Saturday, February 24, 2007

Project Visitation reconnects siblings in foster care

Heii Anderson of Keiki Photography took this picture. Judge Browning is the gentleman in the red tie.

It is estimated that 80% of people living in the United States today have siblings. The sibling bond is one of the most lasting relationships most people have.

Siblings influence one other’s development in very important ways. When parents are neglectful or abusive, older siblings often voluntarily take on a quasi-parental role.

For many children, losing contact with their brothers and sisters is the most difficult part about being in foster care, because they have lost their entire family.

Research has demonstrated that siblings who are placed together in foster care tend to have fewer emotional and behavioral problems than those who are placed apart.

In Hawaii, Project Visitation was created to maintain sibling relationships by coordinating regular visits that give foster children an opportunity to spend time with their siblings and strengthen their bonds and connections to one another.

It is not known how many siblings are separated in foster care in Hawaii, but national statistics estimate the number at 75 percent.

Historical Background
In 2001, child abuse had reached unprecedented levels in Hawaii. Child protective service workers were overwhelmed by the large volume of complaints and investigations. In Oahu, cases rose from 130 to 200 a month and their sexual abuse caseload doubled.

90% of cases involved drug abuse, particularly crystal methamphetamine.

CPS workers felt as if they were under siege. At the time, there were only 184 child welfare workers statewide. Burnout and the lure of better-paying, less stressful jobs were wooing them elsewhere, leading to a high rate of staff turnover.

With all of these other things going on, facilitating sibling visits was not CPS workers’ first priority.

Judicial Involvement
Family Court Judge R. Mark Browning spearheaded Project Visitation. Whenever he gives a talk, he emphasizes the importance reuniting siblings who are placed in separate foster homes.

Established in April 2001, Project Visitation represents a joint effort between Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii, Na Keiki Law Center, the Family Court, Hawaii Foster Parents Association and the Department of Human Services.

The project started on a “shoestring budget.” It is now funded by the Hawaii Court Improvement Project, and has been assisted in its efforts by a $10,000 grant from the Weinberg Foundation.

“The Human Services Department "has kept the level of bureaucracy to an absolute minimum to allow this to go forward," Judge Murray says. “We want kids to have an opportunity to interact with each other.”

How does it work?
- Judges in Hawaii mandate visitation when siblings are separated
- Social workers refer cases of separated foster siblings to the program.
- Volunteers support this mission by bringing siblings together for monthly visits. Each volunteer dedicates 6 hours per month.
- The agency provides volunteers with resources, such as money, car seats, tickets, lunch vouchers, coupons or other items to offset volunteer expense
- The department loans out its eight-passenger vans for the visits
- Community organizations have also planned events for the children to participate in, such as magic shows, trips to the zoo, days at the beach and football games.

"It is such a model public-private collaboration. I can't speak enough about it," said Amy Tsark, Child Welfare Services administrator. "It really supports the foster kids without burdening the social workers."

Sources
Altonn, Helen. Program rebuilds family bonds of children separated: Project Visitation offers joint activities for children separated in the foster care system. Honolulu Star Bulletin, May 28, 2002.
Altonn, Helen. Rise in drug abuse, economics strains push isle child abuse levels to highs; officials say caseloads are overwhelming investigators. Honolulu Star Bulletin, Nov. 25, 2001.
Bank, Stephen and M.D. Kahn. The sibling bond. Basic Books, 2003.
Hawthorne, Lillian. Sisters and brothers all those years: Taking another look at the longest relationship in your life. VanderWyk & Burnham, 2003.
Schooler, Jayne. What parents need to know when siblings are separated. Bergin & Garvey, 2002.

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Comments:
Our daughter was granted monthly court-ordered visitation with a half sibling the last time she was at court. The half-sibling lives more than an hour away, so we aren't able to transport her. The county has not made any attempt to facilitate visits, or even give us the other foster family's telephone number so they can call each other.
 
FosterAbba,

This happens all too frequently. It doesn't do much good to "mandate" visitation, unless there is follow up to make sure that it truly happens.

Hopefully other states can and will emulate the example set by Hawaii with its Project Visitation.

In my state, former and current foster children, and our allies, are advocating for this change.

Also - you might have seen my previous journal entry about "Elevate," an group of foster youth/alumni in Iowa, and how they are lobbying for mandated sibling visitation.

In the meantime, is there any way that you could ask the county for the other foster family's phone number?

-Lisa
 
I've asked workers in the past, but they haven't seemed too interested in passing on information. Last year, when we were celebrating "Danielle's" birthday party, I asked the worker to let the other foster family know the date and time of her party so they could attend. They never showed up, and I don't know if that's because the sibling wasn't interested, or if the worker just didn't deliver the message.

I'm a little reluctant to push the issue very hard for fear that DSS will somehow try to make it MY responsibility to regularly transport "Danielle" for visits. Since the sibling lives over an hour away, my partner and I both work full time and are homeschooling "Danielle" full time (by way of a public charter school) there's no way we can take on yet one more responsibility that's going to cut into our already scarce time. We are happy to make her available, at any time, for a case aide to transport her, but we just can't do it ourselves. We are just about at our limit in dealing with her educational and behavioral needs.

I might feel differently if the two kids actually knew each other and/or were asking for visits. They happened to meet by accident at court six months ago. The older child (actually a half-sibling) has been in foster care since before "Danielle" was born, and will be aging out soon. They'd never met, and it's not entirely clear if they were even fully aware of each other's existence.

I am sure, though, that when "Danielle" appears in court for her status hearing in a couple of months, the judge will be mighty peeved to find out that DSS completely ignored his visitation orders.

Sigh.
 
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