Research on Contact in kinship placements
An organisation called Family Rights Group, who are a charity advising parents who are involved in care proceedings have commissioned some interesting research about contact for children who are living with family-and-friends carers. This is something which has become more prevalent over recent years (and ought to be generally viewed as a good thing that children who can’t live with their birth parents are cared for by family members rather than by the State) and is likely to continue to increase, particularly as the pressure on the demand for foster carers builds up.
This report is interesting, because it addresses commonplace experiences in the family justice system from a group who really have the quietest voice in the care proceedings – the family members who step in and care for the child either as an interim measure or permanently, and who are doing such a massively important role yet have very little input into the arrangements that are being made for the child who will be living with them.
I think that the research and the report is valuable because it doesn’t come in with any fixed agenda, but is rather an attempt to look at the issues of contact where a child is placed with a family member from each viewpoint and to see what could be done to make it work better for everyone.
If this is reflective of Family Rights Group generally, they come across very well – thoughtful but practical and providing proper sound advice without being politicised on the “parents bad / social workers wicked” spectrum. I suspect that they have quite a lot of sensible advice to offer to people and more professionals and clients could benefit from what they have to offer.
The report can be found here : –
The accounts that the kinship carers give of how the children came to be living with them, and the varying relationships that they had with Local Authorities, ranging from support to resistance and opposition, are interesting and worth reading. (It is also noteworthy how ambiguous some of the placements were in relation to whether the child was ‘looked after’ or not, which has obvious financial implications for the carer and the LA involved)
“Where the initial legal arrangement was clear, the carers interviewed had taken the children under a variety of different legal arrangements, including interim care order,interim residence order, under s.20 Children Act 1989 as looked after child, under private fostering, and as a private family arrangement. There seemed to be no standard legal route that would be followed by children going into a family and friends care arrangement. Research carried out by Family Rights Group with Birmingham University
(2009) suggests that this might be a consequence of different local authorities having vastly different policies for working with family and friends placements, where such policies exist at all.1 This survey of English and Welsh local authorities revealed that most councils (69%) did not have a written, coherent approach to working with family and friends care. Where policies did exist, they encouraged different approaches to the legal status of children placed with family and friends carers: a few recognised that children placed there by the local authority should be treated as looked after, and their carers
supported as foster carers, but others discouraged the use of family and friends carers as foster carers in almost any circumstances.”
The research makes some recommendations, from the perspective of family and friends carers about contact, and how this should be managed :-
Good practice in contact – recommendations from family and
friends carers’ perspectives
The following recommendations for good practice derive from the experiences of contact which family and friends carers have described in this chapter. The recommendations draw upon carers’ observations of what has worked well in contact, what could have improved the experience of contact, particularly for children, and ideas from carers themselves on what would be good practice in contact.
Ø That local authorities should be clear with family and friends carers about the legal arrangement of the child’s placement with them, and the legal basis for any restrictions that they are asking the carers to impose on the child’s contact with parents. They should explain why these restrictions are necessary for the child’s wellbeing. Carers should be informed whether the child is subject to a child protection plan or not, whether the child is looked after or not, and who holds parental responsibility for the child.
Ø The experience described by three interviewed carers of having to resist the separation of siblings by the local authority indicates that local authorities should give careful consideration as to whether a decision to separate siblings will be in the best interests of the children, particularly where there is a family and friends carer who is willing to keep the siblings together, given that placements where children are placed with siblings are less likely to be disrupted than placements where children are placed alone,2 and given also that a plan to place one or more children for adoption could result in the permanent loss of contact with siblings placed elsewhere.
2 Mullender, A ‘Sketching in the background (1999), Mullender, A ed. We are family: Sibling relationships in placement and beyond BAAF 1999
Ø Local authorities should consult the carers, and where possible the child, before setting up any contact arrangement. The arrangement should take into account the carer’s and the child’s views on what will make the contact safe and enjoyable, whether it should take place in the carer’s home or another venue, what level of contact will be sustainable for the carer and the child, and the procedures that should be followed if the arrangements need to be changed should be specified.
