FAMILY LAW SEMINAR:
APRIL 16, 2010, Memphis, Tn.
Karen Grais Meyer MSW, LCSW
A. Reasons for Supervised Visitation
Supervised visitation is ordered by the court when there is concern for the safety or emotional well being of a child during parenting time with a nonresidential parent. The most common reasons for ordering supervised visitation are as follows:
1)Proven history or allegations of: parental sexual or physical abuse of the child; child neglect; domestic violence (whether child was victim or witnessed violence by the parent); substance abuse;
2)Reinstatement of visitation after a period of estrangement that resulted in absence of parenting time;
3) Impairment of parenting by a psychiatric illness;
4) Parental threats to abduct the child(ren)
B. Process of Supervised Visitation, off/on site, therapeutic or reintegration:
1) Interview the parents individually; there are times when more than one interview with one or both parents is required
2) Interview the child(ren); there are times when more than one interview with children is required, to prepare him/her for spending time with the parent, to establish comfort level between supervisor and child
3) Explain parameters of visitation, such as where it will take place, time frame (including how many weeks or months this will take place, and how long each visit will be)
4) Rules of conduct, what is/is not permitted
5) Discuss expectations of the visitation
6) Contract signed by both parents, clarifying fees and payment
C. Types of Supervised Visitation:
1) Exchange Supervision:
This is limited to the exchange of the child(ren) between one parent and the other, but the actual parenting time is unsupervised. The exchange would
typically occur at a neutral location, such as a social/family service agency, restaurant, or in some cases at a local police station. One example of exchange supervision is when one party has been ordered to have a breathalizer test at the police station before and after parenting time with the child(ren). Otherwise exchange supervision might be used to prevent an altercation between the parents.In these case, unlike the following ones, an interview process is not necessarily held prior to the supervision being set up, and a contract is not always signed.
2) Off-site Supervision:
This is when the supervisor accompanies the parent and the child(ren) to a restaurant, mall, park, etc. The arrangement would be made between the supervisor and the parent, with the agreement of the residential parent, as to pick up and drop off times and places. This off-site supervision could be for one or several hours.The supervisor would be observing the interaction between the parent and child(ren), and would intervene if something inappropriate occurred, but would not be conducting a therapy session with the family members. “Something inappropriate” might include the parent making negative comments to the child(ren) about the other parent, asking the child questions about the other parent, making statements to the child that may not be accurate, such as “Tell your mother/father that we are not doing this anymore,” or “Next time I see you we can be by ourselves.”
3) On-site Supervision:
This usually takes place in the supervisor’s office, and is typically for one to two hours in length. The supervisor observes the interaction between the parent and child(ren) but does not intervene unless necessary, such as stated in the section above called Off-site Supervision. The supervisor would not be conducting a therapy session with the family members. The parent and child(ren) might play a game, or engage in a project of some sort; if the parent missed the child(ren)’s birthday or special holiday, with the supervisor’s and/or residential parent’s permission the parent might bring a gift to the child. This can have wonderful and terrible results, such as the child loving the gift, or clearly hating it, or the child telling the parent at the following visit, that their other parent made them throw the gift away.
After a specific number of supervised visits, if all goes well, the visits often become unsupervised, starting with short visits, incrementally increasing to longer visits, such for four-six-eight hours, and then possibly to overnight visitation. The
supervisor sometimes remains involved for a limited period of time, to ensure that the unsupervised visits are proceeding according to plan.
4) Therapeutic supervision/Reintegration Therapy:
Therapeutic supervision might occur for any of the reasons listed above, or when attempting to re-establish an estranged relationship between parent/child.
This takes place in an office setting, and is typically for one to two hours in length, with a trained mental health professional who provides supervision and ensures child safety, but also engages in a therapeutic process to work on improving some aspect of parental functioning, and/ or the parent/child relationship.
One composite case of therapeutic supervision/reintegration therapy that I will describe was with two children, a 15 year old girl and a 10 year old boy, who I will call Jenny and Jake who had not seen their father for about two years. The father had a history of substance abuse and suicide attempts, but he had reportedly been stable for at least one year. He was very nervous about seeing the children, but was very much looking forward to the reunion with them. Father believed that the mother would do anything to keep him from the kids, that she was angry. The mother stated that she was “scared to death” about the father seeing the kids; she did not trust that the father had ever really stopped drinking or using drugs. There had been so much instability and conflict that she could never feel comfortable having the children spend time with the father unsupervised. Jenny was scared to see her father, stating that it was a “nightmare” that she wouldn’t wake up from. Jake was very excited to see his father, recalling the fun things they did together and wanting to resume those activities.
