visitation_pageWhen a child is removed from his or her parents, concerns arise for the child’s present and future development. These concerns are not based on biology – they are based on attachment. As discussed in our pages on Attachment and Transitions, removal causes trauma and can impair emotional and cognitive development. These same concerns apply when a child is removed from a substitute caregiver with whom the he or she has developed an emotionally significant connection; perhaps more so because trauma is cumulative and the child has already been traumatized by the initial removal from the biological parent. These visitation guidelines are meant to help ease the trauma and stress of separation and preserve those attachments that are crucial for a child’s emotional and cognitive development.


The Importance of Visitation

"In many child welfare cases, the removal of a child from parental custody marks the first time the child has ever been out of the care of one or both parents. Whatever the reason for the removal, it is a traumatic event for the child and the parents. A child who is placed in foster care fears the unknown and may feel abandoned, helpless, and hopeless. She may worry about her family, imagining that her parents have died or are looking for and cannot find her. She may feel guilty for whatever has happened to her parents. The trauma of separation is potentially overwhelming to children. They may become despondent and depressed. They are often angry. The trauma can be increased when they are separated from both their parents and their siblings.

These observations are true even in many cases of serious abuse and cases in which the child expresses fear of a parent or a reluctance to visit. In these situations the child will often express a wish to return home after a short period in out-of-home placement.

The parents also can be traumatized. They may worry about where their child is, who is taking care of her, whether her special needs (medicines, diet, clothing – all the things parents worry about) are being addressed and by whom. They may also feel both jealousy and fear regarding the new placement. They may be jealous because another family has taken over their parenting duties, and they may fear that the child will prefer the new surroundings and the new family to their own. They may also be overwhelmed with guilt and shame for what has taken place.

Separation in these circumstances can affect the connections that a child has formed with her parents, siblings, and family members. Depending on the age of the child, the separation can damage relationships and have long-term implications for a child’s ability to form new attachments and relationships. Connectedness is necessary for healthy child development. "One of the things that we know is that for a child to develop normally, he or she must have a continuing stable human relationship, that this child must be attached to at least one nurturing adult – somebody that he or she can count on for life, even when the child becomes an adult." This connectedness must be protected and should be severed only in extreme circumstances and with extraordinary care...

These child development principles are known to the juvenile court and members of the child protection system. Unfortunately, some children have to be removed from their parents’ care for their safety. In these situations, it is crucial to their development to find ways to minimize the trauma and grief caused by the severing of connections caused by the forced separation. This can be accomplished by protecting those connections whenever possible and by providing support for reconnection to other adults when necessary. One of the best ways to minimize the effects of traumatic separation is to provide for frequent, regular contact between these children and their families."
Edwards, Judicial Oversight of Parental Visitation in Family Reunification Cases, Juvenile and Family Court Journal, Summer 2003, pp. 2-3.


Visitation with Infants and Toddlers in Foster Care

baby_visitation"The younger the child and the longer the period of uncertainty and separation from the primary caregiver, the greater the risk of harm to the child. Therefore, frequent, meaningful parent-child visits are critical for infants and toddlers in foster care...

During the first few months of life, babies begin to show a marked preference for one or two primary caregivers. By about four months, babies communicate this preference through their behaviors (e.g., following with the eyes, smiling, quieting more easily) in the presence of the familiar caregiver. As babies get older (age 7 to 14 months), the attachment intensifies, and they often cry or protest when separated from the primary attachment figure...

To promote attachment and strengthen the parent-child relationship, very young children in foster care need frequent and consistent contact with their parents. They need to know that their parent cares for and is there for them. In many jurisdictions, visits consist of brief, weekly encounters, in a neutral setting, under the supervision of a caseworker. . . . For younger children, this type of visit is not conducive to optimal parent child interaction and may minimally serve the parents’ needs for ongoing contact with the child or may even be harmful for the child. A young child’s trust, love, and identification are based on uninterrupted, day-to-day relationships. Weekly or other sporadic "visits" stretch the bounds of a young child’s sense of time and do not allow for a psychologically meaningful relationship with estranged biological parents. For parent-child visits to be beneficial, they should be frequent and long enough to enhance the parent-child relationship...

