About 1400 children in Rhode Island are separated from their families each year because of abuse or neglect. The state is required by law to make reasonable efforts to reunite these families, through a variety of approaches. Common sense and much literature in the child-care field indicates that visits are a very important tool in deciding whether to reunite children with their parents or to seek another permanent home.
Unfortunately, in Rhode Island, as elsewhere, the visits weren't working. Most visits took place either in a room in the social work agency's basement or at a nearby fast food restaurant. The basement room held only broken toys and an adult-sized chair. The chaotic atmosphere of the fast food restaurant tended to overstimulate children, resulting in discipline problems and frustrated parents. Even more, parents reported feelings of humiliation and anger prompted by social workers hovering over them in these unfriendly settings.
Social workers present at the visits also saw deep flaws in the system, but were often not sure how to report the events of a visitation, or how to apply what they'd seen to the broader decision-making process about where the children should be permanently placed. They were unsure of their roles during the visits, and often had trouble finding time to oversee visits in their overloaded schedules.
In 1991, in an effort to turn visitation into a valuable tool for both parents and social workers, the state's Department of Children, Youth, and Families entered into a groundbreaking collaboration, known as "Families Together," with the private sector. Instead of bringing children to burger joints or the agency's basement, the Providence Children's Museum agreed to allow separated families to have supervised visits on the premises during normal business hours. Two social workers oversee each visit, blending in with the other visitors at the museum instead of intruding on the visit. They provide feedback to the parents immediately after the visit.
The museum visits are only part of the Families Together package. Two Families Together consultants are available at all times to answer social workers' questions about how visits should be conducted and reported. Social workers, both experienced and new, also receive training about visitation. More than 350 social workers went through visitation training last year alone, the majority of whom report more confidence in their visit reports as useful tools for deciding whether families can be safely reunited.
Since its inauguration, Families Together has provided more that 700 families with museum-based visitation. Involved parents, including those with mental health or disability issues, report that the instant feedback helps them to learn and reinforce good parenting behaviors. Many social workers, even outside the state, report that their views of visitation and professional practices have changed because of the Families Together program.