From the first meeting, Jake would run into his father’s arms and was obviously joyful to see his father, as the father was to see him. Jenny was very guarded, would not hug or kiss her Dad, and did not talk unless asked questions. She had made it very clear to me that she never really wanted to see her father again, and that she did not think that she could ever trust him again. The father was disappointed and hurt by this, but he respected her need for distance. Initially the father spent the time catching up on the kids lives, asking questions about school, friends, activities. They sometimes played a game that I had in my office or one that Jake brought from home. The father sometimes brought a camera with him; he took photos of the kids and I took photos of him with the kids. One of the nicest things that the father did was bring an empty photo album, and a bunch of photos of the kids and himself and other family members from times when they had been together, and they put together a photo album, the dad letting the kids choose which photos they wanted in the album. The kids enjoyed seeing themselves when younger, they laughed together about some pictures, and enjoyed some happy memories. This is very important in these cases, for the children to recall the good parent times.
This project was also significant because it provided an opportunity for the father to talk with the kids about how some bad and scarey things had happened, but that he had gotten help for his problems, and he was doing well. He was asking the children for forgiveness. We talked about this being a time of healing from the hurt they had suffered, and how they could now experience better times together. It was not clear whether Jenny, who was old enough to remember things that had happened, ever really relaxed entirely; there were moments when she laughed and seemed to enjoy the visit, and other times when she was distant and guarded.
The therapeutic supervision proceeded for 4-5 months, once weekly or every two
weeks depending on the father’s and children’s schedules. This was followed by
unsupervised visitation out of the office for one and one half hours. The father would pick up the children at my office, and take them for an ice cream and to walk around, often going to the bookstore; they always came back to the office with a new book that their father had bought them. This was followed by a debriefing session with myself and the children, to determine how the visit had gone, if the kids had any problems with it, and then with the mother when she picked them up. The children expressed no complaints about the visitation, either to me or to the mother in my presence. After this occurred for six weeks, there was a plan for unsupervised visits for three hours in the community where the children lived.
The father initially appreciated my involvement, but then resented me as the person calling the shots so to speak. I was the person who was reporting to the court, and making recommendations about the continuation of the therapy, visitation, etc. He was impatient to see the children alone, and believed that the office setting was unrealistic and unnecessary. Jenny was the one I was the most concerned about, and wanted to ensure her readiness for unsupervised visitation; Jake was anxious to see his father unsupervised. The mother was very fearful of the supervision terminating. She insisted on the father providing proof that he was attending AA meetings, and that he was compliant by seeing his psychiatrist or therapist. I, as the supervisor, was the person to contact these providers, which further angered the father, who saw it as an invasion of his privacy, but he agreed because he wanted to see the children w/o supervision. Although the mother was provided the confirmation she requested, she continued to be fearful of unsupervised visitation.
I was no longer involved in this case once the supervision occurred in the children’s neighborhood. However, the feedback that I recently got from the child rep was that, when he was last involved, the father was having one overnight on alternate weekends.
Two things would have made a positive difference in this case: 1)There would have been more expectation that the mother be involved in a healing process of her own, to insure that she would be able to accept the children having a positive relationship with the father….like one colleague of mine puts it, “The custodial
parent has a lot invested in the jerk always remaining the jerk;” and 2) I, as the therapist, would not have been the one to be making the specific recommendations to the court…this runs the risk of manipulation by the parents because each of them is trying to convince the therapist to believe their position, and one or both usually feels that therapist is not believing them. Instead the child rep, in conjunction with the court, specify the recommendations after consulting with the therapist. Thus, the therapist would be the agent in helping the system change but not orchestrating the change.