Visitation plays an important role in concurrent planning. While frequent visits allow parents to show their motivation for getting their child back and demonstrate new skills, they also provide evidence when a parent is not making progress toward case goals. For example, when a parent repeatedly does not show up for scheduled visits or fails to make required behavioral changes during visits, this information can help the court decide more quickly to order an alternative permanency plan for the child...

Visitation planning is an ongoing process that should correspond to the child’s placement phase in the child welfare system. Although the underlying goal of visitation (to preserve and enhance the parent-child relationship while providing for the safety and well-being of the child) remains the same through all phases, each phase emphasizes different purposes and uses different visitation arrangements.

  1. Initial phase. This phase focuses on maintaining ties between parent and child, assessing the parent’s capacity to care for her child, and goal planning. To ensure the child is safe and appropriately cared for, visits are generally supervised and controlled for location and length. This phase generally lasts from four-to-eight weeks, but the length varies from family to family. If, after the initial visitation phase, the caseworker and other professionals working with the family continue to have concerns about moving to less supervision, it may be time to reconsider whether reunification is an appropriate goal for the child. If the court changes the permanency plan to adoption, the visitation plan might call for a gradual decrease in visits and a focus on grief work rather than parenting skills.
  2. Intermediate phase. During this phase, the parent is working to meet his or her case goals, and visitation activities allow the parent to learn and practice new skills and behaviors. Visits typically occur more frequently, for longer periods, in a greater variety of settings, and with gradually reduced supervision as the parent assumes more and more responsibility for the child.
  3. Transition phase. This phase focuses on smoothing the transition from placement to home and determining what services are required to support the child’s needs and the parent’s ability to meet those needs following reunification. Visits should provide maximum opportunities for parent-child interaction. After the child leaves the foster parent’s care, it is important to arrange visits between the child and foster parent, recognizing the value of that relationship to the child."

Smariga, Visitation with Infants and Toddlers in Foster Care: What Judges and Attorneys Need to Know (July 2007), ABA Center on Children and the Law Practice and Policy Brief, pp. 1, 3, 5, 7, 10-11.


Visitation Guidelines for Judges and Attorneys

Contact between children and family:
Immediate and frequent contact between the child and parent(s) helps maintain the child’s identity and reduces trauma. It also influences future safety decision-making. Visitation is less helpful to future safety decisions when it is identical in every case, such as:

  • supervised regardless of need for, or level of, supervision
  • carried out at same location, such as the CPS agency
  • has the same frequency

Visitation should, at minimum, include:

  • Face-to-face contact between child and parent (unless shown why not) no more than five days after placement. Contact should occur weekly and, in many cases, more frequently.
  • Face-to-face contact between siblings at least once per month.
  • Arrange other contacts including phone calls, letters, email, text messaging, attending church, school and other appointments together.
  • A court order or visitation document, provided to everyone involved in visitation, specifying times, duration, location, and conditions of supervision.
  • Assure frequency or length of visits will not be used as punishment or reward, but is a right of all family members unless child safety is jeopardized.
  • CPS will oversee visitation, including logistics, and will ensure the child’s safety.
  • Steps to maintain parent-child attachment and help parents practice or learn greater protective capacity.
  • Dates when visitation terms will be routinely reviewed.
  • Ideally, visits will take place in the foster home providing a more natural setting and letting the foster parent model parenting techniques.

Determining Visitation: Checklist for Judges

  • Organize visits to occasionally allow parents to learn or practice the protective capacities they lack. Can visit length and location help make this happen?
  • Arrange visits so CPS or another service provider can evaluate whether parents’ protective capacities are improving. Can visit length and location help with this?
  • Reasons visits may or may not be supervised are based on:
    • Threats of danger: some threats may be more difficult to manage without supervision than others. Unmanageable threats may include violence, child’s intense fears, premeditated harm, extreme negative perception of the child, and likelihood of fleeing with the child.
    • The volatility of the threat and how difficult it would be to manage without supervision. Analyze volatility by considering when and how the threats emerge, parent’s impulsivity, whether home environment is unpredictable, or safety could be maintained only through 24 hour in-home help.
    • Whether significant information is lacking about the parent, due to parent unwillingness or other obstacles.
    • Are parent’s or children’s functioning deteriorating during visits so threats of danger must be reconsidered?
  • Is allowable contact spelled out, including email, text messages, and phone?
  • Is there reason not to include parents at appointments, school, and church events?
  • Are the requirements and logistics for visits and contacts provided in writing to parents and other visitation participants? Are they clear to all, not just legal parties?
  • Are participants clear that visits will not be used as punishment or reward?
  • Set dates when visitation terms and contacts will be reconsidered.

