Coventry Logo

CoventryChildren's Services Procedures Manual

Making Contact Work - Good Practice Guidance

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Purpose of Contact During Care Proceedings Care Planning Proactively
  3. Good Practice Principles When Planning Contact for Infants and Children Under Two Years
  4. Sample Arguments for Court Statements and Care Plans Around Baby and Infant Contact Proposals
  5. Good Practice Principles when Planning Contact for Older Children and Young People
  6. The Child's Perspective

1. Introduction

Contact is a bridge that connects the new environment (foster care or placement with Connected Persons) to the home environment. It can help the child to manage the transition from one to another.

Contact can promote attachment and can also maintain a child's sense of identity. In addition, it provides a child with a sense of their past, and helps them to connect to the present and the future. However, if poorly planned, it can have the opposite as to that described.

This guidance is set out to assist you in planning for, and thinking about contact, to provide you with practical suggestions and pointers to good practice, updated research and policy. However we recognise it is your own knowledge of the child and the circumstances of their families which underpins any application of good practice principles.

Legislation

The Local Authority has a duty to promote contact, under section 34 of the Children Act 1989. Section 34 places a duty on Local Authorities to allow the child in its care, reasonable contact with their parents and 'other persons' prescribed within s34 (1) of the act.

This duty exists in the absence of any orders for contact. If no agreement is reached on what level of contact should be afforded the child and its parents (or others), the Act provides for the court to make orders by its own motion when making a care order for the child.

However, children have the right to be protected from harmful contact. For children subject to an Interim Care Order or a full Care Order, the Local Authority can only suspend contact for a limited period (up to a maximum of 7 days).

The Local Authority's duties and responsibilities are set out in Children Act 1989: Guidance and Regulations Volume 2: Care Planning, Placement and Case Review 2010.

In addition Regulation 14 of the Fostering Services Regulations places a duty on fostering services to promote contact between a child placed with a foster parent and his/her parents, relatives and friends unless such contact is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the child's welfare.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has two articles that should be considered.

Article 3 (Best interests of the child) The best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them. All adults should do what is best for children. When adults make decisions, they should think about how their decisions will affect children. This particularly applies to budget, policy and law makers.

Article 9 (Separation from parents): Children have the right to live with their parent(s) unless it is bad for them. Children whose parents do not live together have the right to stay in contact with both parents, unless this might hurt the child.

2. Purpose of Contact During Care Proceedings Care Planning Proactively

Practice Guidance

Harriet Ward and Rebecca Brown (2012) have produced a working paper, "Decision - Making within a child's timeframe", which is an overview of current research evidence regarding child development, and the impact of maltreatment, and how this fits into Social Care and Court decision making, and the likely outcomes for a child, bearing in mind it's developmental journey.

The paper brings together research findings and places them in the context of evidence relating to timeframes for court proceedings and Local Authority pre and post proceedings work. It explores delays in decision making and their consequences for the children's development and long term life chances.

We would recommend that this paper be read by social workers as it underpins why contact is the crux of a Care Plan for the child particularly in relation to developing practice in regards to early planning for permanency and a movement towards fostering to adopt and concurrent placements.

Your Care Plan, and proactive care planning, should set out the purpose of contact in line with your assessment of the needs of each child based on your own professional assessment and analysis of the child's needs, and evidence informed practice.

During Care Proceedings the purpose of contact has three main elements:

  1. Assessing:
    • Parental commitment;
    • Emotional availability to the child (attunement);
    • Basic parenting skills (feeding, playing, changing);
    • Willingness to take advice.
  2. For the parent to have the opportunity to retain or build a relationship/familiarity (not to be the primary attachment figure) and to be able to enjoy spending time together;
  3. To enable a child to experience a parent as a familiar figure.

Planning contact to make sure it meets the child's needs is essential.

