Woman reads on couch with two children

June 29, 2020

SSW Project Connect supports virtual family time

Kim Eckart, UW News

For children in foster care, having regular visits, or “family time,” with their biological parents is considered critical for maintaining bonds and building toward a time when they may once again live together as a family.

The best visits are focused on the child, experts say, when parents ask questions, play or otherwise engage in activities that the child is interested in and that support the parent-child bond.

That’s not easy to do over video chat. But with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of Washington began requiring remote, rather than in-person, family time, which can make meaningful visits a challenge.

It was something that Emiko Tajima, an associate professor in the University of Washington School of Social Work and executive director of Partners for Our Children, knew her team could help with. The research and policy center collaborates with the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families on practice and policy reform to improve outcomes for children and families.

The Partners for Our Children team quickly developed a curriculum called Supportive Virtual Family Time to train those who supervise virtual visits between children and parents, until in-person visits can be safely resumed. In support of the project, the Alliance created an interactive menu that brought the teaching materials together and hosted the eLearning on its own channels.

And through an ongoing collaborative effort of the UW School of Social Work called Project Connect, additional research components of the virtual family time program have been developed. Project Connect supports 15 different endeavors, all oriented specifically around community needs during COVID-19.

“When the pandemic struck, and the stay-at-home and social distancing orders were given, they had an immediate impact not only on the university, but also on the populations that social work exists to serve,” said School of Social Work Dean Eddie Uehara, who came up with Project Connect in late winter, as the UW was shifting to online instruction, and local restrictions were being enacted. “Project Connect is a reflection of the range of social issues and populations that we care for, that we have a commitment and capacity to serve.”

The research activities under the Project Connect umbrella, each led by a UW faculty member, involve at least one student and often a community organization or agency. They represent another form of fieldwork, a required component of both the undergraduate and graduate-level social work programs and the on-the-ground learning of how to gauge needs, make decisions and provide services.

About 8,100 children and teens are in foster, or “out-of-home,” care in Washington, awaiting reunification with their biological families. Regular family time sessions with parents are part of the arrangement, typically in a neutral location and supervised by a representative of a child welfare agency or private nonprofit.

But with Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order effective March 26, “we realized pretty quickly that there was a need for a program to train those individuals who would be supervising visits,” Tajima said. “What can a parent do to maintain bonds when they can’t hold the child or give them a hug?”

So Tajima’s team developed a free training curriculum and guide for Supportive Virtual Family Time, which includes videos and tips for every step of the process, such as helping parents cope with stress leading up to the family time, and establishing some online hello/goodbye rituals with their children. The curriculum is piloting another strategy, too: a remote meeting, monitored by the family time navigator, between the parent and foster caregiver. It represents a shift in the approach to child welfare, Tajima explained, making it more about supporting the family rather than “saving” the child.