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Lucy Stevens - 21st October 2021
Contact: A vital yet complex part of the fostering role.
Supporting children to have contact with their birth families is one of the most important elements of fostering in many ways. Yet it is also potentially complex and can be fraught with difficulties for children, birth families and foster carers alike.
The topic of contact is vast and provokes strong reactions amongst children, birth families, foster carers, and social workers. This blog aims to give an overview of how contact works, what complications can arise and how important it is to get contact right for the child and their families.
It’s important firstly to be able to appreciate all parties’ perspectives that are involved in contact arrangements and the impact of these but most importantly, hold in mind the benefits and rights of any child to maintain contact with parents and close family members.
Contact – an overview
All contact arrangements are agreed specifically for an individual child and are determined by a court during care proceedings. Where contact is deemed to be in the best interests of the child by the courts, the arrangements will be communicated to foster carers as part of the individual care plan for the child. There are different types of contact which may be put in place.
Supervised contact often takes place in a contact centre (a venue specifically dedicated to the supervised contact between children and birth family) and might be overseen by a contact supervisor. Often contact centres will be used when children first enter the care system as the impact and quality of contact is assessed for the child. Carers generally are expected to facilitate contact by transporting children to and from the contact sessions unless the children are placed out of the local area and contact is logistically not possible for carers. It is important that foster carers are aware of the contact arrangements before a child is placed with them to ensure they can commit to the arrangements.
Sometimes, and more commonly with older children or those who have been in foster care for a long time or depending on the family dynamics, contact might take place in the community and might be supervised by a family member, support worker or the foster carer.
The purpose of supervised contact is to ensure that contact is appropriate and positive, that the child’s safety and well-being are protected, that the arrangements are working well for all parties and are faithful to the plan as laid out by the courts.
This type of contact usually relates to older children where it has been deemed safe and positive for children and birth families to see each other without being supervised. This type of contact can take place anywhere and needs to be supported by foster carers. Foster carers also need to ensure that the child is happy with the contact and be sensitive to the impact it has on the child.
During the recent lockdowns, the bulk of contact was carried out remotely and was often supervised thanks to online conferencing. In normal times, this form of contact can play an important role for children and birth families. Where it is part of the contact plan, children may be able to have contact with their families over the phone or online. This can be unsupervised, or it might be that the contact happens in the presence/within earshot of foster carers so that they can assess how the child is managing this.
Whilst letterbox contact is more commonly used for children who have been adopted, it can play an important role for children who are in long term foster care. Letterbox contact is via letters or photos and takes place at a pre-agreed frequency. Generally, letters are sent via the Local Authority who check the contents and if appropriate send this on to the child. If the contents are not deemed appropriate, the Local Authority will go back to the birth family and explain what the issues are and ask them to reword the contents. Children or carers respond with a little update and, if agreed, include a picture. If a child is not returning home and is likely to be adopted or move into long term foster care, contact can be a real opportunity to obtain photos of family members with their child(ren) which can be so central in completing life story work. For a child to be able to have pictures of family members and of themselves with family members can be crucial in assisting them in working on their identify.
The frequency of contact will be set out during care proceedings by the courts. This decision will be based on what is in the best interests of the child and should consider the child’s view. It is therefore very individual and needs to be considered on a child-by-child basis. It’s important to acknowledge that for some children, regular contact is critical to developing bonds and attachments to parents and siblings. For others, contact might be easier for the child to manage if it happens less frequently. Often the younger a child, the more frequent the contact needs to be. For example, in the case of a baby, the frequency will help to maintain the relationship between baby and parent and encourage attachment. Its important to remember during care proceedings not to pre-empt the final decision of the court and it may well be decided it is safe for the child to return home.
Equally important to acknowledge is that contact is not always a positive experience for children. Many children really struggle with the reality of contact and the complex emotions and reactions it elicits in them. Most children cannot advocate effectively for themselves and are often unable to say that they want less contact or contact to take place differently. The professionals around the child, including the foster carers, need to observe the child, talk to them, gain their views, and promote their interests and well-being.