  • Make sure that the Children and Families Assessment has sufficient information on the matters that are important for deciding on contact - e.g. nature/type of attachment (focusing on the child's needs), parents' ability to commit to a particular regime that in the wider family / community is important to the child. Contact arrangements to siblings are particularly important;
  • Ensure that plans for contact are discussed fully at the legal planning meeting. Do not just concentrate on threshold;
  • Provide clear plans, both in the social worker's initial statement and first Care Plan, evidencing your reasons for recommendation for frequency/venue/type of supervision with reference to the Child and Family Assessment;
  • Make certain that the timetable for the child remains at the centre of all plans so that the focus is firmly on the needs of the child. For example, if the child is being introduced to a new school or nursery, or activities whilst in foster care, then the implication for timing and frequency of contact should be considered;
  • Getting the balance for the child right, in particular where there are a large number of family and extended family members can be difficult. Make every effort to share contact between suitable family members;
  • Breast feeding parents should be supplied with breast pumps, bottles and a cool bag to enable them to express and freeze milk to supply to the carer for their baby;
  • Guidance on practical issue such as parents contacting the contact service prior to attending, missed sessions and timely reviewing of contact is in the Making Contact Work Procedure.
  • During the drawing up of the contact plan it will be made clear that sessions will be used for assessment. There will also be an expectation that contact staff will advise and assist parents with parenting tasks during contact and monitor their ability to understand and carry out the tasks;
  • It is important that there is discussion by the social worker with the foster carer or contact supervisor regarding the presentation of the baby/child before and after contact. This will provide important information on the child's experiences of contact and will form part of the overall assessment process, as will the social worker's own personal observation of contact;
  • The Children's Guardian should be involved in discussions regarding any changes in contact. Their views based on their personal observations of contact should be sought and recorded. Their views regarding the presentation of the child in placement before and after contact based on their personal observations should also be sought and recorded;
  • Sibling contact needs careful consideration. Each child's individual needs and the family dynamics need to be taken into account. Every child has differing experiences of living in the family home. Bear in mind when arranging sibling contact that a child maybe the favourite or the scapegoat. The favoured child may put pressure onto other siblings to not reveal anything about their life with their parents. Pressure may also be put on a child by siblings to express a view that it wants to return home. Kinship carers and / or foster carers are expected to arrange for sibling groups to meet. (see Family Contact Procedures, Supervised Contact Service).

The aims of contact must be set against the primary need to ensure that the child's welfare is being safeguarded and promoted. It is vital that as part of your continuous and proactive planning you review contact from the child's developmental perspective.

Therefore any contact plan should aim to:

  • Minimise negative impact on the child;
  • Promotes the best interests of the child as the primary concern of the court and the Local Authority;
  • Allows for the benefits of contact to parents and 'others' to be retained.

Practice Challengers

The challenge is to make the purpose and the aims fit in each child's particular journey in care so that you are making a persuasive and convincing argument as to why a proposed plan is in the child's best interest.

The reality is that it is not an easy fit, there will always be some ambiguity and uncertainty.

3. Good Practice Principles When Planning Contact for Infants and Children Under Two Years

  • Frequent and lengthy contact is often viewed by parents and their advocates in court as a pre cursor to a child being reunited with the birth family and it often becomes a bargaining tool in Care Proceedings with the needs of the child often becoming subsumed by the wishes of the parents;
  • When setting out recommendations in a court statement and Care Plan, it is important to distinguish between contact for infants and any older children, and to present relevant research to illustrate the potential impact of contact on the newborn/infant developmental needs, and the impact on older children's and young person's development;
  • Good care outside of the family can help to alleviate the trauma an infant may experience when removed from the family home. It can support the infant to manage the future, be it return to the family home or placement outside of the family;
  • Parents who are both wishing to care for the child and are in dispute frequently get involved in asking for equal contact. The baby and infants needs have to be at the forefront of planning. The need for regular routines to be maintained and secure attachment to a primary carer to be fostered, is central to any decision making;
  • Rather than infants having separate contact with several family members, amalgamating contact should be considered. Identified important people can attend one of the parent's contacts with the child rather than separate contact being arranged;
  • As social workers writing the Care Plan it is good practice to be balanced when setting out the plan for contact showing that you have weighed up the pros and cons of your proposals and why you have chosen or discounted a particular arrangement.

