Vol. 11, No. 2 • May 2007

Child Welfare Worker Visits with Children in Foster Care

When children enter foster care in North Carolina they are placed temporarily in the custody of their county department of social services (DSS). From the moment children enter care until they return home or go to another permanent placement, DSS agencies are responsible for ensuring these children are safe and receive the support and nurturing they need to heal, grow, and thrive.

Evidence suggests that regular, high-quality visits with the child in his or her foster home are a great way for agencies to ensure they are living up to this responsibility. This article will describe some of what we know about this subject and discuss steps being taken on the federal and state levels to enhance visits between child welfare workers and children in care.

An Invaluable Tool
During the first round of federal Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR), reviewers found a positive relationship between child welfare worker visits with children and most of the outcomes being measured, including:

  • Achieving reunification, guardianship, and permanent placement with relatives
  • Preserving children’s connections while in foster care, including their relationships with their parents
  • Assessing needs and providing services to children and families
  • Involving children and parents in case planning
  • Meeting the educational, physical health, and mental health needs of children
    (NRCFCPPP, 2006)

The reviews also identified concerns regarding worker visits, including an inconsistent focus during visits on issues regarding case plans and goals and insufficient face-to-face contacts with children or parents to address their safety and well-being (NCSL, 2006).

New Federal Law
There is a new federal law that seeks to turn this knowledge into enhanced child welfare practice with families.

In fall 2006, Congress passed the Child and Family Services Improvement Act of 2006 (Public Law 109-288). Part of this legislation provides additional funding to support monthly caseworker visits to children in foster care. Along with this funding comes a mandate: by October 1, 2007, states must describe in their state plan standards for the content and frequency of worker visits with kids in care. In addition, PL 109-288 sets forth the expectation that by October 1, 2011, all states must be able to prove that 90% of all children in foster care are receiving monthly face-to-face visits with their child welfare workers, and that a majority of these visits are taking place in the residence of the child (e.g., in the foster home).

Beginning October 2007, states must prove they are making progress to meeting the 90% standard. Beginning October 2008, if a state falls short of this standard it faces possible financial penalties.

Visits in NC
North Carolina’s policy requires child welfare agencies to have at least monthly face-to-face contact with children in foster care. It also requires agencies to have monthly contact with placement providers about the child’s needs and progress, though at present contact with providers need not be face-to-face.

Our state began seeking to enhance visits between social workers and children in care even before the passage of PL 109-288. Its interest was driven in part by its desire to improve the stability of foster placements. In 2003, only 52.3% of NC children who had been in care 12 months or less had experienced two or fewer placements. This level of performance was well below the national median of 84.2% (USDHHS, 2006).

A Pilot Project
To address placement instability and other issues, in spring 2006 the NC Division of Social Services contracted with the Jordan Institute for Families at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work to help develop a tool for practitioners to use during visits with children in foster care. The long-term vision for this tool, whose working title is the “Monthly Foster Care Contact Record,” is that it will be used by all public and private child welfare agencies in the state to:

  1. Enhance the safety and well-being of children in foster care
  2. Make agency visits with children and foster families more productive and consistent
  3. Encourage honest, supportive relationships between foster parents and agencies
  4. Make North Carolina’s child welfare documentation more consistent and streamlined.

Working with an advisory group comprised of representatives from public and private child-placing agencies, foster parents, and other stakeholders, the Division has developed a draft of this tool. This version, which contains more than a dozen items, encourages workers to ask about changes in household membership, safety and supervision practices used in home, and other issues during each face-to-face visit with children in care and their foster families.

To refine this tool and ensure it complements effective practices already in use, the Division will pilot test it in at least 24 agencies (see below) between May and October 2007. Foster parent participation is an essential component of this pilot, and the Division will be working closely with the NC Foster and Adoptive Parent Association to obtain foster parent feedback about the tool’s content and effectiveness.

Pilot Agencies
  • Alexander Youth Network

  • Alliance Human Services

  • Boys and Girls Homes of NC

  • Cabarrus County DSS

  • Caring for Children

  • Carteret County DSS

  • Children’s Home Society*

  • Cleveland County DSS*

  • Community Services for Children (Grandfather Home)

  • Davie County DSS

  • Easter Seals UCP NC*

  • Eliada*

  • Guilford County DSS

  • Harnett County DSS*

  • Henderson County DSS

  • Iredell County DSS*

  • Moore County DSS

  • Nazareth Children’s Home*

  • New Hanover County DSS*

  • Rutherford County DSS

  • Tipton Therapeutic Foster Care Homes

  • Vance County DSS

  • Wilson County DSS

  • Youth Focus

  • * Agencies with an asterisk begin piloting the tool in May. All others begin in July.

    If the pilot goes as planned, the Division anticipates that this tool could be available for use statewide sometime in 2008.

    What Do You Think?

    If you are a foster parent in North Carolina, we’d like to hear what you think about social worker visits with children in foster care. If you have observations or a story to tell on this topic, please share them with us. E-mail your submissions to johnmcmahon@mindspring.com.

    References for this and other articles in this issue

    Copyright 2007 Jordan Institute for Families