Lund and Renee, Child Safety: A Guide for Judges and AttorneysAmerican Bar Association and ACTION for Child Protection (2009), Chapter 7, p. 33-34.


Visitation Guidelines for Social Workers and Other Practitioners

Best Practice Expectation for Visitations:

  • Law and best practice say we must develop a written visitation plan.
  • Plan development needs to include all the parties. All parties must know about the plan, even incarcerated parents.
  • Make visits a normal part of life. It should occur WHERE the child would normally be and WHAT the child would be doing; whenever possible.
  • Have the visits occur at a consistent date, time and place whenever possible.
  • It is recommended that this first visit occur within 48 hours of placement. The younger the child the more critical that the visit occur soon. Offering the child phone contact within 1 hour is law in California.
  • The location of the visit should be the least restrictive, most normal environment, in the community, that can assure the safety of the child. The jail and the agency are the least normal, most institutionalized settings in which visits can take place. The visit should be held in the agency only if it is the only way the protection of the child can be assured. When visits must occur in these locations, do not expect to see normal parent/child interaction.
  • Visits should take place, in order of preference; 1) in the home of the parent; 2) in the home of a relative; 3) in the foster home; or 4) in a park or public location.
  • Visits should be scheduled at least weekly, and more often if at all possible.
  • The visit should be of adequate duration to maintain the parent/ child relationship. In general, one to four hours is an appropriate time range.
  • Overnight visits can be considered when it is assured that the child can be protected in the home. Theoretically, if the child is safe at home for lengthy visits, including frequent overnight visits, he probably should be moved home with close follow-up supervision and in-home supportive services.

Guidelines to Visitation based on the child’s time in care and his/her permanent plan:

Initial Placement Phase

From the time of placement through the first court hearing (no later than 1 month in care)

  • If possible allow the child and parent a phone call as soon as possible on the day of placement.
  • The first visit should occur no later than 48 hours after placement.
  • The primary purpose of these visits is to maintain the child’s emotional attachments.
  • Children often perceive limitations on contacts as punishment for something the child did.
  • Parents should be encouraged to bring clothes, comfort items, school work, medicine, family pictures and other items, to the first visit.
  • Visits in the family home are encouraged as this will allow better assessment of the parent/child relationship, the home environment, and the gathering of items for the child to take back to the caregiver’s home.
  • Ongoing visitation plan should be developed early in the case and be a part of the court ordered services.
  • Children can regress or stop in their development tasks after the trauma of separation.
  • Sibling connections are some of most critical connections that children want us to help maintain.
  • First visits are a good time to collect family history, medical records, contact information and other data.

Reasonable Efforts Phase

One month to 12 months in care (during the time that both family reunification and an alternative permanent plan are being worked on concurrently.)

  • In this phase a second purpose is added to visits.
    Parents are given the opportunity to learn new skills, practice those skills in a safe manner, be provided feedback on their skills.
  • The visits should occur in the family home whenever possible.
    If not, in a homelike environment or where the child is normally; school, sports, religious events, medical appointments.
  • After visits have occurred regularly and with a focus on the child’s needs, negative reactions usually decrease.
  • Visit should be progressive.
  • Whether there are problems or improvements during the visit only change ONE thing at a time.
  • Parents and children should be given feedback on the visit right after the visit. They should be asked how to improve the visits.

Final Permanency Decision Phase

As soon as the social worker, case planning team and/or the court are ready to make a final permanency decision.
(The law states this should occur no later than 15 months in care.) This phase can begin as early as the first month for Fast Track to Permanency cases.

When the permanent plan is reunification:

  • The primary purpose is to gradually reunify the child and parents so to minimize any new trauma a child may feel.
  • Visits should increase in length and frequency. Overnight visits that are unsupervised should occur before the child is return home on a permanent basis.
  • Family activities that reflect the normal range of parent/child interactions and parenting responsibilities would be returned to the parents in an incremental process.
  • Birth parents and caregivers need to develop a plan on how to maintain contact after the reunification is completed.

