Contact with Parents/Adults, Siblings and Connected Persons

SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTER

This chapter applies to arrangements for children placed in foster and residential care to have contact with their parents, anyone with parental responsibility who is not a parent, siblings, any relative, friend or other person connected with the child.

For arrangements for social visits and overnight stays away with friends which staff/carers may agree, see Social Visits (Including Overnight Stays) Procedure.

For guidance regarding frequency of contact within the context of permanence, see Permanence Planning Guidance.

NOTE: The responsible authority should review this policy (in particular the issue of sibling contact) with their local Children in Care Council and other Looked After Children.

RELATED GUIDANCE

Decision to Look After and Care Planning Procedure

RELATED GUIDANCE

The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations - Volume 2: Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (2015)

AMENDMENT

In March 2018, Section 2, Different Types of Contact was updated to take account of the use of mobile communication with regards to contact

1. Approving and Planning Contact

The responsible authority has a duty to endeavour to promote contact between the child and parents, siblings, anyone with parental responsibility who is not a parent, any relative, friend or other person connected with the child unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the child's welfare. The assessment and discussions with the child will identify those people for whom it is important to maintain contact. This may include those (including a parent) with whom contact has been lost and consideration should be given as to how this could be re-established.

This should be in a manner consistent with the child's Care Plan; which, itself, must take account of any child protection plan or contact order that may be in force. There is a presumption of continued contact between the child and their family while the child is Looked After, unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the child's welfare.

Contact between children and their parents, siblings or relevant others may only be permitted if previously agreed by the social worker and should be set out in the child's placement information record.

The purpose of the contact and how it will be evaluated must be made clear in the Plan. Contact arrangements should be focused on, and shaped around, the child's needs. The child's welfare is the paramount consideration at all times and each child's wishes and needs for contact should be individually considered and regularly assessed and reviewed. The wishes and feelings of the child should be ascertained, wherever possible, using advocacy and communication services if necessary. For many children, relationships with family members, previous carers, friends and others are valued. Contact can be very important in helping children develop their sense of identity and understand their lives.

So far as it is reasonably practicable, the wishes and feelings of the parents and the child's carers must be ascertained before a decision about contact arrangements is made.

Both direct and indirect contact arrangements should always be clearly detailed, setting out how contact will take place, the venue, the frequency and how the arrangements will be reviewed. The use of mobile communication should also be considered.

Where contact is extended as part of a plan to gradually return the child to the parents' care, the Placements with Parents Procedure should be followed.

For foster carers providing short breaks, the foster carer must maintain contact as agreed in the Short Break Plan.

Maintaining contact with siblings from both the same or different parents is reported by children to be one of their highest priorities (The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations - Volume 2: Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (2015)). It is not always possible or appropriate to place sibling groups together. Where siblings cannot be placed together it requires the active involvement of all parties to facilitate contact between them.

Independent Reviewing Officers should ensure that Looked After Reviews consider whether contact arrangements including sibling contact in Care Plans has been implemented and that the child is happy with the contact – both its frequency and its quality. The IRO should inform the child that they can access Advocacy Services if they have a complaint.

2. Different Types of Contact

Face to face meetings and visits will generally be the best way of maintaining relationships, but other means such as letters, mobile communication, photograph exchanges etc. should be borne in mind. Responsible authorities and carers should work together to explore how electronic media can support positive relationships for children. Children should be supported to ensure they are safe online rather than this form of contact being avoided. It may be useful to encourage young people to share details of how they communicate with others, (this may include mobile phones or other social networking sites and apps and consoles such as Xbox or PlayStation), and an agreement reached between the young person, social worker and foster carer about how safely to do this.

3. Supervised Contact

The need to supervise contact should be considered as part of the assessment and planning process by the social worker and his/her Manager. It is the responsibility of the child's social worker to ensure that the person(s) supervising contact is appropriately skilled and experienced to do so.

The primary focus of the assessment of this issue will be the safety and welfare of the child.

Where supervised contact is deemed necessary, the reasons should be clearly recorded and the role of the supervisor or supervisors clearly defined.

A written risk assessment must be completed before supervised contacts begin.

This assessment must take account of all factors that could impact on the success of supervised contact and relevant safeguards including:

  1. Any history of abuse or threats of abuse to the child, carers, staff or others;
  2. Previous threats to disrupt contact or failure to cooperate with conditions agreed for supervised contact;
  3. Previous incidents or threats of abduction;
  4. Previous incidents of coercion or inappropriate behaviour during contact;
  5. The transient or unsettled lifestyle of the parents;
  6. The child's behaviour and needs, including medical needs.

