This series is about life within our new global community, Covid-ville. As our world universally moves into shelters and sanctuaries to fend off this vicious disease, here are some stories from our bubble as we navigate this time with a perspective on mental health, adoption, foster care and family life.
Across the world, teachers are completely reinventing educational models to adapt to the global pandemic. A teacher friend shared the other night just how much work is going on behind the scenes to ensure that our childrens’ education doesn’t lag during this new era of school-at-home.
I’m profoundly grateful to these educators for their tireless work. In the same way, child welfare workers are having to take the inherently in-person nature of child protective services into the digital realm. There is no luxury of time to develop the best model. Like our educators, these new distance child welfare processes are being created on the fly.
For better and for worse this includes the way visitation has transitioned between children in foster care and their parents. Notice that I said for better and for worse. This week, we completed our third virtual visit. I think we finally got some basics down. As more people transition to this method, here are some thoughts on embracing the “better” and managing the “worse.”
Back to Basics
First, let’s refresh some basics about foster care. The goal of foster care is always reunification. It should always be the goal. Visits between children and their parents are an essential part of that process, ensuring that healthy family connections remain in place. These visits allow bonds to grow and form and also allow the parents to demonstrate the skills necessary to regain physical custody.
Visits are generally supervised by child welfare staff. Closer to reunification, visits can be supervised by family/friends or it can be unsupervised. All of those arrangements are ordered by the court. What is not typical though (at least in our area) is for the foster family to supervise visits.
That is not to say foster parents don’t interact with the biological family. On the contrary, foster parents are expected to share parenting duties, often coaching, teaching and encouraging the biological parents as they work to bring their children home. It is absolutely beautiful when that happens. Conversely, there are times when there is no contact with the biological family for safety or legal reasons. Most of the time foster parents find themselves in the messy middle, managing complex, and sometimes hostile, relationships with birth parents.
In our years of fostering, we’ve interacted with various biological family members at each point on the spectrum. However, we’ve mostly lived in the middle tension of wanting and encouraging the parent to do their best while receiving backlash, contempt or even ambivalence in the process. Such things cause strain on all of the relationships and cause interactions to often be awkward, stressful and uncomfortable.
That brings us back to this new era of virtual visits. There are some big negatives, however, we must realize that legally and morally, the parent has the right to visit with their child. When it’s not safe to do so in person, such as during a global pandemic, we must suck it up and manage the worse of this arrangement.
Foster parents are used to living in glass houses. We signed up for that and we get it. Virtual visits, though, open the door and invite everyone in to roam and explore our private sanctuary. Anonymity and privacy are key values of fostering in order to protect the safety of the children in care as well as the families that volunteer for this work. If you think we get paid for this, that’s a post for another time.
For those of us in the messy middle, virtual visits are nothing short of invasive. My eldest said after our first video visit, “I felt like they were in our house and I didn’t like it.” Whew, process that.
I’ll admit, when my beagle roamed through the shot and the parent asked for the dogs name, I felt like I was giving state secrets when I told them, because not to do so would just be rude. Or, when they comment on or ask questions about items in the room. Those are parts of my life that I didn’t grant permission for them to access.
During the first visit, we bent over backward to make sure the camera was on the greased lightning toddler at all times. That included making the laptop into a makeshift go pro when the child darted to another part of the downstairs. Big mistake. Too much of our house was viewed, too much of our lives exposed.
By the third visit, we had asked the social worker (and received) permission to chop up the weekly two-hour visit into two one-hour chunks over lunch. We gated the playroom and allowed a few minutes of free play before putting the child in their high chair for lunch in that space. From there, the views and exposure to our house were limited. We also made sure our older kids were well-occupied elsewhere to ensure their privacy and their comfort.
When the foster dad and biological dad are in the same “room,” and the child says “da-da!!,” which one should respond… the one he sees for two hours a week or the one he’s with 24/7? It’s got to be very uncomfortable for dad to hear his child call another man dada.
For older children, this may not be an issue, but for a toddler who is just now using first words, has never lived anywhere else and hasn’t developed the intellectual ability to fully-understand who the person on the screen is, it’s legitimately awkward.
Also awkward is when the biological parent and foster parent have different expectations of the child’s ability to pay attention or focus on certain things. It’s hard to keep the child sitting in the chair to listen to a story on the screen when they have zero interest and want to jump down to “zoom zoom” the dumptruck next to the chair. Working through how to proceed without starting a meltdown or insulting the parent on screen requires daft diplomacy.
Having our visits over lunch seem to really help. We can do a little bit of free play, then place toddler into their high chair while the parent reads to them during the meal. We stay nearby to fulfill the supervision requirement and intervene when sippy cup falls, but otherwise let what happens happen.
It is tough for someone on a video screen tell you what to do in your own home, though, let’s be honest.
Visits are essential, but they produce lots of stress. They’re always stressful on the child, even infants. They’re stressful on both the biological parent and the foster parents. There is a reason why social workers usually monitor and staff these visits in person.
We haven’t had to shut one down or coach the parent in a different direction, nor do we hope to. For me, just the thought of that produces stress. So does having a toddler have their first inconsolable “terrible two” fit during a virtual visit- just saying.
We also use a paid version of Zoom (that we paid for voluntarily), so we can record the entirety of the visit in case something occurs that we need to share with the child’s social worker.
As hard as the challenges are, we must look for the positives. If not, we’ll subconsciously look for ways to sabotage these sessions. Our current case is particularly complex, so that colors my point-of-view, but also reveals my bias that reunification may not be happening. As my pastor said the other week, knowing your biases is the first step in obtaining a balanced view.
Three virtual visits under our belt, here’s my attempt at the “for better” part of this dichotomy.
Virtual visits mean the child in my care doesn’t have to go out and be exposed to Covid-19 right now. It’s a solution that allows us to stay in quarantine, safely and together. Through the lens of reunification and basic humanity, visits are essential. If we didn’t do them virtually, from our own homes, we’d have to do them in a public facility. Because I care so much about this child, I’m willing to sacrifice a little more privacy to ensure their safety.
We have never seen the child and parent interact, except for a few brief instances. Virtual visits are a gift in that we can see how the child interacts with the parent and the parent interacts with the child.
We could hear caring the parent has for the child and we could see how much -and how positively- the child interacts with the parent. If reunification isn’t the outcome, we can hold onto these memories in the future when the child is old enough to ask questions. We can use this information to facilitate those very important birth family connections.
Similarly, but on a deeper level, these virtual visits have the power to build understanding between us, the foster parents and the biological parents. While we regularly practice shared parenting, this allows us to share in a much deeper way.
I’m sure that it is reassuring to the biological parent to get a glimpse into our house, to see that it’s clean, that there are plenty of toys and that their child is well-cared for. They can more accurately see the child’s normal rhythms and we can in turn get a brief glimpse into their world. There’s a level of humanization that occurs on all sides.
Three visits in- many, many more to go before this pandemic ebbs, and I’m just starting to “get it” with how to do these visits. We’ll all have lots of practice in the coming weeks, I’m sure of it.
So chin up fellow foster parent, we’ll get through this. And, we’ll be better on the other side of it. What are your thoughts on virtual visits? Let me know in the comments!