Once a Care Order is granted, whilst parents need to be consulted, it is the Local Authority who is able to change the frequency, duration, type of contact and this will be reviewed and considered at every child review meeting. Evidence supporting the views and interests of the child must be robust and foster carers play an important role here too.
The role of the foster carer
Promoting safe and meaningful contact is a central role as a foster carer because it is one of the most important aspects for children who are looked after, and often raises emotional issues for all involved.
Children who are in foster care are likely to have complicated feelings about their birth family but also about their foster carer. Children love their birth parents and, in many cases, want to see them and have a relationship with them. At the same time, they may have feelings of anger, shame, loss, and rejection. In addition to this, they may well feel that they are living between two families, and this can be confusing. Often children feel guilt around the emotions they might have in relation to contact.
From a foster carer’s perspective, this can mean that the period before and after contact is particularly difficult to navigate. They may see a recurrence of challenging behaviours, emotional regression and outbursts of aggression.
Nonetheless, in many cases, supporting contact and helping children to cope with the feelings it provokes can be very beneficial for the children. Positive and healthy contact is crucial in helping children rebuild relationships with birth families, reunite with them but also can play a vital role in ensuring the stability of the fostering placement. The skill of foster carers is supporting children to manage this, be able to identify and express their emotions regarding contact and stand alongside the child to help them develop the emotional ability to withstand their conflicting emotions.
Of course, it isn’t always the case that contact is positive for the child or young person. Additionally, birth families may not be consistent in their ability to attend. Many carers will need to advocate for the child when it is clear that contact is having a detrimental effect on the child. It is easy for the child’s voice to become lost if contact is pursued as a matter of course with no scrutiny as to its benefits for the child. Whilst the foster carer needs to support and facilitate the contact plan, they must also observe and understand the impact on the child and ensure their needs are prioritised and communicated to the professionals surrounding the child.
Contact can also be logistically problematic for the foster carer. Whilst carers play a pivotal role in supporting and facilitating contact, they do also need to be protected from unreasonable demands in terms of its facilitation. Due to the lack of foster carers across the country, more children are being placed into foster care outside of the county they come from. This can be very difficult for all parties. Fostering providers should be having in-depth conversations with carers before children are placed. This ensures that the logistics around contact work for the children, the birth families, and the foster carers. Travelling long distances for contact is generally not in the best interests of children, particularly when they are young and is also difficult for foster carers. The fostering provider and the local authority (including the birth families where possible) should agree how contact will work prior to placing a child. This ensures that all parties are able to commit to the contact arrangement.
Understanding the perspective of birth families
Foster carers often have to suspend their own prejudice and judgment when it comes to birth families. Some of the best outcomes for children are achieved when carers are able to positively promote and support these key relationships. Foster carers understand that many parents love their children but may not be able to offer the safe and secure base that children require. In situations like this, it is freeing for children to see their foster carers establish good relationships with birth families.
It can be enormously helpful for the child involved in contact, to observe the birth parents and foster carers together, even if its just a hello and few words at the beginning and end of contact. It can be hard for a child to tell their foster carer they want to see their family members, as they may believe this will upset or anger them. Promoting an environment of openess and honesty, free from judgment is particularly important for children.
On the other hand, a child may indicate through their actions that they do not want contact. We are all angry or upset with our parents at some stage and it is not usually a good idea to encourage a child to sever all contact. Rather, foster carers should observe and listen to children to help ensure their views are communicated.
The need for, frequency and type of contact is likely to change over time and should be one of the areas discussed regularly in supervision, Child Reviews, and planning meetings. Foster carers will be important contributors to these conversations.
Obviously, positive and beneficial contact is not always possible, nor appropriate and will depend on the individual circumstances of the child.
Whatever the individual circumstances, contact represents a real challenge for foster carers. It is vital that foster carers are supported by their supervising social workers. Carers will need to put a lot of thought into how they manage contact and support the child as effectively as possible. Foster carers should be able to discuss helpful techniques to support children emotionally, share honestly their own feelings around contact and the impact it has on them and receive good training in this area.