When the permanent plan is adoption or guardianship:

  • The primary purpose is to help the child understand the changing legal relationships.
  • A child is likely to need ongoing contact with birth family members throughout the rest of her childhood and into adult life.
  • Research shows that most children who grow up in foster care or are adopted want contact with their birth family.
  • Ongoing birth family connections must include contact with siblings, extended family other "fictive" kin with whom the child has emotional attachments.
  • Adoptive parents, birth family members and guardians must be provided with training and support so they are able to help the child/youth handle the ongoing issues related to termination of parental rights and the abuse that did occur.
  • When adults say, "It would be better if the child never has contact with her family again" that is often a sign that the adults need help in resolving relationships.
  • When the permanent plan is not completed before a child becomes 18 years old:
    When a child/youth grows up in foster care without reunification, adoption or guardianship otherwise known as long term foster care.
  • Every person needs to be connected to at least one other person.
  • Many young adults talk about the power of emotional permanency that they have gained from these relationships even when the relationship does not become a legal one.
  • Children who have been in care for years may now be ready to reassume a relationship with a birth parent.
  • For all children who cannot return to their birth families it is a life long process to understand what impact that will have on their life.

Post Permanency Phase

After reunification, adoption or guardianship decisions are made. This phase can continue even after the agency has closed the case.

  • The child should continue to have contact with any caregiver (birth parents, kin, caregivers) or other people, whenever an emotional connection was made.
  • If any of the people, whom the child needs to have contact with, continues to have problems related to the abuse, drug addiction, mental illness or violence there should be strict guidelines and protections developed regarding the contacts.
  • Any contact or visits occur only if it is meets the needs of the child, not the needs of the adult.
  • Any child not living with a sibling should continue to have visits.
  • A casework process within concurrent planning is to develop a relationship between the birth parent and the caregivers during the Reasonable Efforts Phase so the families can negotiate and implement appropriate connections without the need for social work or court mediation.
  • If the child will have little or no contact with any person after the permanent plan is completed, there should be an opportunity for a visit (or series of visits) where the child and that person can say goodbye.
  • Information about all the important people in the child’s life should be in the case record.

Wentz, Visitation – The Key to Children’s Safety, Permanency and Well-Being, Nat’l Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency Planning at the Hunter College School of Social Work, pp. 6, 15-17 (based in part on work from Hess, Family Visiting In Out-of-Home Care: A Guide to Practice). Also, Wentz, Parent/Child Visits and Maintaining Connection. Ref: California Child Welfare Council booklet, Building a System of Support for Young Children in Foster Care


Applicable Statutes and Rules

"(a) In order to maintain ties between the parent or guardian and any siblings and the child, and to provide information relevant to deciding if, and when, to return a child to the custody of his or her parent or guardian, or to encourage or suspend sibling interaction, any order placing a child in foster care, and ordering reunification services shall provide as follows:

  1. (A) Subject to subparagraph (B), for visitation between the parent or guardian and the child. Visitation shall be as frequent as possible, consistent with the well-being of the child.
    (B) No visitation order shall jeopardize the safety of the child.
    To protect the safety of the child, the court may keep the child’s address confidential.
    If the parent of the child has been convicted of murder in the first degree, as defined in Section 189 of the Penal Code, and the victim of the murder was the other parent of the child, the court shall order visitation between the child and parent only if that order would be consistent with Section 3030 of the Family Code.
  2. Pursuant to subdivision (b) of Section 16002, for visitation between the child any siblings, unless the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that sibling interaction is contrary to the safety or well-being of either child.
  3. If the child is a teen parent who has custody of his or her child and that child is not a dependent of the court pursuant to this chapter, for visitation among the teen parent, the child’s noncustodial parent, and appropriate family members, unless the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that visitation would be detrimental to the teen parent.

(b) When reunification services are not ordered pursuant to Section 361.5, the child’s plan for legal permanency shall include consideration of the existence of and the relationship with any sibling pursuant to Section 16002.

