expected to comfort a child following a visit, the plan must assure that he or she is home when the child returns from a visit" (Hess & Proch, 1988). Likewise, "visit beginnings and endings should not be scheduled at times that will be highly disruptive for the foster family, such as the family's regular dinner hour" (Hess & Proch, 1988).

It is also important to avoid placing too many children from different families or too many special needs children in one home. When this is done, visitation can quickly become an unmanageable burden for foster families, as they struggle to balance transportation, the needs of the visiting child, and the needs of all the children in the home.

Foster parents will also be more committed and involved in parent-child visits if social workers share information with them in an open, timely way. This means keeping them abreast of any changes in visit times or the status of the child's case, and realistically describing the kinds of behaviors they may see on the part of birth parents and children before, during, and after a visit.

Finally, social workers should be clear with foster parents about your desire to support them. Discuss with them how they will handle any visit-related problems and make sure they know you are open and available to discuss any issues or concerns they may have. Encourage and appreciate their efforts to support visitation and to work with birth parents.

Role of Other Foster Parents

Other foster parents can really help foster caregivers understand and support visitation. Current research shows that support for foster caregivers is best provided by more experienced foster parents. Based on this, a social worker's best strategy may be to connect foster parents to one another, empower them to help each other, and then step back but remain available.

If you choose this approach, your first step should be to contact your local foster parent association. If your county does not have an active association, contact the North Carolina Foster Parent Association (e-mail: [email protected]) to discuss how they can help foster parents in your area start a local association.

Foster parents can also support one another through mentoring. In this approach, experienced foster caregivers develop supportive relationships with newer ones. Mentoring can also be combined with support groups for caregivers facilitated by experienced foster caregivers or social workers. These groups can be places to learn, share frustrations or concerns, and model appropriate ways to interact with the children and biological parents.


To fully contribute to the process of visitation, foster parents need ongoing education, involvement in the professional team serving the child and family, and the support of their social worker. When they have these things they become involved participants who help make parent-child visits as rewarding and positive as possible for social workers, birth families, and children.

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.

Reprinted from Children's Services Practice Notes (vol. 5, no. 4, Oct. 2000), a newsletter focused on improving child welfare in North Carolina. To read more about visitation and related topic, visit the Practice Notes website at <http://www.sowo.unc.edu/fcrp/Cspn/cspn.htm>.


Copyright 2001 Jordan Institute for Families