Understanding and Supporting Parent-Child Relationships during Foster Care Visits: Attachment Theory and Research

Article excerpt

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. …