Two recent high-profile cases have caught the attention of child welfare activists. One of the primary reasons for the substantial media attention to both cases has been the sudden nature of the transitions. It’s obvious even to non-professionals that a child shouldn’t be plucked from one family and dropped into another without time and procedures for adjustment. Let’s try something.
If you didn’t know anything about children and their development, but you had to be in charge of a child’s transition from a foster family the child has been with and loves to another family that child didn’t know, how would you do it?
- Right after the judge’s decision, have the police come to a meeting with both families. Despite the child’s protests of not knowing the new family, and wanting to stay with his or her family, turn the child over within a few hours.
- Make the transition over weeks or months. Start with phone calls, then visits in neutral locations with both families present, letting the child express his or her feelings and having a mental health consultant present. Allow both families to be present in the child’s life.
If you answered B, you have common sense! I don’t really think we need much research to understand that B is the only reasonable answer. And, in fact, this is probably the way that most transitions from foster care work.
“Once the child attaches to a caregiver and that caregiver has become the psychological parent, it is crucial that the transition from the caregiver’s home be as emotionally protective as possible. Poorly executed or improperly timed transitions may adversely impact a child’s healthy development as well as the child’s continuing capacity to attach to others.”
Obviously, if a child is in a psychologically or physically dangerous situation, an immediate transfer is necessary. In the recent cases, though, a child was transferred from one loving family to another, under court order, without any transition time. The abrupt transition puts children at serious risk of mental health problems, including Reactive Attachment Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In 2011, when she was two years old, VC was transferred to her biological father from the family who had raised her since birth. (For more information, see http://tallasthesky.com/?cat=12). The transfer occurred soon after a court hearing, with little warning and no transition ordered by the court. In the second case, 9 year-old Sonya Hodgin, who had been with her foster and adoptive family about 8 years, was turned over with two hours notice to her biological father, with whom she had had no relationship. Police were present, and Sonya was begging not to let him take her.
Now, there are clearly exceptions to a gradual transition, and the best interest of each child should be taken into account each time. This means that Child Protective Services workers, attorneys, judges, guardians at litem, and attorneys ad litum should understand a child’s situation. These are children’s emotional lives at stake. The transition should never be dramatic just because the court battle has dragged out.
When a babysitter comes over, you give him or her instructions on what to do. When’s bedtime, the child’s routines, what the child is allowed and not allowed to do, what allergies s/he has, information about special needs or medical conditions. Think how much more information should pass between parents in a permanent transition situation. Parenting coordination has been developed as a discipline to help high-conflict parents implement their parenting plans. Professionals are available to help with transitions, and they should be consulted.
Let’s look at what’s standard practice and what the research says about how children should be transitioned.
A simple factsheet from www.childwelfare.gov provides some information for foster families transitioning to adoptive family. Even a child remaining within the same home, but making the transition from foster care to adoption, needs help with the transition. The factsheet recommends helping a child understand her life history and path forward, and giving her implicit and explicit permission to love both families.
Henry (2005) outlines a model for transitions from foster to adoptive care, which could serve as a model cases like VC’s case and Sonya’s case. Her model lists five steps. First, a child should be given notification of a move over a period of weeks. Second, a visit should occur in the existing home for two to three hours with both families present. Next, two to three visits within 1-3 days of each other should occur with the newer family outside the home. After that, 3+ four- to six- hour visits at the new home should occur within a week. Finally, 4-6 overnight visits in a period of two weeks complete the transition period. Of course, the child’s individual circumstances, adjustment to the transition and development level should be taken in to account. Had Henry’s (2005) guidelines been followed, both children would have had much less stress in the transition and less risk of psychological harm.
Children who don’t have a stable family life have enough stress without dramatic transitions. Our court system, and our child protection agencies, need to do better for children.
 Advokids: A Legal Resource for California Foster Children and Their Advocates. http://advokids.org/resources/childhood-mental-health/transitions/
 Greenberg, E. (2010, January). Fine Tuning the Brainding of Parenting Coordination. Family Court Review 48(1), 206-2011.
 Children’s Bureau (2012). Helping Your Foster Child Transition to Your Adopted Child. www.childwelfare.gov.