Playgroup for Non-custodial Parents to see Children
Hiiye’yu Lelum (House of Friendship) Society, is the Aboriginal Friendship Centre based in Duncan on Vancouver Island and provides services for Urban Aboriginal and other residents of the Cowichan Valley. Responding to long wait-lists for non-custodial parents wishing to have access to their children, and working in cooperation with the Ministry and with local social workers, they have developed a play group which provides non-custodial parents with the opportunity to engage with their kids and spend play time and meal time with them in a supervised group setting that meets Ministry requirements. Based on their existing Treasure Box program, the play-group, for Aboriginal children 0-5 and their families, provides school-readiness skills and parent-child interaction in a culturally-supportive environment. The program runs from 5:30 – 7:30 on Friday evenings. In each 2-hour session, parents and children read, sing, dance, rhyme, make crafts, colour, and enjoy food together. There are several benefits to this time-slot, including staff and building space availability, but the primary one is that it mimics family Friday evening time together; giving opportunity for building interaction skills in a realistic setting. The 7:30 pm finish time accommodates bedtime routines for the young children, particularly for those in foster care.
Now completing its first year, the program runs for up to 34 weeks a year: 4, 8 or 10-week blocks in each of the Fall, Winter and Spring terms, with the shorter, 4-week block in the summer to allow for vacation time for staff. Depending on need, the relationships with other parents in the group and waitlist availability, some parents can repeat, either straight away or in a later session.
Optimum size for the group is 10-12 parents and children, with an ideal staffing ratio of 1 to 6 or 7, although the program space can accommodate over to 20 participants with a 1 to 10 staffing ratio. Limitations to group size are the room size, availability of transportation and budgets for the meal.
The program is centered around the needs of the child to connect and build attachment within her/his family group. Older siblings, aunts/uncles and grandparents can be included in the family group who attend. The program activities blend modern and traditional, and elders co-facilitate to include the important cultural elements.
Because of demand, the program is currently solely for children with a non-custodial parent, although sometimes it is grandparents and other members of the family group attending this program with their children/grandchildren in order to allow the non-custodial parent to avail themselves of other access opportunities with their child.
Admission to the program most often starts with a request from the parent, although it can also be initiated internally, through a referral by a staff member, or by a referral from a social worker. The program staff connects with the family’s social worker to establish whether they qualify to attend. In order to meet some of the logistical and legal challenges of non-custodial relationships (e.g. non-contact orders between the child’s parents), permissions may be needed for the non-custodial parent to access the program site and transport arrangements may be necessary. The house van can pick up the non-custodial parent, then the children, and transport them to and from group and the home of the custodial parent or foster parent. This also provides important travel time together and can meet some safety conditions restricting contact between spouses and or foster parents.
The introductory session provides ground rules for the program, which are reinforced over all sessions as the group norms. Some of these are publicly stated and some individual restrictions under the access mandate (ex: the parent not being allowed to leave the room alone with the child to take them to the bathroom) are established one-on-one between staff and parent. In some cases, the social worker may have requested a 1-2 week trial period for participation, after which there will be a review and participation may or may not be continued. While the program is a supervised access situation, staff members do not make individualized reports on parent-child interactions for their social worker. At the end of the program, on request, a parent can ask for a letter (e.g. for their lawyer) which notes their attendance and generic comments on the positive elements of their visits with their children. The condition for attendance for the parent is that they appear “clean and sober”. So far no one has been sent home.
While this program is not funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, it provides a perfect example of place-based community programming and the leveraging of funds and resources it encompasses.