4. Sample Arguments for Court Statements and Care Plans Around Baby and Infant Contact Proposals

Practice Challengers

Proposition 1: High Frequency means that we can increase chances of successful rehabilitation

This is linked to the idea that we need to preserve a high level of contact in order not to prejudge or presume outcome of proceedings:

  • That many parents feel that if they do not have high levels of contact, their children are never coming home or they will be unable to prove their good enough as parents;
  • This is a view held by many in court and professional officers involved in planning for children in the court. Another idea running alongside this is that high frequency also tests out parental commitment. It is a pretty crude argument because it is the quality of the interaction in the contact that demonstrates the emotional commitment and responsiveness to the child's needs. It is also counter to placing the child's experience at the centre of the contact plan.

Practice Guidance

As Social workers you need to be able to demonstrate to the court in your Care Plan that you are aware and sensitive to these views as expressed in proposition 1 but that you disagree with them and the reasons why you do.

You need to have robust plans for assessing parenting, what role contact will play in that plan, and how the assessment of the specific child's needs informs the contact plan. This is the context in which you can refer to the developing research base in regards to the role contact may have in rehab following assessment of parenting capacity.

Key Research

Humphries, Cathy & Kiraly, Meredith (2010) High-frequency family contact: a road to nowhere for infants Child and Family Social Work. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Humphries, Cathy & Kiraly, Meredith (2009) Baby on Board. Report of the Infants in Care and Family Contact Research Project. University of Melbourne.

This was a small study conducted in Victoria, Australia. It considered 119 cases and input from 11 focus groups with a total of 118 participants.

The study reviewed cases that came before the Children's Court in which contact between children less than 12 months of age and their parents was offered at a rate of between 4 and 7 times a week.

The study found that the high frequency of contact for some children did not improve the rate of family reunification. 22% of children who saw parents 4 times a week returned home and 23% of those who saw parents 7 times a week returned home.

Research Warning

One failing of this study was that it was unable to capture directly the perspectives of mothers and fathers. Whenever you refer to research you should use it lightly as a way of informing your professional experience and opinion and what you know about the child. Always put in the caveats in the research that may limit your strong belief as this shows evidence of giving due consideration, which is something the court appreciates, and something the parents will because sometimes decisions look arbitrary.

You should make the above clear if you use this evidence but also make sure you reflect that you know your parents perspective on it, because you have spoken to them as part of the contact plan being drawn up.

You should therefore, in your statement and Care Plan, cross reference the following:

  • Robust assessment of child's current and changing needs ( See tool Kit 1 in 'Toolkit assessments related to contact');
  • A signed contact plan (pro-forma within Family Contact Procedures pack);
  • A plan for assessment of parenting either by Social worker or with adequate notification and within criteria - CBAS.

Practice Challenge

Proposition 2:

High Frequency and longer duration means that child/ children build attachment to parents which reduces the chance of bonds being broken following separation of infant and parents.

