What is Therapeutic Visitation and When Would I Need it?

On behalf of The Marks Law Firm, L.L.C. posted in Divorce, Child Custody and Therapeutic Visitation on Friday, January 31, 2014

Even under the best of circumstances, child custody disputes creates great stress for children and makes adapting to new households and routines very challenging.  But what happens in harsher circumstances, where children suddenly find themselves separated from one or both parents because of allegations of physical or emotional abuse or neglect, or alcohol or drug abuse, or mental illness?

Typically, any allegations of abuse or neglect made during a custody proceeding lead to an investigation by the Division of Social Services.  During the investigation, a court may temporarily suspend contact between the parent and the child.  Any substantiated allegation will result in not only continued suspension but also possibly criminal investigations and a series of treatment programs ordered by the court.  The separation between parent and child could run months or even years.

In cases of substance abuse or mental illness, a parent will ask the court to suspend physical custody because of the risk of harm to the child, and if the risk is substantiated, the court could prolong the suspension and make any resumption contingent on completing treatment programs and maintaining proof of sobriety or parental fitness.  As with cases of abuse or neglect, the separation could run months or even years.

A child who sees his or her parent in a low state will have conflicted feelings prior to separation – the child may have legitimate fears, but also loves the parent and will miss that parent in his or her life.  The lengthy absence from the parent only creates more questions and fears.  When the time for reuniting parent and child arrives, much “stuff” has transpired and needs proper processing for the parent and child to truly resume a healthy relationship.

Fostering such a sustained reunion in a healthy and safe manner is called therapeutic visitation, and is actually a service offered through the court system and the social service agencies of St. Louis County and St. Charles County.  Trained and experienced therapists and psychologists work with not only the child and parent but also the whole family to assure a smooth and healthy transition.  During the reintegration process, the therapist works to process through the doubts, the fears and the guilt all parties feel about the absence and help to rebuild trust.  Therapy sessions lead to supervised visits and ultimately to a full plan that will take place outside the agency walls and back into the community and the home, if deemed appropriate.  Supervisors other than therapists will be vetted and approved; a new schedule of custody will be developed.  Where the court approves, custody will gradually move toward a resumption of the prior schedule (unless unsupervised visitation would be prohibited by law or otherwise deemed not in the best interests of the child).

We know from our own experience working with therapeutic visitation that it can work wonders.  Families ripped apart by painful and even traumatic events do find their way back.  Parents rehabilitate and children adjust.  Ideally, a child should have frequent and meaningful contact with each parent; when mental illness or substance abuse bring a parent to a point where caring for a child safely becomes impossible, the optimal goal is not to completely sever parent and child but get the parent whole and heal the severed relationship.  In cases of substantiated abuse, these reunions may be more difficult depending upon the circumstances, but helping the child heal and move forward is part of the therapeutic process.

Without the services offered by therapeutic visitation, parents and children pulled apart by circumstance might not otherwise reunite, and the wounds created by the separation might never heal for all involved.

If you have questions about therapeutic visitation and how it could help your family, contact  our St. Louis family law attorneys – we can help.