by Judge R. Michael Key, inspired by the entire Family Time Team and especially by the children they serve.
Imagine you are a nine-year old little girl who, along with your three-year old brother, are removed from your home because your mom is arrested on drug charges. Although you are placed with a loving, caring family, they are still strangers to you. You constantly worry about what will happen to you, how long will you be there, and what is happening to your mom and if she is ok. You wonder if you will ever see her again.
There are laws and policies that say you have a right to see your mom within a week after you are separated, which seems like forever to you, that you get to see her at least every other week, and that your little brother can see her at least once a week. However, days, weeks, and months pass and you never get to see your mom; and this is at a time when you need her more than ever. When you ask why you cannot see your mom, you are either lied to and told that your mom is on a trip, but you know she would never go on a trip and not take you and your brother, or you are told the truth, which is your mom is in jail and that visits are not allowed. Even if visits are allowed, they take place through video conferencing where you are allowed to see, but not touch your mom, a circumstance the new adults in your life decide will be more confusing and harmful for you than not seeing your mom at all. So, you wait and you wonder. Your heart hurts, deeply. Fortunately, in Troup County, Georgia, the hearts of the adults in the community also hurt for you, and they care enough to say, “Not our children. Not on our watch.” And they give legs to the words spoken often by Dr. Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner of the Children’s Bureau, “We are better than that. We can do better than that. We must do better than that.”
Thanks to the collective and inspired efforts of the Troup County Sheriff’s Office, the Troup County Juvenile Court, the Department of Family and Children Services, West Georgia Counseling and Assessment, Inc., Georgia’s Court Appointed Special Advocates, and others, on November 26th, children in foster care will be able to spend real family time with their parents who are incarcerated. While not quite like being at home, the visits will be in a specially renovated room at the jail, furnished in a home-like setting by the Department of Family and Children Services, with toys, books, and other child-friendly items provided by West Georgia Counseling and Assessment, Inc. and Success by Six. This initiative will appropriately start small with a limited number of children. The visits will be facilitated by well-trained parent aides who can observe the visitation, take opportunities to coach parents when appropriate, carefully prepare the children for the visits, and comfort and support them after the visits.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this initiative, which is part of a plan to implement the recommendations contained in the recently published Family Time Practice Guide. In almost every other jurisdiction in Georgia and around the country, real family time visitation just does not happen between children in foster care and their incarcerated parents. Many times, children are removed from their homes without the opportunity to see their parents before they go to jail and if they are lucky, they get to see their parents in court, but usually even then they are not allowed to speak with or hug them. While there are certainly cases in which it is not in a child’s best interest, at least psychologically, to visit with their parents in jail, in most of cases, spending time together can minimize and possibly prevent additional trauma to the child and to the parent, and promotes healing.
Imagine again, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, you are that little girl. And imagine the feelings that will rush over you when you go for your first family time visit with your mom at the jail. Your heart will not heal immediately, nor will it heal just as a result of these special times with your mom, but can you imagine how rapidly it will beat as you enter the lobby and head down the hall where you know on the other side of that door, you will be able to hug your mom, tell her how much you love and miss her, and ask her all of the questions you have been unable to ask anyone else, or that no one else could answer. It is only a beginning, but you are helping to lead the way and for that, we thank you.
Happy Thanksgiving and a wonderful and safe holiday season to all!
 The Family Time Practice Guide is a project of the Georgia Supreme Court Committee on Justice for Children.