Untested allegations of abuse or family violence

Mary Wells, BA, BSW, RSW

Supervised access to children is becoming a more frequent occurrence for families where there are allegations of family violence or abuse, or where a parent is alleged to have addiction or mental health disorders.

Supervised access may be done in the offices of a child protection agency, a family court clinic or by a private, supervised access professional.

canstockphoto3265631Once a decision has been made that there should be a period of supervised access, consideration should be given to the impact on the child in a supervised access setting. Planning and preparation ahead of the visits should be developed in consultation with the access supervisor, the referring professional and the parents to maximize this as a positive experience for the child and parents.

Factors that should be considered include:

  • The developmental stage of the child
  • A history of the family’s interaction that lead to the decision that access must be supervised
  • Whether the child may have directly suffered as a result of abuse or neglect
  • Where there is an allegation of family violence, the extent of the exposure of the child to the violence should be explored

canstockphoto8677454Referring professionals may have this information and if so should inform the access supervisor. If the referring parties do not have this information, it may be appropriate for the access supervisor to meet with the child for the purpose of making the assessment and a plan for addressing unresolved issues. This does not mean the issues have to be “fixed” prior to the access. It does mean however, that the supervisor will be prepared to intervene effectively to support the child.

Parental preparation of the child for supervised access

How the child is prepared for the supervised access can have a significant effect on both the child and the parents. Here are some do’s and dont’s for preparing a child for access:

 For custodial parents:

  • Reassure the child the supervisor will ensure the visit will be safe and as pleasant as possible
  • Do not instruct the child to attempt to gain any information from the non-custodial parent
  • Try to neutralize and normalize the situation for the child. For example, explain that “sometimes it works best for children to see their parents with somebody else present”
  • If a parent is very anxious about the access, discuss this with the access supervisor or other professionals who are helping you so they can keep your anxiety from affecting your child both before and after visits

For parents whose access is supervised:

  • When you see the child at the beginning of the visit, you can explain that you are visiting this way because sometimes, in some families, it works out best for children to see their parent with another adult who helps out.
  • Discuss ahead of time with the access supervisor what to expect during the visit (length of time, location of the visit, what you may or may not bring to the visit).
  • Discuss ground rules for the supervised access. For example, you will likely be told that you must not discuss court, family finances, the other parent or their family in front of the child. Do not ask the child questions about the other parent. These are often difficult issues for parents who can only see their children under supervision, and sometimes the parent forgets or breaks the rules. With the access supervisor, work out a signal that the supervisor can use to let you know you need to stop saying or doing something. This should be a signal you are comfortable with that the supervisor can use to not cause you to lose face. For instance you could ask the supervisor to say “Not just now”, or “We’re getting off track here” and you can agree to be guided by that signal.
  • Be aware that the access supervisors are expected to take notes and report on the visit.
  • Ask the supervisor if you can debrief with him or her after a visit and in preparation for the next visit.

Supervised access can be a significant opportunity to help the parents and the child in working towards a positive outcome for the whole family. Thoughtful, child centered preparations can make supervised access visits an opportunity for healing and growth as the family moves forward.