Reflections on developing virtual
supervised visitation services amid COVID-19
supervised visitation services amid COVID-19
Take a moment and think back when you were a young child and your parents asked you what you wanted to be when you grow up. Remember your dreams of being a tight rope walker in the circus? Night after night, taunting fate? One hundred feet up in the air, nothing but a 200 foot-long shoelace between you and certain death? Remember when you just knew that that was all you EVER wanted to be? Yeah, me neither.
And yet here we are walking that fine line between our desire to congregate and our need to be safely apart. “Stay at home“, “Shelter in place“, versus “Reopen the economy.“ For the last few months, everyone in society has been struggling with that decision. At visitation centers, striking that balance is what we've always done; it’s the nature of our business. We invite families who have been told to stay apart to come to us so that they can be together. Well, sort of. Safe parent/child access - Yes. Potentially dangerous parent/parent contact - No.
One of the concerns that brings families to a visitation center is stalking. In many cases, stalking doesn't surface until post-separation. This is understandable as it is difficult for some people, especially those who harbor a sense of ownership over their families, to let go when the other parent decides that they need to leave. One of our many concerns related to the pandemic had to do with the effect of the suspension of services on someone who is inclined to relentlessly pursue the other parent and the children.
This led us to review what we knew about stalking[i]. In general, stalking involves the repeated pursuit of another person, without their permission, and in such a way as to instill fear. But beyond that, what do we know about how stalkers operate and the effect they have on their victims? We know, for example, that:
They can strike at any time;
They don't respect boundaries;
They affect every area of your life - your health, your family, your job, etc.;
Their pursuit is relentless such that you can never let your guard down. (Don’t ignore the signs or pretend it isn’t happening. Instead keep a log of all contacts so you can establish a pattern of behavior.)
They demonstrate no empathy for the effect they have on their victims;
They follow you everywhere;
They instill fear amongst their victims;
They can cause their victims to turn on each other – blaming each other for what is happening;
They can make you feel as though it is not safe to leave your own home; on the other hand, you may not be safe inside your own home either; they can find a way in;
They don't discriminate (e.g., they claim as their victims both young and old, black-and-white, male and female, rich and poor, etc.). Anyone is a potential victim;
They could be anyone – a friend, a lover, a coworker, a total stranger, etc. They could be the person you trust the most. You cannot tell just by looking at them, who poses such a danger to you;
They can at times appear perfectly normal, displaying no signs of a threat;
They ultimately may physically attack their victims, potentially causing severe harm;
They sometimes end up killing their victims;
They are not satisfied coming after just you; they may target your entire family;
They cannot be reasoned with. Pleading with them to stop is a waste of time; your best bet is to avoid all contact with them, if you can. Even occasional contact, can place you in great danger.
That list reflects some of the experiences of many people who have been stalked by a current or former intimate partner. However, that list was not created with domestic abusers in mind. It actually refers to the threat of being stalked by the coronavirus and its companion disease - COVID-19. Go back and re-read the list and consider whether those observations are consistent with your understanding of, and possible reactions to, the current pandemic.
Restructuring supervised visitation services to account for COVID-19:
When the pandemic struck, we, at our visitation center, had to make a decision about whether we could continue to offer services and if so to whom and with what modifications. Prior to the pandemic, we were focused primarily on distinguishing between predominant aggressors[ii]and vulnerable parents. Who needed to be protected from whom? We still do that, but now, there is an additional threat, the coronavirus. Consequently, everyone at our Center (both families and staff) is a potential victim of this invisible and pervasive attacker. The more we thought about the nature of the threat, the more we recognized experiential similarities between victims of domestic abuse (particularly stalking) and COVID-19. We wondered whether we could use that insight to help guide the modification of our services both during the pendency of the pandemic and beyond. (Personally, I also wanted to embrace that feeling of vulnerability so that I could develop a better appreciation for the apprehension experienced by vulnerable parents on a daily basis even when there is no pandemic.)
A good place to start is to consider precedents: What did we do the last time there was a worldwide pandemic? I might be old, but the Spanish flu occurred just a bit before my time. And my review of the literature revealed the existence back then of approximately zero supervised visitation centers. So, we are operating in unchartered territory. But that does not mean that we are without resources. We have a network of providers[iii]across the globe who are thinking about the same issues. We have our technical assistance teams[iv]as part of the Justice for Families grant who have developed a multitude of resources to aid centers in their adjustments to the pandemic[v]. We have our local advocates and other stakeholders who have a vested interest in our Center and its services. And we have the families that we are currently serving who in many ways are the real experts on what they need, what will work, and what the potential pitfalls are for the various approaches we were considering. We have tapped into all of these resources as we considered how best to move forward.
The Guiding Principles[vi]: First and foremost, we re-read the Guiding Principles developed under the Safe Havens Initiative. A copy of those were close at hand throughout the development of our procedures. We used them as a checklist as we went through each of our proposed changes. We would ask, for example: Are we factoring in what we know about domestic violence? Will a change benefit either the vulnerable parent or the child, but at the expense of the other? Is there enough flexibility in our procedures to accommodate the culturally significant needs of our families without sacrificing safety? Do the families experience our new policies as being fair and respectful? To what additional community resources can we connect our families in order to address needs arising out of the pandemic? All of these needed to be asked, multiple times. It has been a slow process.