Ø There should be an expectation that it will be adults rather than children who have to bear the strain of contact, for example where long distances need to be travelled, or in arranging the time of contact. Consideration should be given to how contact fits into the child’s routines and activities.
Ø Where the local authority is involved in the contact arrangement, there needs to be good communication between carers and social workers about the risks to the child from contact. Social workers must inform carers about any potential risks, and the carer must inform the local authority about any risky incidents.
Ø Carers and children must be taken seriously and listened to if they report concerns about problems with contact, such as the child’s opposition to the arrangement.
Ø The local authority, carers, parents, and where appropriate children should draw up a contact agreement, which spells out not only where, when and how often contact will take place, but also what will happen if either party is unable to keep to the agreement, or shows up late, or does not give notice of not attending contact. Clear direction from the local authority would assist with this.
Ø Where carers are asked to participate in letterbox contact arrangements, they should routinely be provided with information and guidance about what this involves.
Ø Decisions by the local authority not to include a willing carer in contact arrangements, and not to inform the carer about what happens within contact they are not part of, need to be carefully considered. The reasons for not including or informing the carer should normally be explained to the carer.
Ø Where a local authority has set up a contact arrangement, they should consider how the support might continue to be available for the carer even after the local authority has ended its formal involvement, eg by having a specialist kinship worker who can be available for consultation, or by providing a duty service the carer can call.
Ø Given that local authorities set up some arrangements which appeared to be potentially quite harmful for children, carers should have a vehicle for raising valid objections to contact arrangements which they believe will be damaging for children.
Ø Local authorities should have an information package that is provided to family and friends carers, which includes advice about contact and a template for a contact agreement. Where possible, carers should be offered access to a tailored preparation/induction course for family and friends carers, such as is now being designed by Family Rights Group and The Fostering Network.
ØCarers find a lot of support in being able to discuss contact with other family and friends carers, whether this is a group which meets in person or an online forum, and carers with experience of contact can provide other carers with valuable advice on this difficult and sensitive topic. Carers should be encouraged to join or set up their own support group, or to join Family Rights Group’s online forum.
The report also considers parents experiences with family and friends carers, and makes some recommendations from their perspective : –
Good practice in contact – recommendations (parents’ perspective)
The following recommendations for good practice derive from the experiences of contact which the parents of children placed with family and friends carers have described in this chapter. The recommendations are based both upon the parents’ descriptions of their experiences, and upon their concluding suggestions for what could be done to improve contact in these circumstances.
Ø That local authorities ensure they are seen to be even-handed with parents when children are placed with family and friends carers and contact arrangements are being made. We recognise that for some parents the experience of losing their children will make it difficult if not impossible to feel that they are getting a fair deal. In addition, the adversarial nature of court proceedings can make the working relationship between parents and social workers difficult to manage. However, social workers have to ensure that contact arrangements are decided according to the child’s needs, and do not unnecessarily become part of any conflict with parents.
Ø Restrictions on children and parents showing affection to one another, or on children being informed of the enduring love of another parent, during contact needs to be justified. The purpose of contact supervision is to prevent the child being harmed, emotionally, physically or otherwise, and parents should be prevented from showing affection to their child only if this would be harmful.
Ø Where parents wish to correspond with their child, or pass on gifts, then any restrictions should be stated openly and explained to the parents. It is unfair to both parents and child to prevent this without explanation.
Ø Where local authorities have been involved in removing a child from their parents, and placing the child with family and friends carers, then the local authority should have a duty to remain involved long enough to ensure that contact arrangements are working. There should be a way for parents to bring in the local authority where contact arrangements are not going according to an agreed plan, or where they are not beneficial to the child.
Ø Consideration should be given to parents who are anxious about their child’s wellbeing, possibly because of limited or no contact, having the opportunity to receive independent information about the child.
The report then approached matters from the point of view of professional practitioners (i.e social workers)
The practitioners made the following recommendations for good practice in contact:
Ø In making decisions about contact the focus should be on the benefits to the child, and not the adults.
Ø Parents and carers should try to ensure that they are saying the same things to the child, as failure to do so can lead to confusion for the child and conflict between the parents and the carers.
