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Nichols: Program brings foster children, parents together

POSTED: April 16, 2008 5:00 a.m.

One January after the Christmas break I asked one of my students how the break went. "I hated it" he replied.

I discovered that he had been taken from his home at an early age and placed with foster parents. He was adequately provided for by foster parents in two homes, but he never experienced the Christmas season with his own real parents, like many of his friends who lived with their biological parents.

Here in Georgia we have about 14,000 children in foster home care. We have a special program called "Safe Havens" which is designed to provide a friendly place (like a church) where a child and his or her biological parents can have supervised visitations that can lead, over a period of time, to the ultimate reuniting of the families.

A juvenile court judge and the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services can remove a child from home because the child has been subject to abuse, neglect, lack of food, shelter, medical care, or if the parent(s) are unable to appropriately care for a child because of drug or alcohol abuse.

The parents are given a detailed case plan requiring that they complete parenting classes, get treatment to remedy the causes of the abuse, neglect or substance abuse, maintain employment and housing and regularly visit their children who are in foster care. For most parents who are trying to maintain employment, taking off regularly to visit their child during the weekday when most DFCS-supervised visits are scheduled, is difficult.

In observance of the period 2000 to 2010 as the "Decade of the Child," Presbyterian churches throughout Georgia, in collaboration with DFCS and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, put together a program to help foster children have more visitation with their parents. The program, called Safe Havens, has invited local churches to provide volunteers and facilities so that parents can visit with their children in foster care on weekends and evenings.

Here in Gainesville, the First Presbyterian Church operates the local Safe Havens supervised visitation program, The program, staffed by trained volunteers who have passed a criminal background check, provides a two-hour supervised visitation period on Sunday afternoons and on some Saturday mornings. Families using the Safe Havens program must be screened and recommended by DFCS or the juvenile court and must elect to visit through the Safe Havens program.

First, the biological parents arrive about 15 minutes early and are met at the door of the church by a greeter who verifies the identity of each visitor. An escort then takes the parents to the room where the visitation will take place, usually a Sunday school room with age-appropriate toys. Then the foster parents or other adult supervisor arrive at the door with the child, who is taken to the visitation room. Foster parents and biological parents never meet.

In the visitation room, the observer sits and watches the family visit. The observer records on a special form how the visit is going and evaluates the parents' interaction with the child. The observer asks no questions and does not participate in the visitation, except to give the time remaining for the visit at 30, 15 and five minutes.

At the end, the child is escorted to the front door to meet the foster parent or person transporting the child back home. Then the parents leave and the evaluation forms from the observer are collected and faxed to the Department of Family and Children Services and to juvenile court officials who monitor the entire program.

Parents are required to read and accept a list of 17 rules for their conduct during the visit. For example, negative remarks about the custodial parents or DFCS are not allowed. Parents must not have used alcohol or drugs at least 24 hours prior to the visit. All conversations with the child must be in English (unless a speaker of Spanish or other language is observing), and not whispered. Discussion of court proceedings and when the child might return home is not allowed.

Although the Safe Havens program is housed in the First Presbyterian Church, volunteer workers from any of our local churches can be trained to participate in the program.

Studies have shown that frequent visitation between parents and children in foster care is the No. 1 indicator of successful family reunification. When children can be reunited with their birth parents under improved circumstances, all of our society benefits.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. First published Feb. 21, 2008.


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