Practice Guidance

  • This is a very powerful and common held belief if it were not for the fact that it fails in the fundamentals with regards to understanding the developmental needs of the infant and baby as opposed to the developmental needs of an older child where issues of identity development and cultural identity may warrant on assessment higher or lower levels of contact;
  • It also fails to recognise that a parent who is demonstrating appropriate bonding is able to mentalise the child, show observers and the child that they are held in mind when absent from the parental physical space, and how that enables the parent to overcome the loss and separation they feel by attuning with the baby / infant when in contact, which is detectable in the parent and child interaction system when observing contact;
  • Note: This means that you can decide in your case that you do not wish to follow the indicative levels of contact as there may be exceptional circumstances for example a child with a life limiting illness, or due to risk assessments outcomes, you may argue for no contact;
  • In the first two years of a child's life the role of attachment is vitally significant in determining future life outcomes. A key to a child being more to form, and then go on to sustain and repeat secure attachments across the lifespan, is the early successful attachment to a primary care giver who provides consistent, safe, stable and loving care. When a baby and infant are placed into foster care the primary carer for the child is the foster carer;
  • The building of a secure attachment to a carer in the early life of an infant enables that attachment to be transferred to parents if reunified, or to a family member or adopter's. The development of secure positive attachment provides the child with a secure base to explore the world. However research strongly indicates that high levels of contact, and long periods of contact, put at risk the child's developmental attachment process;
  • The key issue is the impact of stress on the baby and the baby's capacity to learn to regulate that high arousal state, which can only be learnt through the timely and consistent and attuned response of the care giver. The stability of the environment of relationships is the key factor in enabling this developmental task for the child.

Key Research

Rebecca Brown and Harriet Ward (2012) "Decision making within a child's timeframe"
Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre October 2012, Working paper 18.

This is an overview of current research evidence for family justice professionals concerning child development and impact of maltreatment. It deals with delays in taking action and decision making in social care and delays within the family justice system. This evidence paper was funded by the Department for Education with support from the Family Justice Council. Amongst its advisors, who came from legal and child care disciplines, was Dr Liz Gillett (Chair) (Phoenix psychological Services). Sir Nicholas Wall, president of the family division, wrote the foreword for the paper.

This paper is an aid to our understanding of the child's developmental journey, providing up to date material regarding the impact of adversity on child development, and the likely outcome for the child.

The paper supports the research quoted below. It also highlights the impact for children of the "double jeopardy" of spending six months in (or more) in an abusive environment. A period of time of stability (providing contact is arranged sensitively) in foster care or with an alternative family member, return to parent/carer when improvement is shown. If the situation deteriorates the child may return to alternative carers. Many of these children show severe developmental and behavioural difficulties by the time they are three years of age.

It also points out that the long term well-being of abused and neglected children can be jeopardised in other ways. The most common being changes of placement which can have a negative impact on a child's developmental process and particularly their ability to form secure attachments.

The paper concludes that there is a relatively short period of opportunity in which decisive actions can be taken to ensure that children are adequately safeguarded. If children are to remain at home, meaningful proactive engagement with social workers needs to begin early. It cites evidence that the ability for a parent to overcome difficulties will usually take place during pregnancy or within six months of the child's birth.

The paper brings together research findings and places them in the context of evidence relating to timeframes for court proceedings and Local Authority pre and post proceedings work. It explores delays in decision making and their consequences for the children's development and long term life chances.

Coram Practice Note 1.
"Concurrent Planning - Early Permanence for Babies in Care Proceedings."

Coram Practice Note 2.
"Intensive contact with birth parents: implications for the emotional development of infants and young children placed in foster care."

Kenrick J (2009) "Concurrent planning: a retrospective study of the continuities and discontinuities of care, and their impact on the development of infants and young children placed for adoption by the Coram Concurrent Planning Project" Adoption & Fostering 33(4) 5-17

This study was a small-scale, retrospective, qualitative study that sought to explore the tensions implicit in seeking to maintain and nurture existing attachments between birth parents and family and to maintain and develop new attachments with foster /adoptive carers.

These are short studies and can be downloaded from the Coram website.

Jenny Kenrick. (2009) Concurrent planning: the roller coaster of uncertainty. Adoption and Fostering, Summer 2010.

Kenrick cites research around infant contact and developmental psychology. This found that contact was reported as being frequently distressing for infants despite it being carefully supported and supervised.