Ø There should be clear guidelines and expectations about contact. It helps if the practitioners can meet and talk to the birth parents first, setting out the groundrules, and the possible consequences of their actions to the parents. There should be a review of how contact is going, and any problems should be dealt with in between contacts.
Ø The role of carers in helping children to feel secure in contact should be recognised and supported.
Ø Notes should be taken of how the child appears to be, not only during contact but before and afterwards as well.
Ø Family Group Conferences and mediation should be considered, particularly where it is difficult to agree a contact arrangement or to sort out problems.
Ø In unusual circumstances, where approved foster carers become family and friends carers, they may need to be supported to think about contact differently from the way they are used to.
Ø Where court guardians make recommendations about contact they should have to justify it as being in the best interests of the child, and be held accountable for the consequences of the contact for the child.
Ø The arrangements that will be in place for contact after proceedings, eg whether or not it will be supervised and where it will take place, should be tried out before the end of proceedings.
Ø Careful consideration should be given to the suitability of the venue being used for contact, eg a children’s centre might be more suitable than a contact centre for contact involving younger children, if it is more geared towards providing play facilities for children.
Ø Although contact can be part of a ‘children in need’ plan, when the children in need team no longer need to be involved there should be another lead professional to take on responsibility for the contact.
And then drawing all of these various strands together, these conclusions :-
Considering the views of parents and carers, and the suggestions made by practitioners, we recommend that the following principles are observed when arranging or participating in contact arrangements:
i Make the child’s needs the first consideration. A step towards doing this can be for the adults to put themselves in the child’s place, and think about contact issues from that perspective:
• What will the child’s earlier experiences of their parents and others mean for
• What pressures might the child feel they are under?
• What could be done to make contact more enjoyable for the child?
This is a step that should be taken by all of the adults involved in arranging the child’s contact. Practitioners need to ensure they are focusing on meeting the child’s needs. Carers need to understand why it might be important to a child that they have contact with parents, even where the carers may themselves feel angry with those parents. Parents need to understand that it might be in the child’s best interests to have less contact with them than they want and the importance of routine. For example, a contact plan that resulted in a child spending part of each week with four different carers, staying
overnight with three of them, was probably drawn up to meet the demands of the adults and not the needs of the child.
ii Good communication is paramount. All parties who are involved in contact need to ensure that everyone is kept aware of contact arrangements and any changes to those arrangements. Good communication could involve:
Practitioners consulting parents and carers about contact arrangements, and
meeting with them to discuss how contact is working out
• Using Family Group Conferences to make arrangements for a placement,
including arrangements about contact. Family Group Conference or mediation
can also be used to assist communication between parties who are in
disagreement about contact.
• Drawing up a contact agreement, specifying: where, when and with whom
contact will take place: What will happen if it cannot take place? What behaviour would be considered inappropriate in contact? What indirect contact can take place and how often? Etc.
iii Recognise the loss that parents face. While parents will have legal rights to be kept informed and involved in decisions being made about their child, which will be determined by the child’s legal status, regardless of legal status there should also be an underlying principle that parents should be kept informed and involved in significant decisions, unless their involvement would be harmful for the child. There needs to be recognition of the loss that parents have faced, and practitioners need to continue to support parents to manage contact and manage their feelings.
iv The venue and the contact arrangements should feel safe for the child and the carers. Where contact is unlikely to be safe, then there should be a risk assessment to help plan what could make it safe, e.g. does it need to be supervised, what would be a safe venue, can it happen safely at all?
v Access to good information and advice. Both parents and carers who were interviewed felt that it was important to have access to good information as early as possible. An information pack could give parents and carers basic details about the legal position of family and friends care placements, and suggest where to get more detailed information and advice.
vi Monitoring procedure. There should be a procedure for monitoring how a
proposed contact arrangement is working out. This could involve a trial period before any court order for contact is made or a period where practitioners meet with the parties to find out from them about any difficulties.
My overall impression of this report is that it is heavy on common sense practical proposals arrived at by listening to the people who are living through these experiences, and light on dogma, speculation and cod-psychology. I hope that it reaches the audience it needs to.