Friday, September 21, 2012

"Foster Friday" Panel - Visitation Basics

Some of the most frequently asked questions that I receive from new foster parents are those regarding family visitations.  "How do you deal with the stress leading up to the visits?"  "How do you prepare your kids for visits?"  "How do you deal with the physical and/or emotional fallout after visits?"  "What do you send to visits?"  I posed these questions to our "Foster Friday" panel for this month's topic.

Andrea (Live With Laughter) - Stress has become so normal to me.  I practically reach for the Xanax before every visit.  Will he show?  Will he stand up Baby M again?  What relative will he bring?  What girlfriend will he bring this time?  I hope it's not the one I want to slap.  Oh, Andrea, stop judging her and give her a second chance.  

Everyone in the car?  Wait, I forgot the extra diaper bag.  Shoot.  Oh, did you just poop,you've got to be kidding me!  I know I had to wake you up from your nap, please be happy.  Seriously, now you just pooped. Oh &^% we're going to be late.

Okay, we're here.  Everyone out of the car.  Gosh, why do they have to keep this office so hot?  It's like they're punishing us.  Oh Baby M, what's wrong?  Oh, you just saw him walk up, time to scream bloody murder and break my heart.  Okay, places everyone, smile plastered.  Oh hiiiiii, how are you guys, we missed you the last two weeks.  Oh, car troubles, I see.  Do me a favor and send a text next time.  Okay, see you in an hour.

Okay everyone else, back in the car.  What can we do to kill an hour?  Thoughts, is he okay, I hope he stopped crying, I hope being around him won't make him change his mind about signing, I really hope he stopped crying.  Okay, back in the van, let's go get M.

Hi baby, did you have fun?  Let's spend 20 minutes saying goodbye.  Shoot, what I have Baby M call him?  Um...  Say bye bye to umm...  *mumbles a name*...

Stress has become a regular part of our lives.  I'm always nervous before meeting new parents.  I try to smile and be nice. The nervousness never goes away.  What if this is the visit where they decide to blame me and start yelling?  What if this is the visit they bring him something he's not allowed to eat?  It goes on forever.

My babies have been young.  There's not been fallout from visits with them other than being tired from missing naps.  I'm thankful I don't have to deal with that.  I have no wise sage words for you this week.  It stresses me out each and every week.  I try to stay calm, crack a joke with the social worker, smile until it hurts.

Cherub Mamma (Cherub Mamma) -  Visits are a unique part of fostering.  They certainly take an emotional toll on EVERYONE involved!  I've found that my own emotional balance is thrown off on a visit day.  It's hard for me to share the cherubs.  (Especially since my little ones have been with us for so long without any contact with their bio family.)  There's a lot of compassion fatigue.  I want to shelter the kids from potential rejection if their bio family doesn't show up.  (I'm typically pretty vague about who we are going to see exactly.  My kids are little enough and visits are new enough to them that they don't have expectations in place right now.)

I think my biggest piece of advice is to realize that visits ARE difficult.  It's OK to acknowledge that visits are hard on us (the foster parents) too!!  A lot of effort is typically put into helping foster parents understand that visits will be difficult for the children.  So I guess I'm here to say, "We need to take care of ourselves too."

How that looks will be different for everyone.  For me, I'm personally having to re-frame my entire approach to visits.  Dude and Dolly have been with us for over a year now.  For that entire time they have had VERY limited contact with their bio family.  Now though, they are scheduled to have weekly visits with their mom and monthly visits in Dallas with their grandma (the person the State ultimately wants to place the children with).  I'm literally trying to rethink things and almost pretend that this is a new placement.  Frequent visits are what I expect when kids first come into care.  It's a lot harder when the kids have been "mine" for a year and I haven't had to really share them yet.

During their first visit to Dallas I decided to do something special with our core family.  We found respite for Pumpkin and took off to an amusement park.  It gave me something to look forward to prior to the visit actually taking place.  When Dude insisted over and over that he did NOT want to go to Dallas I was able to not drown in that emotion.  I simply reminded him that the judge said he had to go.  Then, because we were so busy that weekend as a family unit, I didn't dwell on the difficulties I knew Dude was likely going through being separated from me.  Both sides survived.