Less is more: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." As important as that principle is, we considered its less often-cited but currently relevant corollary: "Once it's fixed, don't break it." So, we tried not to. We sought to change only those procedures that needed to be changed. Much time and thought went into our Center's original (and periodically updated) safety protocols. We didn't want to implement anything that we had previously ruled out, unless we had a really good reason. "A really good reason" meant, in part, that the procedural change would not, in our estimation, increase anyone's inclination or opportunity to abuse and/or interfere with the safety and welfare of a vulnerable parent or the children. After all, our job is not to make sure that visits happen. Our job is to make sure that if they do happen, they happen safely.
CDC Guidelines[vii]: The novel coronavirus is highly contagious, and its associated disease (i.e., COVID-19) can have serious consequences including death. What's worse, no one is immune to its effects and there is as of yet no vaccine to protect us from contracting the disease. With all of that in mind, the CDC issued guidelines designed to minimize the passing of this disease from one person to another. So whatever set of procedures that we were going to adopt, needed to be informed by the CDC guidelines (e.g., the screening for symptoms prior to any visit, wearing face masks, physical distancing, personal hygiene including hand washing and the use of hand sanitizers, and the cleaning of all surfaces in between successive visits).
The four options:
The most effective way to not catch a disease from someone else is to not be there. No contact equals no transmission. At visitation centers, we have a head start over most other businesses due to the fact that keeping people apart (i.e., the residential and non-residential parents) is already in our procedures. But with COVID-19, we needed to consider that since asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic carriers can pass the disease onto others, any person (staff, parents or children) can pose a risk to anyone else. The questions then became, "How much distance is enough and does that mean that we need to conduct visits ex parte (i.e., with at least one party not onsite and perhaps nobody onsite)?"
This left us with four possibilities:
(1)Only the non-residential parent is onsite while the residential parent and children remain offsite;
(2)Only the residential parent and children are onsite while the nonresidential parent remains offsite;
(3)Both parents and all children remain offsite; and
(4)Both parents and all children participate onsite.
The first three of these are the ones most obviously designed to, and if done successfully, will prevent the transmission of disease from one household to the other since there will be no physical contact between the children and the nonresidential parent. At the same time, by utilizing a video link to create virtual visitation, each of these arrangements allow for a connection between the nonresidential parent and the children.
We first ruled out Option #3: both parents and children being offsite. The primary reason was that our ability to be actively involved in structuring the visit, controlling the environment, intervening when necessary and being available as a support to both parents and children was severely limited, unacceptably so. It felt as though we would be little more than a telephone operator.
The remaining three options added a layer of complexity that was not present with the "everybody-offsite" model. With at least one family member onsite, there would need to be some physical interaction between people from different households (e.g., between staff and parents with or without their children). Under that condition, did we think that we could develop procedures that would enable us to adhere to the CDC guidelines for operating our "essential" business in such a way as to minimize the chance of viral transmission? We believed that we could.
The next question was: "Was it more important to have the residential parent and children onsite or to have the nonresidential parent onsite?"That was a difficult determination since there were advantages to both depending on the ages and number of children, individual needs and circumstances (which could change from week to week), etc. Perhaps most important though was determining which model was riskier (i.e., "Would it increase an abuser's inclination and opportunity to abuse more if the abuser were offsite or if the vulnerable parent were offsite, regardless of who the residential parent was?").
This was one of those important junctures at which we needed to check in with the families already using our services. In particular, we wanted to ask vulnerable parents (as either residential or non-residential parents – we currently serve both) if they were more concerned with their being offsite or with the other parent being offsite. The near-consensus answer was - "Both." Neither felt safe. They didn't want the abuser offsite because they were worried, for example, about who else would be there or that that parent would audio or video record the session regardless of the rules, because there would be no way for us to know or to stop it, etc. They also didn't want to be offsite themselves because "He will figure out where I live" or "It would creep me out to have him in my house that way [via video connection],” etc. These reactions and many others underscored our understanding of why video visitation had never been an allowable grant activity during the pre-COVID-19 era. This left us with only one (rather unexpected) option that challenged what seemed to be some faulty assumptions.
Assumption: "Fully supervised on-site visits" and "remote visits" are mutually exclusive.
I think we just naturally assumed that "remote" was synonymous with "offsite." But why? The physical (unfortunately labeled "social"[viii]) distancing required only 6 or 10 or 20 feet (depending on whom you ask and what the circumstances are). Much less than 6 feet are needed when there is a physical barrier such as a window, door, or wall to prevent viral transmission. So why couldn't we do virtual visits, completely onsite? (If that works, it has significant advantages: It requires the fewest number of changes from our pre-COVID procedures while affording us the maximum amount of control and opportunities to intervene if necessary; as well as preserving the ability to immediately offer in-person assistance to whichever family member(s) needs it.
