By Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS
Violence in the home affects all that live there, especially the youngest ones who have no escape. In these cases, it can be helpful to have Child Protective Services (CPS) involved to help monitor and maintain safety for the children in the home. CPS can provide resources for housing, childcare, mental health services, and supervised visitation monitoring for the abusive parent/partner. In theory, these services will help the non-abusive parent leave the relationship and find safety for themselves and children; however, this is not always the case.
And what about the cases that never make it onto the radar of CPS? Family Court, due to divorce and custody issues, is also commonly involved with these families. Many times when judges are trying to determine what is in the best interest of the children, supervised visitation can be ordered to help monitor and assess the safety of a parent. The goal is to do what is in the best interest of the children; unfortunately, this is also not always the case.
If your facilitator does not have the proper education and understanding of domestic violence, these supervised visitations can allow abuse to continue.
What is Supervised Visitation?
Supervised visitation is time supervised by a hopefully trained professional so that children can visit a parent(s) where there have been suspected or demonstrated safety concerns. These visits are meant to help maintain attachment and bonds between a parent and child and to monitor or eliminate any safety issues. These can take place in CPS facilities, private facilities and non-profit organization, or they can take place in the community and sometimes even in the home. There are different lengths of time allowed for visits and different amounts of frequency depending on the age of the child(ren), intensity of the abuse in the home, and current progress being made in mental health or other treatments designated by the courts or CPS professionals.
The Facilitator’s Role
The facilitator’s role in providing monitoring of these visitation sessions is to ensure the parents are providing developmentally appropriate parenting skills and experiences and providing physical and emotional safety at all times. The facilitator should be close enough to hear all conversations (whispering is not allowed, or should I say “should not be allowed”) and should be able to see all interactions throughout the entire session. The facilitators provide feedback to the parents after a visit is over and will then document the goings on of the visit. The facilitator’s role requires them to be as objective as possible.
The professionals providing this service have differing levels of education. At some agencies only a high school diploma is required while at others, a bachelor’s degree or higher is required. In a private practice providing supervised visitations, the level of education and training is at their own discretion. The level of training also varies depending on the agency in which they work, as does the level of supervision and oversight for the facilitators. I will share the significant concerns with this in a later section.
Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries!
Many families need supervised visitation services because inappropriate boundaries have been established in the past. Whether the child was physically abused, witnessed domestic violence, was neglected while a parent used substances, or had inconsistent contact with a parent, appropriate boundaries may be foreign for these children (and probably the adults too). These children have not had appropriate boundaries mirrored for them and in some cases their boundaries have been significantly violated. Appropriate boundaries and structure help children feel safe and teach them to detect “red flags” when their boundaries are being pushed or broken. Parents may not know how to set appropriate boundaries and can learn this during the feedback sessions provided by the facilitator and by modeling the behaviors of the facilitator in and out of session.
Unfortunately, it is common that boundaries are not initially set by the facilitator or that they become extremely lax or non-existent after working with a family for a considerable length of time. Often, folks providing supervised facilitation are early in their careers. They may worry that the families they work with will not like them or they may worry about sitting in uncomfortable situations. Because of worries like this, some facilitators will begin the relationship with few boundaries and allow small breaches of protocol. This leads to struggles very quickly when the families do not have a clear sense of the rules and/or use this lack of boundaries to their advantage.
I have provided supervised visitation early in my career and have experienced the importance of maintaining these boundaries. When you have worked with a family for months, you may develop a closeness to them. Maybe the children want you to join in on their games or eat a meal with the family. You will learn some of the family’s struggles as they share their perspective with you. You may even find yourself taking on their perspective; the system is out to get them, the other parent is just doing this to alienate them from their children, etc. This goes against the role you are providing…an objective professional monitoring for safety and appropriateness. It is important to remember that there is a reason this family is being supervised and that there are two or three or more sides to every story.
If you are providing supervised visitation, it is important that you have the necessary information to work with a multitude of family dynamics. A basic knowledge of child development and parenting is necessary for all facilitators, as is being trauma informed, as many of the children and parents you will be supervising have a significant trauma history.
It is also important to get more specialized training when dealing with a specific population. If you are unaware of the grooming techniques for using children against the other parent in domestic violence situation, or the nuances of narcissistic abuse, you will not catch them, thus allowing abuse to continue right under your nose. The behaviors will be reinforced as “ok” for the children, and they will have confusion from the different messages they receive from the important people in their lives. The abusive parent will also have the behaviors reinforced and will continue to believe they can manipulate the situation. The non-offending parent will feel the abuse as well, because they are putting their trust in you to keep their children safe from all forms of abuse. If there is a court order for the supervised visitation, then the non-offending parent has little choice, they must continue to put their children in an abusive situation.
Documentation is Paramount
Many of my clients have the experience of the facilitator verbally sharing information about specific inappropriate behaviors during a visit only to receive the summary report to the court that says nothing about inappropriate behaviors or times when the abusive parent had to be redirected. The court then believes that parenting is appropriate and that parenting time should be extended and supervision should be eliminated. Again, because parenting time is court ordered, the non-offending parent can choose to put the children in an unsafe situation or can choose to keep his or her children safe from abuse and not comply with the court order. This is a lose-lose situation. By becoming a protective parent, the non-offending parent is seen as non-compliant and not able to foster a positive relationship with the other parent. They can be held in contempt of court and have significant consequences, even losing custody of the children. Proper documentation can make or break a family, literally.
While there are many different professionals and services involved with families who have experienced violence, none should be overlooked. Supervised visitation does not get as much attention with regard to proper training and oversight even though it plays a vital role in the court’s decisions that ultimately affect the long-term safety of our children. Those that provide this service and those that supervise these facilitators need to understand the gravity of their boundaries, knowledge base, and documentation.