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Lucy Stevens - 15th January 2021
For foster carers, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have raised a plethora of questions about the day-to-day practicalities which have now been thrown into uncertainty.
Last week, we published a blog about education for vulnerable children and the questions this throws up for foster carers.
This week we will be looking at how the arrangements for contact with birth families have been affected by the lockdown and the impact on foster carers and the children they care for.
We’re trying to respond to the questions all foster carers have at this time, as and when we get clarity. The truth is that Local Authorities are all still grappling with how best to meet the needs of children, birth families and carers within the confines of the government restrictions. Some Local Authorities have published guidance, others are in the process of doing so. Generally though, there are a few principles for good practice which Local Authorities are working within.
I’m shielding and am concerned that my child will still be having face to face contact with family.
Local Authorities should be carrying out risk assessments before the implementation of face to face contact between birth families and children. Usually this should be carried out by the child’s social worker in conjunction with the foster carers and their supervising social worker. This should consider the needs of the children, an assessment of the fostering household (their needs, vulnerabilities and concerns) and assessment of the needs and vulnerabilities of the birth family.
Local Authorities are, as a matter of course, attempting to reduce the number of face to face contacts given the current level of covid infection rates. Where no risk assessment has happened, contact should be done virtually, using phone, face time, zoom or other virtual platforms.
To mask or not to mask?
Where a risk assessment has taken place and face to face contact has been approved, what are the guidelines about mask wearing?
This will be determined by each Local Authority but it seems that there is agreement that wherever possible parents and birth family should wear masks at contact sessions. The exception to this is for children under school age. This is primarily to enable good interaction between parents and children who might be pre-verbal and rely on facial expressions for communication.
If foster carers are concerned at the safety measures put in place for contact, they should speak first of all to their Supervising Social Worker who will be able to work with the child’s social worker to ensure that every party is happy with the level of safety and risk and that the well-being of all is safeguarded. This is obviously not an easy balance to strike; as with so much relating to the pandemic, we may have to bear with one another until more guidance is issued and we become more used to managing the challenges of contact during covid.
What does the government have to say?
You may find this guidance from the Department for Education, published in Dec 2020, useful when thinking about and communicating your views as a foster carer. You will naturally want to do what is in the best interest of your child, whilst also wanting to protect your household, wider family and community. Being informed is really important.
Under section 34 of the Children Act 1989, where a child is in local authority care, the local authority must allow “reasonable contact” between a child and their parents, guardian, any person with parental responsibility or a named person who had previous care of the child. However, this can be halted for seven days if the local authority believes it necessary to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare; the refusal is decided upon as a matter of urgency. UK Government guidance for children’s social care states that the Government expects court orders related to contact for children in care to be met, though there may be circumstances where this is not possible: We expect that contact between children in care and their birth relatives will continue. It is essential for children and families to remain in touch at this difficult time, and for many children, the consequences of not seeing relatives would be traumatic. We expect the spirit of any court-ordered contact in relation to children in care to be maintained. However, there may be local or individual circumstances where face-to face contact may not be possible, including where members of households are isolating or continuing to take precautions due to clinical vulnerability. Contact arrangements should, therefore, be assessed on a case by case basis taking into account a range of factors, including the government’s current social distancing guidance and guidance on meeting people outside your household and the needs of the child. Under the current provisions for social distancing, there are exceptions for the purposes of arrangements for access to, and contact between, parents and children where the children do not live in the same household as their parents or one of their parents. There is also an exception to allow for contact between siblings when they don’t live together and one or more of them is a looked after child or a 16 or 17 year old care leaver. However, the 6-person limit will apply to meetings with other relatives.
Therefore, it may be necessary for children and other friends and family to make alternative arrangements. Where it is not possible for the usual face-to-face contact to happen, keeping in touch will need to continue to take place virtually. We would encourage social workers and other professionals to reassure children that this position is temporary. We would also expect foster parents and other carers to be consulted on how best to meet the needs of the children in their care and to be supported to facilitate that contact. We recognise that some young children may not be able to benefit from virtual contact with their family, because of their age or other communication challenges. In these circumstances, local authorities should work with families to ensure that they can have safe face-to-face interactions, whilst still adhering to social distancing guidance or restrictions. When considering the most appropriate ways for children to stay in touch with their families, social workers and carers should seek the views of children who may welcome different forms of contact, including less formal and more flexible virtual contact with their birth families.
We can’t emphasise enough how important your views are and how vital it is that you communicate any concerns relating to your child, your own circumstances and the level of risk you are prepared to accept.
It’s not all doom and gloom!
You will be instrumental, as a foster carer, in assessing how adapted contact arrangements are working for your child. Virtual contact is not ideal in many cases for children and their birth families. It can be difficult to relax into sessions and it can feel awkward or unnatural to begin with.
However, sometimes, virtual contact can be a lot less daunting and stressful for a child, particularly where they usually have to travel some distance in order to see family. Similarly, contact that is cancelled at the last minute can be more easily managed by carers and rescheduled by the social worker.
Children are getting more used to interacting with one another online. Virtual contact might be harder for the adults but might require less emotional preparation for the children. In some cases the quality of interaction might be improved and the strain it puts on the child reduced. The fact that virtual contact can happen from the child’s home can help the child to relax as well as aiding in the complex processing of contact after the event.
What about a vaccine for foster carers?
Some Local Authorities are starting to communicate plans to vaccinate Foster carers. As a fostering provider, we are seeing requests for carers to accept children who have tested positive for Covid. Equally, where face to face contact does take place, there is a risk to foster carers.
The Fostering Network have launched a campaign to seek priority for foster carers when it comes to vaccination.
We hope to be able to come back to you with more information on vaccination for foster carers over the coming weeks.
In the meantime, if you do have questions or concerns, speak to your Supervising social worker who should make sure that your voice is heard.