Disappointment is the emotional distance between expectations and our perception of reality.
I know, it sounds strange. "We want you all to come to the Center just so that you CAN'T be in the same room with each other." What would be the point of that? So close, yet so far.
That question is similar to "Why would a relative of a resident at a long-term care facility or of a COVID-19 patient in the hospital go to visit if they are not allowed in the same room and must stand outside of a glass window?" What would be the point?
"Why would soldiers, deployed 6000 miles from home "settle" for two-minute Skype calls with their families?" What would be the point?
To many in those situations, the answer is obvious: while they would much rather see their loved ones in person, any contact is far, far better than no contact at all. Furthermore, if they are coming to the visitation center, they already are having contact that they probably do not consider to be ideal. But part of the service we offer is helping both parents and children appreciate their time together, regardless of the location or format in which that connection happens.
A related and quite reasonable question was raised by many: "Why is it okay for you to see my kids when they come to the Center, but it's not okay for me to?"
We recognized how very difficult it would be to come to the Center and then not be allowed in the same room with their children. Ironically, it is that intense desire to be in the same room, to be in close physical contact, to hug, to talk face to face, to feed their child, etc. that is the very risk we are trying to guard against, especially since asymptomatic but infected people can be highly contagious. Our reasoning is that neither we nor the child would struggle to maintain physical distancing from each other the way parents and children who haven’t seen each other for some time and get so little time together might struggle. We didn't want their visits to be littered with our potentially constant reminders to stay six feet apart were they to be in the same room. We wanted their visits to focus on the connection that they can have. But why are we being so strict? Because we realize that all it will take Is one positive test of someone using or working at the Center to shut us down for at least a couple of weeks while we are banished into quarantine, not to mention the possible medical consequences for the person/people who test positive. We are really trying to avoid that. Walking that fine line again!
Assumption: Connecting via Skype will be too awkward or difficult to have any value.
We did have a couple of nonresidential parents tell us that if they couldn't have in-person, mask-free contact, the way it has always been, they would rather not come in at all. But that was by far the exception, not the rule. Most thought that it would at least be worth a try. Those of us who grew up in the pre-social media era (For example, I remember the Commodore 64, eight tracks, and the four-door Rambler we drove around in when I was a child - yes, we had cars back then) tend to over-estimate the discomfort or awkwardness our children would experience with an online chat. (It is as though we hadn't noticed that virtually their entire school experience these days occurs on Zoom.)
So, we decided to give it a try. Fully supervised on-site visits that occur remotely. Same procedures in terms of separation, staggered arrival and departure times, etc. The difference now is that the child never transitions from the residential side to the non-residential side. Both nonresidential parent and the child have their own computer monitor so that they connect via Skype or similar platform. A visitation monitor is in each room: one with the parent and one with the child. Everyone gets screened for illness or symptoms prior to entering the facility (staff included); everyone wears masks throughout an entire visit; everyone washes hands prior to the visit; only one visit occurs at a time and then in-between visits staff disinfect all surfaces that were contacted. I'll attach a link here to our COVID-19 procedures for more detail.
The early results:
We have only been operating in this fashion for a little more than a week, but so far so good. The children adapted immediately and seem to be really enjoying the visits. Parents have adjusted as well and have been a bit surprised at how comfortable their children were.
But it is still early. This is definitely not the last word and I am sure that there is plenty that we have not considered fully. We are under no allusion that this is the best approach overall, or for other Centers, or even for our Center with certain families. It is just what we currently are most comfortable with as a starting point. We welcome any and all comments, questions or suggestions as we all are just building this airplane mid-flight.
Strafford County Supervised Visitation Center
[i]For more information about stalking see https://www.stalkingawareness.org/
[ii]The predominant aggressor is not always the nonresidential parent. Some abusers are successful at gaining custody of the children through a variety of tactics. Therefore, it is important for visitation providers to remember that sometimes the vulnerable parent who needs our protection the most is the nonresidential parent.
[iv]No one has given more thoughtful consideration of how COVID-19 continues to impact the operation of supervised visitation services than the folks at Inspire Action for Social Change. Camp out on their website – you won’t be sorry. As a starting point you might want to take a look at: “COVID-19: Resources and Support for Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange Programs.” We have shamelessly stolen many recommendations and ideas from them in the process of considering our own modifications. But if we got any of that wrong, don’t blame them. That’s entirely on us. http://www.inspireactionforsocialchange.org/covid-19svsupport
[v]The primary referral source for many visitation centers is the local court system. Appropriately then, The Center for Court Innovation continues to play an active and substantial role in supporting Justice for Families grantees that include many visitation programs. https://www.courtinnovation.org/.
[viii]The reason that “social” distancing is an unfortunate choice of words is that we don’t want vulnerable parents (or anyone else for that matter) to feel disconnected from their social supports. In fact, one tactic of abusers is to do just that – isolate their victims from their family, friends and other social supports so that the victim becomes more dependent on the abuser and has fewer options for escape. Also, “social” distancing is not what keeps anyone safe from contracting the virus. It is the “physical” distance between people that matters.