From personal experience, I don't recommend ever doing the transport to and from an unsupervised visit.  I did that this summer and all Hell broke loose when I ended up having to report abuse that happened over the weekend.  If at all possible, I recommend having a social worker or transporter look the child over before the visit and have that same person look the child over when they return.  It might be difficult if you don't have willing parties to help with this.  But I learned the hard way what happens when a foster parent reports physical abuse on a child in their care.  Investigations are NO fun!!!

My only other piece of advice is on what to bring to visits.  Here's my opinion...  In most places it is up to the biological family the child is visiting to meet their needs during the visit.  However, in many cases, the bio family is typically unaware of what to do or bring.  Because let's be honest, if they had all their parenting cards together, odds are their kids wouldn't be in care.  That said, it is technically not my responsibility to bring anything to a visit other than a diaper bag or a change of clothes.  It's up to the parent to provide food and entertainment if necessary.

But these kids have to come home to me.  I have to pick up the pieces after the visit.  I've decided that even though I'm possibly enabling the bio family some, it's more important that I continue to meet the needs of the kids whenever I can.  So, for each visit my kids go on, I send a bag of toys that are "visit appropriate."  Coloring books.  Crayons.  A doll.  Cars & trucks. etc.  If my kids were bigger, I'd probably send a board game or two.  Maybe a deck of cards.  I try to send thing that I know (if they chose to anyway) the bio family could participate in too.  I do not send anything that is crucial it must be returned.  I do not send toys that if broken or lost would cause bigger problems.  (i.e.: my forever kids have to share all their toys when in our home but foster kids cannot bring "my" kids' things on a visit)  I don't think the foster kids should have to suffer through a mind-numbing visit without anything to do.  If allowed (which we are not) I would also send a snack.

Visits are incredibly emotional things.  I'm not always convinced they are good either.  But they are a reality. Recognizing that they can be difficult for everyone is the first step to handling things better.  Take care of yourself, my foster parenting friends.  And if you're not fostering, see if there's something you can do to support someone who is.  Meet them during the visit time for coffee.  Help out with the kids left behind (either bio, adopted, or other foster) so the foster parent can focus on the child who IS having a visit.  Or just lend an ear when the foster parent needs to vent.  And remember, just when everything seems to fall into place - someone in The System will change it all and you'll be back at square one all over again.  Thus is the life in Foster Care Land.

Dani - We have two placements right now, and the visits for them are so totally different!

The hardest visit is for the two brothers.  One is 22 months and the other is 39 months.  I have to wake them both up to get ready to go.  I still haven't figured out if it's better for me to wake them up way early so the can eat first, or to let them sleep a bit longer and take their breakfast with them.  Neither work out well, but I am trying to find the lesser of the two evils.  The older of the two loves to go to "the big house" and see his bios.  They see their mum first for 1.5 hours and then daddy and grandma for 1.5 hours.  So it's a long visit for them, and by the time they're done, they are DONE!  It doesn't help that they fill them full of crap and candy the whole time so they are on a sugar high/crash.  The younger of the two really doesn't care about seeing them.  He doesn't cry, but he isn't as excited either.  The more he bonds to me, the less he wants anything to do with them.

IF both bios show (a rarity) then I can expect the rest of the day to be a disaster.  They boys have such big feelings and they just don't have the language skills to deal with them.  I try to tell them that it's okay to miss mommy and daddy, it's okay to be mad that you aren't with them all the time, it's okay to be sad.  But at not quite 2 and just turned 3, they don't even know what they are feeling well enough to put it into words.  The day is full of temper tantrums, head banging, screaming, fighting, etc.  By the end of the day they finally seem to have worked it out some.  I can hold and rock them and help them regulate themselves back to normal.  Thankfully, they bounce back quickly and the next day is back to normal.