Where any of the above features in the risk assessment, and supervised contact is to continue, the risk assessment must state the specific measures to be put in place to minimise risks. The assessment must then be approved and signed by the appropriate Team Manager.

Where supervised contact takes place, the detailed arrangements for the supervision must be set out in the Placement Plan/Contact Plan.

In addition, there should be a written agreement with the parents and other relevant parties having supervised contact, signed by them, which should state clearly any specific conditions relating to the contact and any expectations placed on the parents or relevant parties:

  • The agreement should be clear about where the contact must take place and whether any flexibility is allowed for activity or movements within or away from the agreed location;
  • It should also be clear about whether the person(s) having contact are permitted to give the child food, drinks, gifts or money during contact;
  • It should state clearly the circumstances in which contact will be terminated;
  • The agreement should state the adults who will be allowed to attend for supervised contact and supervisors should be asked to apply that strictly;
  • Particular attention should be given to when and how visits are ended. It may be more appropriate that all "goodbyes" take place indoors with the visitors asked to leave before supervisors return children to their placements or carers;
  • Significant changes to Care Plans, court proceedings and/or decisions made about the frequency of future contact are all likely to be potential tension points so extra vigilance should apply at any contacts arranged around these times.

The staff/carers and any other person involved in the supervision of the contact should have copies of the Placement Plan and the agreement with the parents or relevant adults.

Where possible, those supervising the contact should be known to the child and the family before the supervised contact takes place.

In the event of problems emerging, the supervisors must be clear who to contact and what details they will need to share.

The supervisor's observations of the contact must be clearly recorded in the child's record and shared with the parents.

The supervisor must immediately report to the social worker any concerns about the child or parents' conduct during the contact. The social worker in consultation with his/her Manager should consider the need to review the risk assessment and/or the contact arrangements in light of the concerns expressed.

See Section 4, Review of Contact Arrangements.

4. Review of Contact Arrangements

The social worker and his/her Manager should keep contact arrangements, including the continuing need for supervision, under regular review.

The risk assessment in relation to the arrangements for supervising contact must be reviewed at least every six months or sooner if any incident or report identifies concerns.

Where the child is the subject of a Child Protection Plan, the contact arrangements should also be reviewed as required in the Child Protection Plan.

Any significant reactions that the child has to contact should be reported to the child's social worker by those observing contact arrangements, for example foster carers, residential staff and/or supervisors of contact.

The contact arrangements should also be reviewed in any Placement Planning Meeting and at the child's Looked After Review.

Where a Contact Order is in force and it is considered that the contact arrangements set out in the Order should be altered, the agreement of the child and the parents should be sought and legal advice should be obtained as to the need to seek a variation of the Court Order.

5. Cancellation, Suspension or Termination of Contact

Contact should never be cancelled unless there is a very good reason, e.g. it is deemed that it would not be safe for it to take place or the child/ adult/sibling attending is too unwell for it to take place. Contact should take place in accordance with the child's Placement Plan, Court Order and any Court Directions.

Wherever possible, the staff/carer should consult the child's social worker in advance if they consider there is a good reason to cancel the contact.

If contact is cancelled, the social worker or, if the social worker is not available, the staff/carer must ensure that the child and, as far as practicable, the parent or relevant adult is informed in advance and that the reason for the decision is explained. The social worker or staff/carer should arrange an alternative contact.

If contact does not take place and consultation has not been possible with the social worker, the staff/carer must inform the child's social worker as soon as possible and confirm in writing the decision to cancel and the reason.

N.B. Contact arrangements must not be withdrawn as a sanction imposed on a child.

Emergency restrictions on contact can only be made to protect the child from significant risk and must be notified to the Placing Authority (child's social worker) within 24 hours.

5.1 Suspending or Terminating Contact

Any proposal to suspend or terminate the contact should be considered as part of the child's Looked After Review, unless the circumstances require an urgent decision to be made, in which case the social worker must be consulted and legal advice should be obtained.

Any such proposal should be made in the context of the overall aims and objectives of the care plan.

Even where it is not possible to hold a Looked After Review because of the urgency of the situation, the reasons for the proposal must be explained to the parents and to the child, and their agreement obtained if possible.

Where the proposal is to suspend the contact, the length and purpose of the suspension together with the basis upon which contact will be reinstated must be made clear.

