Visit Coaching

Family visits with children in out-of-home care are an underutilized service which can be the most significant assistance the child welfare agency provides for safe reunification. Although research correlates visits with return home and shorter foster care placement, in most child welfare systems visits are rarely more than an encounter in an office. Families can have "okay" visits for months and be no closer to demonstrating that they can keep their children safe.

Services are seldom designed to help families learn more about what their children need. Drug and alcohol programs and domestic violence counseling focus on adult treatment, not parent responsiveness to children. Parenting classes are not specifically designed to help a parent clarify what he/she could do differently to meet the unique developmental needs of his/her particular child. Parents can be clean and sober, or determined to stay out of violent relationships, or graduates of parenting class and still not be able to demonstrate that they will protect their children from the risks that brought them into care.

Unfortunately, the message sent to parents is that agency visits are merely another hoop to jump through in order to get their children back. Parents’ unrealistic hopes for a short timeframe for reunification contribute to this misunderstanding of visits. The agency, the judge and the lawyers, believing that the reason for child-parent contact is obvious, typically do not make sure the family comprehends the purposes of visits. Visiting would be dramatically different if soon after removal parents understood that the purposes of visits are to make their children happy and to demonstrate that they can meet their children’s safety and developmental needs.

Visits typically do not attempt to build on a parent's strengths or guide parents in responding to their children’s reactions to separation. Throughout the time the case is open, parents' concepts of their children's needs may remain different from the developmental and safety needs of concern to the worker, foster parent, parenting teacher, or therapist. The parent’s preoccupation with complying with court-ordered treatment, employment and/or housing may obscure their child's needs. They may act out their anger and grief about the child's removal during visits, not realizing how it may negatively affect their children.

Child welfare agencies are so accustomed to the way office-based visits have always been done that it is difficult to see how—unintentionally--visit practices alienate parents, children and foster parents. Coming to the agency reminds the parent of their child’s removal and the anger, loss and hopelessness associated with it. In most agencies the visiting space is not family-friendly, often lacking toys, books, games, crafts or clean floor space where parents and children can play together. Parents report that being watched by someone taking notes during visits makes them uncomfortable and less likely to do anything with their children for fear of making a mistake. Children’s behavior reflects their feelings about being separated from family members, about the neglect or abuse that preceded placement, and their confusion about living with a new family. As a result, unsupported visits bring out the worst in the parent and child, who react to each other’s sadness and anger.

Child welfare agencies can improve visit practices somewhat by enhancing visit rooms, ensuring that visits are at least weekly, providing evening and weekend visits, encouraging visits outside the office, and freeing families from supervision unless there are safety concerns during the visit. Sometimes agencies open or contract with a provider to operate a visiting house for a homelike environment that is more accessible to families. Unfortunately, traditional supervised visits often are the practice in these houses.

Visit coaching is fundamentally different from supervised visits because of the focus on the strengths of the family and the needs of the children. Visit coaching supports families to make each visit fun for their children and to meet the unique needs of each child. Visit coaching includes:

  • Helping parents articulate their children's needs to be met in visits
  • Preparing parents for their children's reactions
  • Helping parents plan to give their children their full attention at each visit
  • Appreciating the parent's strengths in caring meeting each child’s needs
  • Helping parents cope with their feelings so that they can visit consistently and keep their anger and sadness out of the visit

Some agencies initially assume that visit coaching training is unnecessary because “Our caseworkers already give parents pointers while supervising visits." But given the challenges families face in visiting their children, they require more support than someone in the visit supervision role can provide. For the parent who has been removed from the parenting role and feels guilt and anger about what has happened to their child, it is unlikely that direction to interact with their child or discipline in a certain way, for example, will make visits productive (despite the good intentions of the worker or parenting teacher). Other agencies may think that visit coaching is "ideal but impossible to do because of caseload size." However, when staff are trained to coach visits, although coaching makes visits more time-consuming, cases close more quickly and it is so effective that staff want visit coaching for most of the families they work with.

Marty Beyer developed visit coaching and has a curriculum for training visit coaches to which there has been an enthusiastic response from private and public agencies with diverse trainees including caseworkers, visit center staff, parent advocates, case aides, parenting teachers, therapists, MSW interns, foster parents, drug and alcohol counselors, domestic violence counselors, and family visiting programs in prisons and jails. Visit coaching was featured in an article in the Child Welfare League of America’s publication, Children’s Voice, Jan/Feb 2009

Visit Coaching Article

A later version of this article was published as
Beyer, Marty (2008). “Visit Coaching: Building on Family Strengths to Meet Children’s Needs,”  Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 59, 1, 47-60.