Vol. 12, No. 2 • June 2008

Introducing a New Tool to Enhance Monthly Agency Visits

Foster parents, think about the last time a foster care social worker came to your home. What was helpful about the visit? What might have made the time more useful? Did you have a chance to ask questions and give input about what is needed for your family?

Increased Focus on Visits
On both the federal and state level, increasing attention is being given to the quality and frequency of visits between social workers, children in care, and their caregivers. Results from the first round of the federal Child and Services Reviews (CFSRs) found that these visits can play a crucial role in meeting the safety, well-being, and permanency needs of children in care (Nat’l Conf. of State Legislatures 2006; USDHHS, 2006).

As a result, a new federal law was passed: the Child and Family Services Improvement Act of 2006 (Public Law 109-288). This law requires states to document 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).

In addition, states must have standards for the content of those visits; in other words, the state must provide some guidance to agencies and workers about what should take place during the monthly visits. Eventually, states will face financial penalties if they fall short on these mandates.

NC’s Efforts to Enhance Visits
Actually, North Carolina began focusing on the quality of foster care home visits even before the new federal mandates. The NC Division of Social Services launched a collaborative process in spring 2006 to create a new tool to enhance foster care home visits. The Division contracted with the Jordan Institute for Families at the UNC-CH School of Social Work to coordinate the project.

The development of the tool began with the formation of an advisory group comprised of representatives from private and public child placing agencies, the Division, its academic partners, and board members of the NC Foster and Adoptive Parent Association.

This advisory group helped draft a tool called the Monthly Foster Care Contact Record. To ensure it worked, the tool was tested for four months by 25 child-placing agencies (14 public and 11 private). During the pilot, 128 child welfare professionals used the tool in 596 foster homes with 884 children in care. As part of its evaluation, the Jordan Institute received formal and informal feedback from child welfare workers and foster parents who used the tool during the pilot. The tool was then revised based on the pilot experience and approved by the advisory group, the Division, and the Children’s Services Committee of the North Carolina Association of County Directors of Social Services.

What’s the Contact Record Like?
The Contact Record is a 4-page, 7-item tool designed to be a guide for monthly visits. This tool prompts county DSS agencies to address the following things when they visit children in care and their foster parents:

  • Priorities identified in the last visit
  • Changes in the household
  • Cultural and ethnic considerations
  • Relationships in the foster family
  • Social support and respite needs
  • Services and training needs
  • Relationship with the agency, court process, child’s plan, upcoming events
  • Safety and supervision in the home
  • Child behaviors and parenting skills
  • Schooling/education of child
  • Physical health and mental health of child or other members of foster family
  • Visits, interactions with birth family, and shared parenting
  • Priorities from this visit
  • Follow-up activities

Discussing or addressing these areas regularly should help North Carolina (1) ensure 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, and (4) make documentation more consistent and streamlined.

How Should It Be Used?
The Contact Record is intended to be used as a guide for conversation, not a checklist of items to read off every month. Workers are advised to continue to have their typical, open-ended conversations with foster parents and children in care, and then to simply use the tool at the end of the visit to summarize, ensure that important topics are not overlooked, and plan follow-up.

How do foster parents who have experienced this tool feel about it? Most foster parents interviewed after the pilot test liked the thoroughness, consistency, and follow-up the tool provided, and some saw it as a helpful support. One said, “As foster parents, we know what our responsibilities are to the children. But this was about do I need anything. That’s usually the last thing asked….It makes me feel a whole lot better to know they care about me.”

Coming Soon
It is anticipated that the Monthly Foster Care Contact Record will go into statewide use some time during 2008. An online training is being developed to help support the implementation. After the use of the tool becomes statewide, the Division will continue to talk with agencies and foster parents about its effectiveness and how it might be improved.

To Download a Copy of the Tool
Go to <http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/forms/dss/DSS-5295.pdf>. A version of the tool for use with group homes is also available at <http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/forms/dss/DSS-5296.pdf>.

How to Make the Monthly Foster Care Contact Record Work for You
1. Keep a blank copy on your fridge, so you can remember questions or issues that come up during the month.

2. The tool includes an area for your input on the child’s case plan, on how shared parenting and birth family visits are going, on your ideas for in-service training or other supports for your family, and on any other unmet needs for the child. Take time to reflect on these issues before a visit and then discuss your ideas with the social worker.

3. The tool can provide a way to get difficult topics onto the table. You can problem-solve with the social worker, either with or without the children present, about how best to address concerns.

4. Make a blank copy of the tool for yourself so you can take notes DURING the visit; that way you’ll have a record of the follow-up activities for which you and the social worker are responsible.

5. Social workers will spend some time alone with the child during each visit. Give them as much privacy as possible, and allow the child to take the lead in whether he or she wants to talk about the visit afterwards.

 

Copyright 2008 Jordan Institute for Families