Where the child is the subject of an emergency protection order, interim care order or full care order, an application to the Court for authority to terminate the contact will always be necessary if contact is to be suspended for more than 7 days. As soon as such a decision is made, Legal Services should be contacted as a matter of urgency so that the necessary court action can be initiated.

Written confirmation of the decision made and, where relevant, the intended court application, together with the reasons, must be sent to the parents/relevant parties, child (depending on age) and any other relevant person (for example the child's advocate, an independent visitor or Children's Guardian). Staff/carers and other agencies involved with the child's care must also be informed.

6. Guidance for Social Workers and Foster Carers

Practice Points

Ask yourself if you have explored all opportunities for contact, either direct or indirect. Remember that children in foster care have a legal right to contact with their birth family and most children want to keep in contact, although they find it distressing at times. Also, remember that contact often helps children’s feelings of identity: being valued, respected and appreciated.

Ask yourself if you have ‘fine-tuned’ contact and consulted with the child about all the different aspects of contact, for example, with different family members. Remember not to treat it as a ‘blanket’ event and ask yourself if you have considered all the alternatives to direct contact when this is not possible.

Remember to ask children about the contact they want to have with their Brothers and Sisters and other relatives, for example Grandparents. You can also consider previous carers. Try and make contact arrangements because this can be very important to them.

Remember that children who have been abused by their family members should be protected from risks posed by contact and that their rights to contact can be overruled in the need to keep them safe.

Ask yourself if you and their carers have talked with them about how safe they feel and remember to look out for non-verbal signs that may indicate that the child does not feel safe.

Remember that children who have been abused should not have unsupervised contact with family members who are involved in, or associated with the abuse. Ask yourself if you should scrutinise letters and cards. There must be a formal decision about every risk.

Remember that most parents also want to have contact, although they may find it distressing, so make sure you talk with parents about how contact could be made less stressful.

Research shows that contact by itself does not result in improved outcomes, for example, settled placements and reunification and you should consider additional interventions to achieve these goals.

Think about the aims of contact between children and their families and whether they are being achieved. The value of contact may be as much to do with reducing distress, helping keep in touch and to feel valued and respected, as to achieving other outcomes. What can you do to support parents with managing contact?

Foster Carers’ needs are also important when making arrangements, so things needs to be discussed in advance to tackle any problems.

Types of Contact

Contact can be through meetings, phone calls, emails, text, social networking sites or letters with specific members of the family. Meetings can be unsupervised or supervised by Social Workers, Foster Carers, other professionals and sometimes other family members of friends.

Contact can take place in a variety of venues. Meetings can take place at different dates and times, regularly or every now and then. However, making arrangements that please everybody and are in the best interests of the child can sometimes be complex and difficult.

Children’s Opinions on Contact

Contact is a key issue for children. They often spend a lot of time thinking about their relationship with their family and are often distressed by the thought of contact. Many children think about their families every day (1).

When children were asked to think of their two most important wishes for their future, a quarter prioritised seeing more of, or being reunited with, their birth family (2).

Children often want more contact with fathers and other family members, such as grandmothers and siblings, as well as mothers, even if they are happy in their placement and do not want to return home. Some want contact with particular family members, and not with others (7), while other children prefer indirect to direct contact.

Decisions need to be made around the different aspects of contact. You will need to consider the child’s wishes and feelings on the variety of contact options, such as indirect and direct contact as well as contact with different family members. Contact must always be ‘fine-tuned’, assessing and taking into account any risks. Many looked after children - between 40 - 50 per cent - have contact with a family member at least weekly and only a minority, between one in six or seven children, do not have any contact with a member of their birth family (2).

Birth Parent Views on Contact

Parents often have mixed feelings about having their children in care and this can affect the way they feel about contact arrangements. Feelings can range from relief, shame, and concern that they have ‘failed’, or can be mixture of all of these. Most parents desperately miss their child, want to have contact, and may often find the experience very distressing (1).

Parents often have difficulty in asking for help when their child returns home because of the associated stigma and the possible risk of losing their child again. When their child is accommodated at their request or as result of the child’s difficult behaviour they often welcome it, but they often resent compulsory intervention (2).

Contact and Re-abuse

Direct, and even sometimes indirect, contact can allow abuse to continue. One study found that in situations where the child had been abused, and there was unsupervised contact with all family members, placement breakdown was three times more likely to occur, as well as re-abuse (7).