(c) As used in this section, "sibling" means a child related to another person by blood, adoption, or affinity through a common legal or biological parent."
Welfare & Institution § 362.1 (Visitation)

"If the parent or guardian is incarcerated or institutionalized, the court shall order reasonable services unless the court determines, by clear and convincing evidence those services would be detrimental to the child. In determining detriment, the court shall consider the age of the child, the degree of parent-child bonding, the length of the sentence, the length and nature of the treatment, the nature of the crime or illness, the degree of detriment to the child if services are not offered and, for children 10 years of age or older, the child’s attitude toward the implementation of reunification services, the likelihood of the parent’s discharge from incarceration or institutionalization within the reunification time limits . . . and any other appropriate factors. In determining the content of reasonable services, the court shall consider the particular barriers to an incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized parent’s access to those court-mandated services and ability to maintain contact with his or her child, and shall document this information in the child’s case plan. Reunification services are subject to the applicable time limitations imposed in subdivision (a). Services may include . . . :

(C) Visitation services, where appropriate."
Welfare & Institution § 361.5 (e)(1)

"If the court . . . does not order reunification services . . . . The court may continue to permit the parent to visit the child unless it finds that visitation would be detrimental to the child."
Welfare & Institution § 361.5 (f)

"(A) If the court finds that adoption of the child or termination of parental rights is not in the best interest of the child. . . .
(C) The court shall also make an order for visitation with the parents or guardians unless the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the visitation would be detrimental to the physical or emotional well-being of the child."
Welfare & Institution § 366.26(c)(4)

"The court must consider the issue of visitation between the child and other persons,
including siblings, determine if contact pending the jurisdiction hearing would be beneficial or detrimental to the child, and make appropriate orders."
California Rule of Court, Rule 5.670(g): Visitation

Requirements upon setting a section 366.26 hearing: "The Court must continue to permit the parent or legal guardian to visit the child, unless it finds that visitation would be detrimental to the child."
California Rule of Court, Rule 5.708 (n)


Applicable Case Law

In re Shawna M. (1993) 19 Cal.App.4th 1686, 1690.
An order for visitation as "approved by" the department was an improper delegation of the court’s authority.

In re Precious J. (1996) 42 Cal.App.4th 1463, 1476.
Incarceration of a parent is not a valid reason for denying visitation.

In re Julie M. (1999) 69 Cal.App.4th 41, 81.
Visitation is absolutely required as part of any reunification plan. The court’s order giving the children discretion to decide whether mother could visit them was invalid.

In re Nicholas B. (2001) 88 Cal.pp.4th 1126,1138.
The suspension of visitation was unwarranted and demonstrated inadequate reunification services. The court’s order failed to mandate visitation as a necessary part of reunification services and gave too much discretion to the child’s therapist. Also, because visitation for parents can also serve as a means of maintaining a relationship when reunification is not possible or not achieved, and may then provide the basis for an exception to termination of parental rights, it is improper to suspend or halt visits even after the end of the reunification period.

In re Alvin R., Jr. (2003) 108 Cal.App.4th 962, 972.
"Visitation is an essential component of any reunification plan."

In re S.H. (2003) 111 Cal.App. 4th 310, 317.
"Visitation is a necessary and integral components of any reunification plan." The court’s order allowing the children to refuse visits was invalid. Visitation must take place even if the child does not want to visit.

In re M.R. (2005) 132 Cal.App.4th 206.
The court may delegate to the child’s legal guardian the authority to set time, place, and manner of visitation with the parent.

In re J.N. (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 450.
When no reunification services are offered, the court is not required to make a finding of detriment to the child in order deny visitation. However, the court must deny visitation if it finds that visitation would be detrimental.

In re Hunter S. (2006) 142 Cal.App.4th 1497, 1505.
When the child is living with a foster parent or relative in a long term arrangement the court must retain authority over the orders as to visitation.

In re C.C. (2009) 172 Cal.App.4th 1481, 1492.
Parental visitation is mandatory unless there exists substantial evidence of a threat to the child’s safety. Suspension of visitation based upon a finding of detriment to a child’s overall well-being is not permitted.

In re Rebecca S. (2010) 181 Cal.App.4th 1310.
The court cannot leave to the discretion of the legal guardian whether parental visits actually occur.


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