With the other placement, visits are harder and easier at the same time.  The baby is three months now and doesn't really care who he's with.  That makes the visits a lot easier.  The harder part is that the mum is in rehab, so on visit days, I have to be gone from the house and the other boys for 6 hours or so.  Since he's so little (and was born with a host of issues), my partner and I are the only ones who can deal with them for that many hours.  The SW picks us up and we drive the almost two hours to rehab.  Then the visit, then the drive home.  It makes for a long day!  Bio dad still gets his weekly visit, but rarely shows up.  His bios have no clue how to take care of him and thing shoving a bottle in his mouth to get him to stop screaming is the best thing to do.  Unfortunately, it's not.  So while we don't have the mental/emotional issues with him and visits, we do have the physical ones.

Thankfully I get along well with all bios.  They know that I'm not trying to steal their kids...  that I'm just taking care of them until they themselves do what they need to do to get them back.  I'm so glad I don't have to deal with bios who try to cause trouble.

Heather (Us) - The easiest thing for me is to use visit times as "Me Time."  I try and schedule things I want to do but things that aren't important enough to find a sitter. (i.e., get my toes did, get my hairs cut, sit on my butt and stare at the wall, or take my hubby out on the town. :-)

So far we have only had 6 years old and younger kids, so we would tell them the day of about visits.  We also learned VERY quickly to not plan anything after visits if at all possible. We have found the kids need to go right back into our "boring, structured life."  I have noticed after the first few visits mom and dad usually start changing the kids' clothing, so I never send them in clothes that I am not willing to part with. Then with future visits I send them in the clothes that their parents changed them into on their last visit.  I also request the parents let me know at least a day before if the kids need to be dressed for something special (i.e., being outside all day, swimming, pictures, etc.) I try to have one specific toy or blankey that goes with them to visits and back home from visits.

Other than that, hold your breath, jump in, and ALWAYS be kind to the biological parents.

Carly (C and C Family) - Going into foster care, I never knew how I would handle visits.  They are stressful.  There's a kid that is in your home that you love and want and the person on the other end loves them and wants them, too.  You need to try and make the visits successful because the reality is the goal is always initially reunification.  So, I approached visits in a way of what would I want if I was the birth mom.

I have only had babies/toddlers, so I always packed food, snacks, bottles (when appropriate) or sippy cup, diapers, wipes, change of clothes, toys, teethers, books, etc.  Whatever my foster child would need to make the visits successful.  Biomom will likely want to try and feed them, play with them, and keep them happy.  I always packed in a nice diaper bag that was used specifically for visits so I just had to re-stock it for the weekly visits.

You don't want to forget something as important as a pacifier that would cause distress to the child who is the most important factor in the visit, so include everything they would need to be happy.

I remember when my first foster baby was going to visits and she was a baby and it was summer so I wasn't always putting socks on her.  Biomom was concerned that she was "always sick" because she never had socks.  From the moment I learned that, she always had socks on at every visit.  Now I know she was sick because she had Reactive Airway Disease and it was not the socks, but if that is the only control this biomom can exhibit, I can do that to make her happy.  When I was told my second foster baby was having her visits in a room that was cold, I included blankets in the bag for visits.  I included anything that could make the visits more pleasant for all parties.

Not all foster parents do this, but I always wrote notes or letters.  Sometimes they were 2-3 pages long, sometimes it was just a paragraph, but it was important that I gave them an update.  It would include anything new they were doing, new words, stats if they had a doctor visit, places they had visited, i.e., the first trip to the beach, how they were eating, how they liked the dogs, anything I could think of that the birth parents would want to know about their child.  I almost always included pictures with these letter.  The kids did crafts at daycare so I usually included a few of these for them to keep.

I also tried to attend some visits.  Both hubs and I work full-time outside the home and it wasn't always convenient, but it's important to get to know the birth parents and for them to get to know you (if it's safe).  They got to see that we loved their child, too.  It makes them more comfortable with the care that their child is receiving.  In the end, for our second foster daughter, I am sure it helped them to determine to voluntarily relinquish their parental rights.  They knew us, they knew the love we gave their daughter.