The Relationship Between Contact and Improved Outcomes

Research (2) argues that contact between birth families and children, does not, on its own, facilitate reunification or improve relationships. Additional interventions are also needed. Contact can, however, achieve specific and perhaps more limited and realistic goals, such as reassuring children about what is happening at home.

Other research knowledge (1) on the relationship between outcomes and contact is summarised by a series of linked reviews of studies about contact in fostering and Adoption, mainly in the UK (3-6). When researchers reviewed the studies they did not find a clear relationship between contact and improved outcomes in areas such as placement stability and improvements in the child’s mental health. They did not always find that different factors had been considered in the research and queried whether imprecise definitions of contact and weak measures of outcomes had been used. They noted a failure to effectively consider the quality, purpose and setting of the contact and to use small self-selected samples.

Whilst a certain level of contact is needed if reunification is to be achieved, it is now uncertain whether contact as a factor by itself results in the improved outcomes previously thought to be associated with it. Good outcomes, such as reduced placement breakdown, improved mental health in children and returning home, may be more a result of factors that preceded placement. Children who have direct contact with birth parents usually already have a good attachment to them, which precedes their placement and because of this they may be better adjusted, more likely to experience a stable placement and more likely to go home to their parents (8).

Current practice assumes a strong underlying principle, supported by legislation, that contact is generally beneficial and should be promoted as long as it is in the child’s best interests and does not increase risk (9). However in some situations there may often be dilemmas and concerns about contact.

Views of Foster Carers

Foster Carers, whilst generally positive about contact, report some serious problems associated with it. These include drinking, serious mental health problems and violence from members of the birth family. They also express concern about more common problems such as unreliability and have worries about the impact of contact on the behaviour of the foster child, as well as their own children (2).

Life Story Work

As well as listening to the views of children and young people, another way workers can help children identify and connect with family members, is the use of life story work, with photographs of people in their social support network and moments from the young person’s life gathered from network members. It is important that this work is ongoing and Foster Carers take photos of significant events such as birthdays, new schools and friends, to help children and young people keep a record of their lives.

Life story work is about helping children express their feelings, preserving a sense of self and keeping connected with key kin, including Foster Carers. It can help children and young people make sense of their past and help them move forward. It should be remembered, however, that life story work is a difficult and delicate area and is not appropriate for all children at particular stages of their lives.

The use of a social network map or use of an eco-map where the attachment network is mapped out and discussed is also a key means of helping looked after children remain connected with family and friends. This can be used independently or as part of life story work. Trigger questions could be developed that would be explored with the young person:

  • Who is important to you in your life now?
  • How close is each person to you?
  • Who do you see?
  • Who would you like to see?
  • What changes would you like in the ways things are now?

See also Life Journey Books Guidance

References

  1. Wilson, K., Sinclair, I., Taylor, C., Pithouse, A., and Sellick, C. (2004) 'Fostering success: An exploration in the research literature in foster care', Knowledge Review 5, London: Specialist Services Institute for Excellence;
  2. Sinclair, I. (in press) Fostering now: Messages from research, London: Jessica Kingsley;
  3. Quinton, D., Rushton, A., Dance, C., and Mayes, D. (1998) Joining new families: A study of Adoption and fostering in middle childhood, Chichester: John Wiley and Sons;
  4. Quinton, D., Rushton, A., Dance, C., and Mayes, D. (1997) 'Contact between children placed away from home and their birth parents: Research issues and evidence', Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol 2, no 3, pp 393-413;
  5. Ryburn, M. (1999) 'Contact between children placed away from home and their birth parents: A reanalysis of the evidence in relation to permanent placements', Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol 4, no 4, pp 505-518;
  6. Quinton, D., Selwyn, J., Rushton, A., and Dance, C. (1999) 'Contact between children placed away from home and their birth parents:Ryburn's "reanalysis" analysed', Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol 4, no 4, pp 519-531;
  7. Sinclair, I., Gibbs, I., and Wilson, K. (forthcoming) Contacts between birth families and their looked after children: some evidence of their effects;
  8. Cleaver, H. (2000) Fostering family contact: Studies in evaluating the Children Act 1989, London: Department of Health, The Stationery Office;
  9. Delfabbro, P., Barber, J., and Bentham, Y. (2002) 'Children's satisfaction with out-of-home care in South Australia', Journal of Adolescence, (October), Vol 25, no 5, pp 523-533;
  10. Practice guide 3: Fostering, November 2004, SCIE.

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