How to advocate for time with your child
Vivek Sankaran, clinical assistant professor of law in the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan, explains how parents can advocate for the best visits possible.
Q: What right do parents have to visits?
A: Every state has different minimum requirements. Most have at least one
hour a week. But that’s the minimum, not the maximum parents should see a child.
Visits should start immediately after placement. There’s no reason that visits should be delayed at all. Parents are entitled to visits unless there’s a petition showing that visits, even if supervised, are harmful to a child.
By law, visits should only be supervised when a judge rules that supervision is necessary to protect the child. In practice, it seems like parents usually begin with supervised visits, even if the case is about housing or that the child was left home alone. Before that first hearing, parents should talk to their attorneys about pushing for unsupervised visits, because once the judge orders supervised visits, it tends to just stay that way.
Parents and lawyers have to push back against the notion that visits mean an hour in an office under the supervision of a caseworker. That’s probably the worst type of visit I can imagine.
You may be able to propose a creative solution. Maybe the family can find a relative or a family friend to supervise the visits instead of the agency. You will need to prove to the court or the agency that this person is suitable. That includes the person having a criminal background check and a child protective services background check. It’s also good to gather whatever you can to show how qualified this person would be. A teacher, a pastor, any folks with more professional background are more likely to be approved.
Your child’s foster parent can also supervise visits. If parents and foster parents don’t get along, there’s no way a parent can visit at the foster parent’s home. But if I were a parent, early on I would try to develop that relationship. At first, that might not seem easy. Someone might have told the foster parent something that’s not true about you. The foster parent might not even know that she’s allowed to have a relationship with
the birth parent. Birth parents have the burden of overcoming that.
Q: What can parents do about negative visiting conditions, like overcrowded visiting rooms?
A: I would start with the agency worker and in a calm way explain why you feel conditions are hurting your ability to form a bond. If you don’t get anywhere with the worker, speak to higher ups at the local office. If that’s unsuccessful, then the parent’s attorney should bring the concerns to the court’s attention. But I would always try the agency first because courts are very reluctant to micromanage. At a minimum you want to be able tell the judge that you tried to resolve the issue in other ways.
I would also take pictures. Use a cell phone to take pictures of the surroundings, because a lot of judges and attorneys just haven’t seen what these facilities are like.
Q: How often should visits be increased if a parent is progressing?
A: There is no magic number. But usually, visits increase bit by bit. They starts at one or two to three times a week. Then the family gets unsupervised visits, then overnight visits. But oftentimes, the system takes cases way too slowly, without enough sense of urgency to increase visits or
return children home.
If your visits are not increasing, talk to the caseworker and the supervisor while talking to your attorney as well. If the agency doesn’t cooperate, your attorney can file a motion with court. Another person to talk to is the child’s attorney. If an older child wants visits, the parent could encourage the child to call his or her lawyer and request them.
You also can request the agency’s reports on your visits. Parents should have access to anything that doesn’t reveal the identity of a reporting source. You should make a written request to the agency and then if the agency doesn’t cooperate, file a motion in court.
Finally, you can ask about special visiting supports, like visit coaching with someone who is trained to help families connect during visits. The agency is required to make reasonable efforts to reunify the family. You and your lawyer should characterize these visit supports as the types of reasonable efforts that are needed for reunification to occur.
Above all, make sure that you attend all of your visits, because visits are a huge measure of whether reunification is going to happen, and use your attorneys to push as hard as they can for visits.