This article considers the implications of contemporary attachment theory and research for how social workers may better support parent--child relationships during foster care visits. Despite changes in child welfare policies and priorities in recent years (for example, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, P.L. 105-89), family reunification remains a goal for the majority of children in foster care. Parent visitation, the scheduled, face-to-face contact between parents and their children in foster care, is considered the primary intervention for maintaining and enhancing the development of parent--child relationships necessary for successful family reunification (for example, Hess & Proch, 1993). Regular visits are considered so critical to the effort to reunite families that the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-272) requires inclusion of regular visits in family preservation efforts. Yet, existing research suggests that, too often, visits fall short of meeting their goals.
Existing research presents a complex and varied picture of the experience, quality, and effect of visiting. First, children and parents' experiences of visits vary widely. Parents (Jenkins & Norman, 1975), foster parents (Jenkins & Norman, 1975), caseworkers (Fanshel, 1982; Fanshel & Shinn, 1978; Jenkins & Norman, 1975), and adolescents in care (Jenkins & Norman) report a range of emotional and behavioral responses to visits. For example, some parents and adolescents report that visits evoke painful feelings about separation (Jenkins & Norman). It is not surprising, then, that some foster parents report a temporary worsening of children's behavior following visits (Jenkins & Norman). Caseworkers report that for children in long-term placement (five years or more), frequent parent visits may challenge children's abilities to cope with separation and the foster care environment (Fanshel & Shinn).
Second, the quality of parent-child interactions during visits varies widely. Social workers report a variety of maternal behaviors during visits, ranging from relating superficially (26 percent) to relating very well (15 percent) to the child. They also report a range of child behaviors, from visible anxiety (8 percent) to enjoyment (29 percent) (Fanshel, 1982). Furthermore, direct observations indicate considerable variation in the extent to which mothers and young children sustain mutually engaging, developmentally appropriate interactions during visits (Haight, Black, Workman, & Tata, 2001).
Finally, the effect of visits on parent-child relationships also varies. In some cases, visits may be necessary, but not sufficient, for supporting the development of adequate parent-child relationships. Weinstein (1960) interviewed school-age and teenage foster children regarding their "predominant family identification," that is, to whom they spoke in times of trouble, who they loved the most, who loved them the most, and with whom they wanted to live. As might be expected, when parents did not visit their children, children tended to identify with their foster parents. However, only 41 percent of the children whose parents visited regularly identified predominantly with their parents.
To some extent, variation in the experience, quality, and outcome of visits is attributable to the social and physical contexts in which visiting occurs. Ideally, parent visits occur in a homelike setting and at least weekly. In reality, however, the environment in which children and parents visit may be less than ideal: a sterile office with no toys or other amenities, under the watchful eyes of foster parents, caseworkers, or other "outsiders." Furthermore, visits may take place infrequently, and their quality may be compromised by the limited ability of the parent or the child to cope with the traumatic events that had occurred before or during the placement.
Aspects of the parent-child attachment relationship may influence the visits. Attachment refers to close, enduring affective bonds that develop throughout life (Ainsworth, 1973). Over three decades of empirical research have confirmed what diverse theoretical perspectives have predicted-adequate attachment relationships are necessary for children's healthy development (see Zeanah, Mammen, & Lieberman, 1993). Attachment relationships, particularly those developed during the first three years of life, influence children's expectations for, and responses to, subsequent interpersonal relationships (for example, Carlson, 1998; Crittenden & Ainsworth, 1989). Unfortunately, an increasing number of infants and young children are entering foster care and staying for longer periods of time (Downs, Costin, & McFadden, 1996), putting their emerging attachment relationships with their parents at risk. This article, focuses on children's attachment relationships during infancy and early childhood, and their implications fo r visiting.
Universal, Developmental, Variable, and Problematic Aspects of Attachment Relationships
Understanding several aspects of attachment relationships can guide social workers toward developmentally and culturally sensitive practice, as well as provide a foundation for recognizing problems in attachment relationships. Universal aspects of attachment relationships, such as development of an affective bond between children and their primary caregivers, emerge from our common genetic heritage. They suggest criteria for understanding parent-child attachment relationships across social and cultural groups.
Developmental aspects, such as the ways in which children and caregivers negotiate separations, emerge in relation to children's growing emotional, social, communicative, and cognitive competencies. They suggest criteria for understanding children's age-specific needs, particularly in infancy and early childhood. Variable aspects, such as the ways in which toddlers and caregivers relate in times of stress, emerge in relation to diverse social and cultural experiences. They suggest criteria for understanding patterns of parent-child interactions in diverse social and cultural groups.
In addition, some parent-child attachment relationships have problematic aspects such as the failure to develop an organized strategy for relating in times of stress. Problematic aspects result from a variety of factors-for example, caregivers' unresolved mental health issues. They suggest the need for intensive services beyond visiting, the remainder of this article elaborates on aspects of attachment relationships and their implications. The heuristic approach (that is, universal, developmental, variable, and problematic aspects) is intended to aid analysis, not to imply that aspects of attachment relationships are independent. In fact, they are interrelated; for example, variable aspects may affect developmental aspects and vice versa.
Universal Aspects of Attachment Relationships
In all social and cultural groups, children and their primary caregivers develop affective bonds and organized behaviors for relating in times of stress. These relationships emerge over time and in conjunction with children's and caregiver's experiences. Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980) argued that such attachment relationships are part of our biological heritage and evolved because they enhance our potential for survival. For example, toddler behaviors, such as monitoring the caregiver's whereabouts, and caregiver behaviors, such as responding to the child's distress, emerge with experience and appear to maximize the child's learning and safety.
Recent neuroscience research supports Bowlby's (1969, 1973, 1980) theoretical arguments that attachment relationships have universal, biologically based origins. Like many mammals, human infants appear to have some biologically based behaviors that assist caretaking--for example, clinging and nursing--as well as other behaviors that make them more attractive-for example, smiling and cooing (Stevenson-Hinde, 1994).
In addition, recent research has identified neural processes in neonates and mothers that establish behaviors that promote survival and serve as the foundation for later emotional and social development. For example, human neonates and mothers recognize, and prefer, one another's unique smell. In mammals, several specific brain regions and neurotransmitters that mediate this perinatal olfactory learning have been identified (for example, Leon, 1992).
Recent neuroscience research also extends Bowlby's (1969, 1973, 1980) theoretical arguments regarding the importance of experience in the development of universal, biologically based processes (Eisenberg, 1999). Indeed, biologically based attachment and many other processes require enriched and structured experience for their development (Black, Jones, Nelson, & Greenough, 1998). There are extended periods of neural plasticity in childhood during which experiences affect brain structure. Black and Greenough (1986) categorized these processes as either developmentally scheduled for all species …