Schofield G & Simmonds J (2011) Contact for infants subject to care proceedings. Family Law. 41 June 2011. pp 70-74 Adoption and Fostering. Vol 35 No 4 pp70-75

Schofield and Simmonds commented on the study by Kenrick;

"The main concern for the infants from this study was the constant disruption to their daily routine. Unsettled and distressed or shut off and unresponsive infants would be brought back from contact, perhaps settle and recover during the evening, only to set off again the next day. This pattern was rarely limited to a specified period of assessment but continued through proceedings, including where final hearings were delayed. In contrast, on days with no contact it was possible for carers to allow the infant a relaxed day in which feeding, sleeping play and interaction with carers could follow the infants' natural rhythms- with both physical and psychological benefits."

They go on to point out "The most important issue, therefore, for infant development in relation to contact plans is the degree to which contact arrangements produce high levels of stress for the infant through discontinuity of care and potentially insensitive care during contact."

5. Good Practice Principles when Planning Contact for Older Children and Young People

  • Contact needs to be managed in a more proactive way for adolescents and young people, with regular reviews of its purpose. Foster carers can often alert social workers to the difficulties that the young person in experiencing, so regular contact with the carer is essential;
  • Work with parent's to improve contact might assist in a re negotiation of the relationship with the child. Positive contact with grandparents and family members can be a source of stability and this could, in some cases, counteract the negativity of contact with birth parents;
  • In conclusion the same careful planning and a constant reviewing of contact arrangements are needed for this group of young people as it is for infants and new-borns.

Practice Guidance

  • Most of the young people in the care system have experienced adversity in their lives and the maltreatment and conflict within the family is the background for these young people. Contact needs to be as positive and conflict free as possible for the young person. Contact for children and young people in the care system is very complex, and unless it is carefully and PURPOSEFULLY planned and well-managed, can affect outcomes adversely. In deciding what the correct level of contact should be, the essential starting point is to consider what the purpose of contact is for the child;
  • Research highlights that the over-riding principle in deciding whether contact should occur for a child must be that contact facilitates one or more of the child's developmental needs, rather than just accommodating birth parent's wishes. Research also highlights that for contact to be managed positively, the purpose of contact should be clearly defined with carers, child and birth parents;
  • Any contact arrangement should be reviewed regularly, as it is likely that contact arrangements will need to change throughout the child's lifetime due to their changing developmental needs as she gets older, and to account for any other changes of circumstances that occur over the next 18 years;
  • Contact must be set at a realistic level that meets the child's needs, and that is realistic for the carers to maintain throughout their childhood for the next 18 years. It may not be in the child's best interests for levels of contact to be set at a prescriptive level that may ultimately undermine alternative permanent carers' authority and long term ability to make decisions in the child's best interests;
  • The positives of direct contact between the child and their parents need to be balanced with the difficulties that direct contact may present for the child.

Benefits of contact

  • Well established in research that if contact can occur safely for a child, in a way that does not disrupt their progress in their new family, contact with birth family members benefits the child by helping them understand their identity, family history, and how they came to be looked after with alternative permanent carers;
  • Where the child is placed with family, the risk of the child losing touch with their personal and family history is ameliorated;
  • Contact with birth parents can give the child a true sense of their birth parents personality, behaviour and needs. This may prevent idealisation of an absent parent, and therefore help the child to come to terms with their personal history in the future;
  • There is some research evidence that on-going contact with birth family members is associated with psychological wellbeing in children who are cared for by alternative permanent carers. However, it is not true to say that contact with birth family members is positive and beneficial for the child in all cases;
  • Research evidence does not suggest a causal link between contact occurring and better outcomes for the child; rather, it would appear that the key factor for the child is whether there is a positive relationship between the child and the family member concerned. Research findings reflect the fact that where a positive relationship exists, there is more likely to be an on-going contact arrangement in place.

