What are the justifications for long-term supervised visitation?

Almost two decades of family law practice has made me cautious regarding supervised visitation.  The number of parents who believe their co-parents’ visitation needs to be supervised is substantially greater than the percentage of parents whose visitation actually needs to be supervised.  Supervised visitation adds elements of tension and drama to what should be a relaxed parent-child relationship.  The message it communicates to children is “there’s something so wrong with your mommy or daddy that he or she cannot be trusted to be alone with you.”  The typical intimacy of spending time with one’s child in a homey setting doing “normal” family activities is replaced by spending time in an artificial settling doing limited activities in an unrelaxing environment.  Given that bonding with caregivers is a necessary condition for secure attachments, the family courts rightly set a high burden before requiring a parent’s visitation be supervised.

Yet there are reasons justifying short-term supervised visitation.  Such short-term supervised visitation is typically ordered when a parent has an enduring relationship with the child (or at least a relationship with the child that the court deems worthy of continued support) but that parent suffers from some temporary mental, physical or emotional condition rendering unsupervised visitation unsafe.  The goal is to use short-term supervised visitation to allow the parent-child bond to remain intact, while giving the parent time and incentive to remedy the conditions requiring supervised visitation.  Often the hope of obtaining unsupervised visitation is a useful goad towards helping that parent achieve stability.

There are even reasons justifying long-term supervised visitation.  Sometimes a parent has mental, physical or emotional conditions that cannot be remedied, yet both the parent and child benefit from the relationship.  I have represented parents with severe mental health or intellectual functioning issues that rendered them incapable of taking care of their children without assistance.  However these parents loved their children and the children loved these parents.  Allowing them time together–even if limited and in a supervised setting–was an act of mercy.

However, too often, long-term supervised visitation is used to allow a parent to wallow in dysfunction while maintaining an attenuated relationship with his or her children.  Typically these are cases in which one parent refuses proper mental health treatment or fails to gain control over substance abuse issues.  I am unclear who benefits from long-term supervised visitation in such situations.  It doesn’t really benefit the parent, who is allowed to maintain an attenuated relationship with the children without fixing his or her problem.  It doesn’t really help the child, who is repeatedly thrust into a supervised visitation setting, rasing the obvious question in the child’s mind of, “what’s so wrong about my daddy [or mommy] and why doesn’t [s]he love me enough to fix it?”  Teenagers tend to be particularly resentful of long-term supervised visitation, both because it requires them to spend time in this artificial setting when they’d rather be with their peer and because they understand why the visitation is supervised and exhibit justifiable anger at the parent who refuses to fix his or her problems.

For parents who love their children but suffer problems they are incapable of fixing, long-term supervised visitation is appropriate.  For parents who suffer problems they are capable of fixing, short-term supervised visitation is appropriate.  But what is the justification for long-term supervised visitation for parents who are capable of fixing their problems?

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