D. Literature review:
The primary source of my literature review was AFCC”s Family Court Review, January 2010. A good portion of the literature cited pertained to alienation cases, which was not my focus, as much as supervised visitation ordered by court for reasons mentioned in the first part of the presentation. But I was very interested in the articles on children resisting or refusing visitation, resulting in estrangement, because in most of the cases I have had, the therapeutic supervision and/or the reintegration therapy was ordered after a period of estrangement between a parent and child(ren), and often it was due to a child refusing to visit with a parent. In some cases, the estrangement had occurred for a relatively short period of time,
such as a few months, but for many the estrangement had occurred for many months up to several years. One fact that all agree with is that the longer the period of estrangement, the more difficult to engage in successful reintegration.
Janet Johnston, Marjorie Gans Walters and Steven Friedlander (2001) developed the Multi-Modal Family Intervention model or MMFI. This has been applied to many cases in which a child rejects or refuses to spend time with a parent and/or there have been findings of alienation.
One aspect of this model that I believe is essential for our work with families, and which I believe is often lacking, is that it requires the active involvement of both parents and children. Whereas many mental health practitioners focus primarily or even exclusively on the rejected or estranged parent and child, with the MMFI model concurrent work with the aligned or preferred parent is essential. The purpose for this is that the aligned parents need to do their own work at becoming ready for the child’s improved relationship with the rejected/estranged parent so that barriers are not created in that relationship becoming healthier. If there is progress on the part of the child and the rejected/estranged parent, but no progress on the part of the aligned/ primary parent, the reintegration will fail unless the child is old enough to navigate it on his/her own. It has been found that older adolescents and young adults sometimes voluntarily reestablish a good relationship with the estranged parent.
Another aspect of the model is an emphasis on working with the rejected/estranged parent to develop improved parenting skills. The parent must accept responsibility for the behavior that has contributed to the estrangement, and demonstrate a willingness to change. There is not time in this presentation to describe the model in full, but the results have reportedly been good. They emphasize the importance of early detection, early intervention and prevention in these complex cases.
This presentation identified the reasons why supervised visitation might be ordered by the court in divorce or parentage cases, the different types of supervision that are being conducted, and the process that is undertaken. The most complex supervision is therapeutic supervision and reintegration therapy, undertaken when there has been a rupture in the parent/child relationship due to concerns for the child’s physical and/or emotional well being, and/or when there is resistance or refusal on the part of the child to spend time with the non-residential parent.
This work requires that judges, attorneys and mental health professionals :
1) Collaborate with one another and make referrals to therapeutic supervision and reintegration therapy as early in the process as possible, and recognizing that the path to a healthier parent/child relationship in these cases requires the work of highly skilled professionals who are committed to taking the necessary time to create positive change;
2) Work with the estranged/rejected parent on improving parenting skills;
3) Build more expectation of the custodial parent’s involvement. If that parent remains in a place of anger, distrust and fear they will not be able to foster the healthier relationship that the estranged parent and child are attempting to forge. Without the child getting permission, so to speak, from the aligned parent, to have that relationship, the reintegration process will not succeed;
4) Develop a standardized model to be put in place in all of these cases, so there will be no need to create a model for each case. For example, there would be three months of therapeutic supervised visitation in the office, followed by a brief assessment by the therapist and child rep if they are ready for the next step. The next step would be another three months of unsupervised visits, starting and ending at the therapist’s office, but the actual visit would occur outside of the office. The third step would be unsupervised visits without the involvement of the therapist at each visit, but perhaps touching base with the therapist after three such visits to determine how it is going. The judge and child representative would be instrumental in making the recommendations, after consultation with the therapist/supervispor.
Karen Grais Meyer, LCSW (Contd.)
1) Fidler, Barbara Jo and Bala, Nicholas, “Children Resisting Postseparation Contact with a Parent: Concepts, Controversies, and Conundrums,” Family Court Review, Vol.48, January 2010.
2) Friedlander, Steven and Walters, Marjorie Gans, “When a Child Rejects a Parent: Tailoring the Intervention to Fit the Problem,” Family Court Review, Vol.48, January 2010.
3) Johnston, Janet R. and Goldman, Judith Roth, Outcomes of Family Counseling Interventions with Children Who Resist Visitation: An Addendum to Friedlander and Walters (2010), Family Court Review, Vol. 48, January 2010.
4) Parental Reunification Therapy, By the Coalition for Collaborative Divorce, March 10, 2005
5) Center for Families, Children and the Courts, Research Update, March, 2000.