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A calm, comfortable place for kids

Social Services creates Family Visitation Room with help from faith partners

Amariah Williams could sense the awkwardness when a 2-year-old boy in foster care met with his parents in a conference room at the Henrico County Department of Social Services.

Weeks later, she felt a sense of ease when they gathered in the agency’s new Family Visitation Room.

The space is warm and inviting, like a living room or playroom. It’s furnished with soft, comfortable seating, floor lamps, a Lego-building wall, books and interactive toys.

“I feel it’s really made a difference in how we do visitations here,” said Williams, a family service specialist.

Since its opening in December, the Family Visitation Room has become the go-to place whenever children visit Social Services, in Henrico’s Human Services Building on Dixon Powers Drive. Many of the youngsters are in foster care and can have only supervised visits with parents or other relatives. Others are tagging along with adults who are accessing services.

Family visits with foster children used to be held in whatever space was available, usually a conference room or an office, said Gretchen Brown, Social Services’ division manager for Child Welfare Programs.

Those spaces were functional and safe, but they lacked the soft touches that can promote healthy engagement, she said.

A.J. builds a block tower in the new Family Visitation Room at the Henrico County Department of Social Services.

The idea of creating a child-friendly space grew from Social Services’ work with Virginia Kids Belong, a nonprofit group that brings together government agencies, businesses as well as faith and creative organizations to find solutions to Virginia’s foster care and adoption crisis. Henrico had 151 children in foster care in fiscal 2018-19 and has averaged about 150 in each of the past four years.

Members of Henrico Faith Partners, a coalition of churches that supports foster and adoptive families as well as Social Services staff, were aware of efforts locally and in other areas of the country to create visitation rooms.

“We knew this was something that most agencies need,” said Heather Beam, a coalition member.

With Social Services’ blessing, group members researched what was needed, developed a wish list of items totaling about $5,000 and emailed it to church members.

“The faith community did all the research, and we gave them free rein,” Brown said.

Henrico Faith Partners were already helping foster families by providing meals, diapers, child care and other support. Members jumped at the chance to help furnish the visitation room, Beam said.

“Within, I think, three days, we had everything purchased,” she said.

The Family Visitation Room, which was formerly used as office space, incorporates “trauma-informed design” principles to create a calming environment for children. To avoid excessive stimuli, there’s no TV or video game system. Instead, visitors find puzzles, art with affirming messages — such as “Live Your Dream” and “You Are Loved” — and lamps that give soft, ambient lighting.

Research shows children who have experienced trauma may have a sensitivity to harsh lighting, Brown said.

“It has completely changed the tone and environment around the visits,” she said.

The Henrico Faith Partners are thrilled with the result. “It just came together beautifully, and it’s been really fun,” Beam said.           For more information about foster care and adoption in Henrico, contact Social Services at (804) 501-4001 (west end) or (804) 652-3123 (east end) or dssweb@henrico.us.

 
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