Concerns around contact

  • If alternative permanent carers are required, this will generally be because care proceedings have established that birth parents cannot adequately care for and protect the child throughout their childhood and that there is no prospect of the child returning to their care in the future. Contact between the child and their mother and father may have benefits for the child, but this may also present some difficulties in light of their established inadequate parenting capacity;
  • Where a relationship between a child and a family member is not positive, a continuing contact arrangement may actually be experienced as harmful for the child as the difficult or conflicted relationship is sustained;
  • This may ultimately make it more difficult for the child to settle and thrive with alternative permanent carers, perpetuating previous difficulties rather than supporting the child to positively move on. This may particularly be the case where the parent has not been able to develop a positive relationship with the child prior to the child moving to alternative permanent carers. In making proposals for the future, it is important to consider how the child has reacted to contact to date;
  • In making long term contact proposals, it is essential to consider how a parent will be able to interact with alternative permanent carers. Contact is more likely to be sustainable and successful if the parent is adaptable and able to interact with the child and others socially;
  • Contact will be more positive for a child if the parent is able to establish a relationship with the child similar to that with an average child of the same age might have, for example, with a close aunt or uncle who lived locally. It is hoped that the child may be able to see their mother as a member of the family who cares about them and who is part of their wider family life, at the same time as clearly identifying the current carers as their main carers and parents;
  • More formal arrangements, for example regular supervised contact facilitated by third parties at a different venue to the family home is more likely to be experienced as disruptive to the child and her alternative permanent carers. There is less prospect of the child being able to view contact with their parents as a normal and relaxed experienced.

Key Research

Taplin (2005) "Is all contact between children in care and their birth parents 'good' contact?", Ashfield, NSW Department of Community Services

The focus of the paper was on contact with older children in long term care, predominantly foster care, where a decision has been made for the child to remain living away from the birth family in the long term.

Findings concluded that levels of contact bore no relevance to reunification.

It also found that attachment in relation to children in care is a complex issue. It cannot be assumed that the maintenance of attachments is a sufficient reason to promote frequent contact between birth parents and children. It can be argued that by promoting contact with a parent where an infant has a dysfunctional attachment, the contact impedes the establishment of a more positive and functional relationship with the carer.

Moyers S et al (2005) "Contact with Family members and its impact on adolescents and foster placements". British Journal of Social Work, 36, 541-559.

This study was based on the impact on adolescents / young people in foster care on contact with their families.

Difficulties that were identified were:

  • Unreliable contact. Young people were upset when parents did not turn up or were late for contact;
  • Inappropriate amounts of contact. Some having too much contact, interfering with other activities;
  • Safety during contact. Most contact with older children was not supervised and placed a number at risk of physical and sexual abuse;
  • Replay of negative relationships. This can occur with siblings as well. Entrenched, unresolved attachment difficulties re-enacted during contact, rejecting/abusive/neglectful messages from parents and family members;
  • Contact made unpleasant by parents speaking badly about the young person's carers. Actions by family members (including siblings) undermining the authority of the carers;
  • Within the group a year after placement 57% were reporting that contact was problematic. 56% of placements broke down because of contact difficulties, compared to 24% where there were no difficulties.

Occasionally contact deteriorated due to conflict in the relationship or changed arrangements. For the majority, the young people continued to have contact with relatives who were rejecting, unreliable and neglectful and it was difficult for the young people to cope with or understand these experiences. A few needed to return home to test reality against their fantasy that things could be different.

Whilst contact difficulties were directly related to placement outcome, absence of contact was not. It may be that the lack of contact was constant and allowed the young person the space and time to try to come to terms with rejection. Rejection that occurred during contact was associated with the young person trying time and time again to get their unresolved attachment needs met and failing every time.

Hunt, Waterhouse and Lutman (2008) "positive and difficulties of contact in kinship care"

Research findings suggest that alternative permanent carers report that mental illness in parents, or parental drug and alcohol abuse, can present a range of difficulties in relation to contact. Common problems include parental unreliability and inconsistency, the impact of children feeling further rejection from the parent, and the child being exposed to behaviour or ways of life that may be harmful. Parents may, due to their own needs, find it extremely difficult to focus on the child's needs consistently in any way. This may mean that contact is experienced by the child as confusing, unsettling and upsetting.