My biggest regret with our first foster daughter is not attending more of the visits and not taking more pictures.  I always assumed we had more time with her biomom than we ended up having.  Her rights were terminated and I went to the final visit with camera in hand and it was the first visit she missed.  I missed my opportunity to get any additional information from her and take additional pictures with her of our precious daughter.  So attend and take advantage of every moment when you can.

Mama P (Fostering Love) - Visits:  The good, the bad, and the fake.

We have actually had a great experience with visits.  We have mostly had babies or toddlers for visitations, which makes things slightly easier in that they do not process things the same way as a preschooler or older child does.  We have also been very lucky in that we have been able to forge meaningful relationships with almost all of our bioparents.  This makes the transition wonderful.

In *OurCounty* we are required to be the transporters and supervisors for visits, of which there is no designated place available to us.  If the parents are only allowed supervised visits, we must meet at McDonalds, a park, or library, etc.  So far this has been both good and bad.  Good, because it keeps us in the public eye for safety and it is a neutral non-stressful place for the children.  Bad, because it is a pain to find a sufficient space when you have a crawling or toddling noisy infant, especially during cold and flu season.  With Peanut, our current placement, we met at the park until his mother complained about the "unbearable" heat (which bothered neither Peanut or myself).  Now we meet at McDonald's which is germy, confined, and there is nowhere for him to crawl around or be free.

For the sake of the children, visits have caused me to exercise a fair amount of superficial or "fake" charm and acceptance even when I want to be ugly and possessive/protective of MY babies.  I feel as though visits are an opportunity to make a real difference for the children.  I use this time to point out the great things about their child, ask about family history "who does he look like?", "Now who did he get THAT from?" or other questions that help me build a story for the baby if we end up as an adoptive situation or if the child goes to an adoptive home from ours.  Not only that, but I am able to indirectly give them some pointers on things they can do to make their lives easier as parents.

An example would be the time at the park where BioMom was struggling to keep Peanut still, and I suggested she let him crawl around on a blanket in the grass.  She was very uptight about him not touching the grass, etc., but I got down with her and showed her how she could use the moment to interact. I just got on Peanut's level and said, "Look at the green grass!  It feels cold and tickly!  Let's tickle your mom with some grass!"  I didn't boss her or even have to say anything; she therefore learned parenting skills by observation.  I showed the confidence to step in and interact with both of them happily, she didn't feel judged by a silent observer, and Peanut had a stress-free play time.  I feel blessed to have such opportunities!

aka. Mimi - I think the easiest way for me to talk about family visits is to answer each question individually.  Visits can definitely be a huge source of stress for everyone involved, and it helps to try to be prepared beforehand.

"How do you prepare your kids for visits?" - This is an easy one for me, but I'm afraid I'm not going to be much help to you.  :-)  With the exception of Angel, my kids have all been infants and toddlers.  There really isn't a whole lot of explaining or emotional preparation that goes into getting a 9-month-old ready for a visit with his/her parents.  They're just happy if someone changes their poopy diaper and feeds them.  They definitely don't understand the whole "You're going to the CPS office to see your parents today" speech.  It makes things easy on that front.

"How do you deal with the stress leading up to the visits?" - While I don't have to worry about pre-visitation stress on my children's side, I am usually a hot mess until the weekly visit is officially over.  The source of my stress is almost entirely related to weekly conflicts with scheduling and transportation.  Because I work full-time outside the home, I depend heavily on my children's caseworkers and/or transporters to take them to their weekly visits.  There have been many cutbacks and layoffs in our local area, so the visits are often spur-of-the-moment on different days with different people picking them up, and I know nothing about them until I pick them up from daycare care.  I JUST WANT TO KNOW WHERE MY KID IS AND WHO THEY ARE WITH!  I want to know ahead of time so I can send their visit bag, photos, etc.  I want to know so I don't schedule a doctor's appointment and go to pick up the baby only to discover THEY AREN'T THERE!  I tend to be stressed out until the visit for the week is over, and I know where my kids are for the rest of the week.  Monkey's visits were so sporadic that I finally offered to take the time off work every week to transport myself.  The only stipulation was that they kept the visits consistent on the same day at the same time.

