Two Maine attorneys who practice family law want to fundamentally change how supervised visits are conducted between parents and their children who are temporarily in the custody of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Wayne Doane and Wendy Hatch are opening Fair Shake at 442 Moosehead Trail in Newport on Monday. The building has five visitation rooms, each colorfully decorated with toys and play equipment for all ages, from infants to toddlers, to preschoolers, to pre-teens.
Each room also is equipped with a camera so the visit can be recorded and used to assess how the process of reunifying children with their parents is going.
Doane and Hatch are starting Fair Shake as the state’s child welfare system has come under a fresh round of scrutiny following the killings of four children this summer allegedly at the hands of their parents. An outside probe of the system released Oct. 21 detailed a handful of challenges caseworkers encounter as they try to make initial judgments about children’s safety, but didn’t specifically address supervised visits that are part of the process of reunifying children with their parents.
Doane and Hatch said they want their business, the first private business in Maine to offer supervised visits, to relieve pressure on another overburdened part of the child welfare system. The lawyers came up with the name out of an effort to give “a fair shake” to everyone involved in the process.
“It’s fair to the parents because they deserve to have visitation that can maximize their chances of success and fair to the department as they deserve to have the most accurate information about what happens in the visits because they use that information to make decisions,” Doane said.
DHHS most often opens an investigation after a mandatory reporter, such as a nurse, teacher, doctor or police officer, flags suspected child abuse or neglect for the state. If DHHS substantiates the report, the agency may go to court and ask a judge to determine that the children are in jeopardy if they remain with parents or others in the household. Once the children have been removed from their parents and placed with relatives or in foster care, a plan is developed to reunify the family over a period of time.
One of the lawyers’ goals is to allow parents to have more frequent visits with their children than currently are available through agencies contracted with DHHS to provide supervised visits, such as Penquis in Bangor.
“We’re not looking to replace what those agencies are doing, but we want to give parents more opportunities to be with their children,” Hatch said.
“On average, parents see their children 1.5 times a week. That’s not enough time for a mother to bond with an infant who’s in custody. That’s not enough time for parents to interact in healthy ways with their kids.”
Hatch also said that the more opportunities parents with substance use disorder have to see their children, the more likely they are to remain sober. Substance use disorder is one of the main reasons children are removed from their parents’ custody.
“I’ve had clients say, ‘I can’t use today, a Monday, because I’m going to see my kid on Wednesday, and I don’t want them to see me like that,’” she said.
Fair Shake in Newport was created to provide a place for parents whose children are in the custody of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to have more and better opportunities for supervised visits with their children during the reunification process. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
Each Fair Shake room is equipped with a camera so that the interaction between parents and children can be observed from another room in real time and recorded. The videos of the visits can then be shared with attorneys, guardians ad litem, counselors and others involved in the reunification process.
The idea for the business came after a client used a cellphone to record a supervised visit. When Doane compared that to the report of the person who supervised the visit, he saw discrepancies. In the video, his client asked to take notes about the supervisor’s recommendations so he could discuss them with his counselor, but that information was not included in the report.
“We have also heard from many parents — and sometimes from children themselves — that it is awkward and uncomfortable to be forced to interact under what understandably feels to them like a microscope and, all too often, the other person in the room is a stranger to them,” Doane said.
Visits will be more natural and comfortable for families when parents and children have an opportunity to be alone with their children even though they know they are being observed from another room and recorded.
DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell did not comment on the opening of Fair Shake or its offerings but spoke about how the department supports reunification.
“Safe and supported contact between parents and children is critical to the process of successful reunification,” she said. “We support this contact in a variety of ways, including through visitation, medical appointments, child care and school events, and, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, additionally through virtual visits.”
Farwell said that agencies such as Penquis “can provide a comfortable and natural environment for kids.”
In addition to the recordings, Fair Shake will be open seven days a week with longer hours than are offered by agencies contracted to provide spaces for supervised visits. It also will offer a printed photo of parents to children and one of children to their parents at the end of each visit.
The cost will be $40 per hour and billed to DHHS, according to Doane. In order to use Fair Shake’s services, clients must ask judges for more supervised visits than they currently are allowed.
Because of its location in Newport, it is 30 minutes from Bangor, Waterville and Skowhegan. All four of those cities have district courts that handle family matters.