The History of Supervised Visitation in San Diego County

This article is written by Susan Griffin, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Hannah's House in honor of National Supervised Visitation Awareness Month, 2017.

Supervised visitation is a largely unregulated profession in California.  Supervised Visitation Network is an international organization that established standards in 1996. California established standards in 1998 and a portion of those standards were codified in Family Code 3200.5 in 2013.

Hannah's House began providing supervised visitation services in San Diego in 1988. The only "training" offered was a brief meeting with the Director of San Diego Family Court Services during which the prospective provider was provided with a copy of a dependency court law  stating that supervised visitation monitors are mandated reporters of child abuse.  That was the total training protocol until 1998. There were two organizations providing supervised visitation in San Diego county at the time. They supervised visits in large meeting rooms where multiple families were "monitored" by a single staff person. There were also a handful of individuals providing the service in the community, primarily social workers with experience with CPS cases.

When the California standards first became effective in 1998, the standards contained a guideline for training but no requirements. In fact, there was no mandate for specific content or number of hours of training in the State of California until January 1 of 2013. By contrast, Hannah's House has required 40-60 hours of training for our own staff since we first began hiring and training staff for our program in 1988. We require 24-30 hours of classroom training and 16-30 hours of supervised practicum (shadow training.) Our training requirements for our own staff far exceeded the standards in California before there were standards.

In 1997, Hannah's House began a training program for individuals in San Diego County, external to our own staff, with an interest in becoming supervised visitation monitors and operating their own businesses. The organization's commitment to training and education is part of the core philosophy upon which the agency was founded. Our training has always included a requirement for a supervised practicum that had to be completed in order to receive a certificate of completion. Our training program was the only formal training program in the county until training became a requirement in 2013.

Our experienced trainers developed significant concerns about some of the early participants in that external training program back in 1997.  Some trainees demonstrated inappropriateness for the work in terms of a lack of professionalism, poor boundaries, and inadequate basic knowledge and understanding of child development - a serious deficit for a person training to provide services in a family situation involving young children.

We approached the Director of Family Court Services who maintained the list of Supervised Visitation Monitors at the time. Our question: Can we withhold a certificate of completion from individuals we determine to be unsuitable for the work. The answer: No; if a student pays the fee and completes the required hours of training they must be given a certificate and added to the list. 

Within a few months of our first graduating class in 1997, we started receiving complaints:
1  The supervisor won't document what is happening during visits.
2  The supervisor fell asleep during visits.
3  The supervisor loaned the noncustodial parent a car.
4. The supervisor has become personal friends with the other parent; and so on.

The parents turned to us because we had conducted the training. We had to explain to the parents that we had no oversight or authority to ensure that monitors were providing services according to the standards (Section 26.2 now 5.20.) Parents wanted to know who they should contact to report the inappropriate behavior of the monitors. We told them that there was no one, no process for filing a grievance.

In 1998, we received our first parent compliant about a supervisor that included a video tape as supporting evidence. It turned out to be just the first in a long series of video tapes we received over the years from custodial parents who followed visits and recorded a number of disturbing supervisor behaviors.
1.  supervisors sleeping during visits;
2.  supervisors hugging clients; 
3.  supervisors babysitting children they were supposed to be supervising - with no parent in sight;
4.  supervisors sharing transportation, housing and meals together with their clients when the supervised children were not present;
5.  supervisors so distant from the parent and child they were supervising during a visit that there is no way they could have heard any of the conversation between the parent and child.

There was no recourse for the parents and nothing we could do to effect change in the system. Every year beginning in approximately 2001, we approached Family Court Services, the Certified Family Law Specialist Committee, other Family Law attorneys and other stakeholders in an attempt to help people understand that there was no way ensure that monitors were providing services appropriately.

It took 10 years, until 2011, before we were able to get a group of Stakeholders around a table for a total of four (4) meetings to review and discuss the problems with the San Diego Court Resource List of Supervised Visitation Monitors. We were prepared. We provided the Stakeholders with a comparison chart that showed the differences in approach to these lists offered by the court to parents in four different counties. Information on the comparison chart in 2011 was:
1.  San Diego - 88 providers on the list
2.  Orange - 26 providers on the list
3.  Riverside - 24 providers on the list
4.  Sacramento - 32 providers on the list

When the Stakeholders reviewed the comparison among the four (4) counties, the bottom line was simple and clear. San Diego took no action to vet list members other than to ask consumers to indicate that they would not hold the San Diego Superior Court liable if they were harmed as a result of using the resources offered by the court; and to ask providers to sign an affidavit saying they were qualified.

By contrast, the 3 other courts all had some requirements that providers had to offer to the court prior to being approved for the list, such as liability insurance; policies and procedures review; background check required or at least recommended. The other courts also required that monitors provide several pieces of information that had to be placed on the list for more complete information for consumers. Additionally, two (2) of the other three (3) courts provided direct links as well as summary information to consumers about the standards the monitors were expected to follow when providing the services.

Even now there is no information provided to consumers in San Diego County from the Court Program Resource List for Supervised Visitation Monitors about 5.20 or 3200.5, standards that are critical for the protection of children and parents receiving these services. Our local Resource List presents consumers with information about Professional Provider of Supervised Visitation to the same extent it does for instructors for Boating Safety, Graffiti, Shoplifting classes and others - none.

The stakeholders at the table initially expressed shock and concern that people held out by the court to be qualified to provide such professional services were not required to meet any standards. The stakeholders worried and discussed and pondered and ultimately made no changes. Their concern? If the court actually looked at documentation to verify monitor claims, then the court might be held responsible should a consumer be injured. There was not the will to make the changes.

Hannah's House has consistently worked in a variety of ways to increase the training, education, ethics, and professionalism of the monitors on the San Diego list. At one point we made our own training certificates, issued in that external training program, expire two (2) years after they were issued. We then required that monitors provide proof of at least three (3) hours of continuing education annually to get a renewed certificate. Several monitors complained to the Director of Family Court Services (FCS) about our policy. We were then contacted by FCS and told we could not set a requirement that was not required by law or by the owners of the list (the court.)

The way that supervised visitation monitors on the Court Resource List in our county conduct business ranges from excellent to horrific. Consumers have absolutely no way of knowing who they are hiring. Some monitors show a clear bias in favor of a parent, choosing which one is the better or healthier parent and freely offering that opinion and making recommendations in direct opposition to the professional standards that have existed since 1998.

The Court Program Resource List does now include information about filing complaints. Hannah's House continues to receive information from consumers about these complaints and the stories are disturbing. Even a case where a supervisor engaged in an intimate relationship with one of the parents, with concrete documentation provided, is still on the list. There are supervisors who remain on the list who refuse to document visits; refuse to issue court reports; routinely give opinions and make recommendations which they are not allowed to do and are completely unqualified to do; or make changes to their own policies and procedures to punish a difficult parent or to benefit a pleasant parent.

The profession of supervised visitation should require specific education, training, supervised practicum, and a certification process. It does not. At Hannah's House we have made a commitment to quality assurance and quality control processes in order to continually challenge ourselves to be better and do better at our professional efforts. It's not a perfect process but it keeps us focused on the daily importance of accuracy, thoroughness, professionalism, and transparency. 

We at Hannah's House are committed to continuing our efforts to improve standardization, forensic accuracy, and accountability among ourselves and our professional colleagues.  We welcome opportunities to dialogue with others interested in improving the quality of professional monitoring in our county and throughout the state.