"What do you send to visits?" - Like Carly, I send a diaper bag with everything my kids will need to keep them comfortable and happy.  Many people will tell you that it is the bioparents' responsibility to provide those things, but I am not comfortable with that.  What if the bios don't show?  What if the transporter's car breaks down?  What if there is a scheduling conflict that keeps your child away longer than anticipated?  I want to know that my babies have what they need.  I also feel that packing a bag serves as a "teaching tool" for the parents.  They can see the types of foods that their baby is eating/drinking.  They can see what size clothing/diapers their child is currently wearing.  They can see that their child is loved and care for.

I also make it a point to send photos, notes, mementos, etc. on the weeks when I am not able to transport to the visits myself.  I know that the parents love them, and really do appreciate that I take the time to include them in as much of their children's lives as possible.

"What about when they have longer, unsupervised visits and overnights?  What do you send then?" - By the time my kiddos start to have unsupervised visits and/or overnights, I have usually established a pretty good relationship with their birthparents.  I try to tell them everything they'll need to know beforehand, but I always send a written schedule and "Things About Baby" note along with that first visit.  That note includes a list of baby's favorite foods, tricks for naptime, etc.  For the first visit, I send everything they will need (ex. food, diapers, wipes, clothing, a couple of bottles/cups, toiletries, a few toys, etc.) so they can see exactly what their baby is used to and can have an example for the next week.  After that first visit, I only pack a "regular" diaper bag with things that I would normally pack if I went to the store with the baby.  By the time overnight visits are granted, they should be well on their way to reunification, and their parents need to prove they can provide for their child.  I also send their "comfort items" if they have any.  To this day, Monkey continues to go from my house to his daddy's with his favorite blanket and Mr. Bunny (his stuffed bunny rabbit).

"How do you deal with the physical and/or emotional fallout after visits?" - Most of the fallout that my kiddos tend to experience after visits is physical due to missed naps, drastic changes in schedule, and being fed junk during visits.  The main thing you can do is try to get things back to "normal" as quickly as possible after visits.  They tend to get overstimulated, so I've found it's always best to have a calm, boring day once they come home.  I always try to find out what (if anything) their bios gave them to eat during the visit and adjust what I give them based on that.  If they had a bunch of juice, they'll get milk or water only from me for the rest of the day to try to avoid diaper rash and rotten teeth.

When 16-year-old Angel was with me, visits with her parents were always difficult for her, and visit days were usually resulted in upset stomachs, headaches, and crying.  I can't say that I blame her.  She and Booger Bear had a joint supervised visit with her parents every week (Booger was her bio son), and she usually spent the majority of her visit watching her parents play with Booger and virtually ignoring her.  I eventually convinced her caseworker to limit Booger's visits to every other week in order to give Angel some one on one time with her parents without the distraction of the grandbaby.  

Booger Bear by far had the most emotional difficulty due to the fact that he had an insane visitation schedule.  By the end, he had 8 hour visits with his dad, 3-4 hour visits with Angel after she moved to another foster home, and occasionally supervised visits with his maternal grandparents nearly every day of the week!  Not having any kind of set schedule when he was used to having one, as well as not knowing from one day to the next who was going to take care of him was terrible for him.  Nighttime was the hardest.  It always took at least an hour of rocking and comforting before he would fall asleep, and at 17 months, he still didn't sleep through the night.   He would wake up multiple times, crying "Mimi hug!  Mimi hug!"  He would usually fall back asleep after he saw that I was still there, but having a toddler crying for you in his sleep is heartbreaking especially when you know it could all be avoided if CPS would have gotten their act together and not subjected him to months of craziness when they knew he was going home to his dad.

While visits can bring on lots of big feelings, stress, and physical fallout, they can have lots of positive results if everyone involved participates and works together.  I truly believe that the continued relationships that I have with my kids today are direct results of the relationships that I began to develop with their parents during the time they were with me.

1 comment:

Jess said...

Great post! Love to hear from all the "experts".

I have added a foster parent forum to my blog for people to use to connect with others, ask questions etc. I'd love for you to check it out.

~Jess @

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