CONTACT BETWEEN PARENTS AND CHILDREN IN LONG-TERM CARE: THE UNRESOLVED DISPUTE
* Lecturer in Law, University of Leicester, Leicester LEI 7RH, England.
This article describes the development of the law and social work practice relating to access to children in care in England and Wales and examines the different approaches to such access by looking at the attitudes of social workers, guardians ad litem and the judiciary. The particular focus is contact betweenchildren who are unlikely to return to the natural family and their parents. Using Fox’s analysis of ideologies in child care the author concludes that ‘the-society-as-parent protagonists’ do not value contact where rehabilitation is unlikely and that such views were partly reflected in the Department of Health and Social Security’s Code of Practice on Access. The author then examines the research literature on success of fostering and well-being of children in care and concludes that there is little evidence to support a negative approach to access. Indeed, the most recent studies stress the poor consequences of failing to maintain contact between children in care and their families. The Health and Social Services and Social Security Adjudications Act 1983 gave parents who have had their access to children in care terminated a right to have this decision reviewed by a magistrates’ court. The court normally appoints a guardian ad litem who will investigate the case and make a recommendation to the court. In a small study of guardians, the author found that approximately half took the narrow approach to access and would not support it where there was no chance of rehabilitation. A study of reported access cases indicates that judges also took the narrow approach to access to children in care but not in cases following relationship breakdown. The author explains that this reflects the judge’s own interpretation of adoption law and also their support of local authority action. The author concludes that the changes introduced by the Children Act 1989 will make only a slight difference, for two reasons. First, there is still little belief that continuing contact is in the child’s best interests. Second, the security whichchildren who cannot be rehabilitated are thought to need can only be provided by adoption, which under English Law almost always requires the severance of links with the natural family.
DIRECT CONTACT means meetings between the child/young person and birth family members and/or significant others, and includes phone calls, texting and emails.
INDIRECT CONTACT mean letters and cards from members of the birth family and /or significant others, usually through a third person.
•Contact is a key issue for children and they often have ambivalent feelings, both wanting it but feeling distressed at the same time. They often desire more contact with fathers and other family members, such as grandmothers and siblings, as well as with mothers, even if they are happy in their placement and do not want to return home.
•Parents also have these ambivalent feelings. Many desperately miss their children, want to have contact and find the experience distressing.
•The amount of contact between looked-after children and their birth families is increasing.
•Developments such as increased placement stability, open communication and improved relationships are often the result of additional interventions, not just contact between birth families and their children alone. However, contact may achieve specific and perhaps more limited and realistic goals, such as reassuring children about what is happening at home.
•Current practice assumes a strong principle, supported by legislation, that contact is generally beneficial and should be promoted, unless it is not in the child’s best interests. Decisions need to be made on the different aspects of contact, for example contact with family members. Contact must always be 'fine tuned’, assessing and taking into account any risks.
•If the child has been abused, contact can allow abuse to continue if there is unsupervised direct contact or ineffective scrutiny of letters and cards.
•Foster carers are generally positive about contact but some report problems associated with it. In some cases these are serious.
•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 to keep in touch and to feel valued and respected, as with 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.
What we know from research
Types of contact
Contact can be through meetings, phone calls 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 or 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 (2). When children in another study 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 (3).
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 (17), 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. (17)
Many looked-after children - 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 (3).
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 to 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 (2).
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 (3).
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 (17).
The relationship between contact and improved outcomes
Research (3) 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 (2) 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 (50-53). 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 (54). More research is urgently needed in this area.
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 (55). 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