Giovannini, E. "Research Summary 6/11 Outcomes of Family Justice Children's Proceedings - A Review of the Evidence". Published November 2011.

Elena Giovannini completed a review of evidence on outcomes in Family Justice Children's proceedings which was published in November 2011. This drew attention to evidence suggesting that maltreated and neglected children remaining in care or placed for adoption fared better, at least in the short/medium term, than those returned home. In some cases the children who were returned home faced further abuse. The report also found that initial care plans were often over optimistic about the parent's abilities to make the necessary changes in order to parent safely. It concluded that attempting to return children home, although important, has been found to be among the key reasons for delay in care proceedings.

Current legislation and statutory guidance does not make it clear how requirements for contact are set out. However good social work practice recognises that contact arrangements written into care plans or working agreements need to explain the Local Authority's plans and arrangements, and to demonstrate how they are purposeful and consistent with the long term plan for the child.

Many children in care return home. For those who cannot, contact with birth family may play an important role in their future lives. The age of the child and reason it has come into care strongly influences decisions regarding the nature of contact arrangements.

Sinclair, I (2005) "Fostering Now: Messages from Research." London. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Sinclair (2005) found that 40% - 50 % of children who are looked after have contact on a weekly basis. However, careful consideration needs to be given to whether contact is genuinely beneficial and has definite purpose for the child concerned. For example, is contact instrumental in supporting the child's best future prospects, whether they be return to their family or a loving and stable home elsewhere. In addition well organised and purposeful contact will play a role in assessing whether a child can return home, for example, forming part of the parenting assessment process.

We need to question the impact that contact has on the child in permanent placement where, as it is in the vast majority of cases, they have been removed from their birth family because of maltreatment, and at the same time seek out the contact which is enabling a child to heal through contact, where a parent is assisting and helping that child to make sense of its past.

Lenore M. McWey, Ph.D., Alan Acock, Ph.D., and Breanne Porter, M.A (2010) "The Impact of Continued Contact with Biological Parents upon the Mental Health of Children in Foster Care Youth Service Rev, 2010 October 1; 32(10): 1338-1345" Child New Zealand Study.

This study examined depression and externalising problems of children in foster care using a subsample of data (N = 362) from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being. Findings indicated that more frequent contact with the biological mother was marginally associated with lower levels depression and significantly associated with lower externalising problem behaviours. The association with externalising problem behaviour was significant even after controlling for gender and exposure to violence. Further, differences with regard to gender were revealed. Specifically, girls had higher depression scores than boys even after controlling for exposure to violence. Results suggest that supporting frequent, consistent, contact may impact the levels of depression and externalising programs children in foster care exhibit.

Selwyn. J (2004) "Placing older children in new families: Changing patterns of contact, In Neil, E and Howe D (eds) Contact in Adoption and Permanent Foster care: Research, theory and practice", London. BAAF.

Selwyn (2004) conducted a study on contact and 21% of the children in her study were physically or sexually abused during unsupervised contact with family members. Sinclair's study unsurprisingly found that for those children who had been abused it was important to restrict contact, or cease contact altogether with the family member/members responsible. For those children with unrestricted contact with birth family, there was a higher likelihood of re abuse after return home or during contact, than for those children with well managed and planned contact arrangements.

Foster carers and children can give numerous examples of contact arrangements that are not well managed or well planned. Thought should be given on how to support the carer for the child who will need to be able to sensitively deal with the emotions that will be raised by contact with family members.

If escorts/sessional workers are used the same one should be used each time if possible. The journey to and from contact can often be the time when the child tries to process the confusing and often contradictory feelings that contact raises. Workers who know the child and who the child can trust to express their feelings in front of are invaluable in these circumstances. Social workers need to speak to these people as well as the carer so that a more complete picture of the child's experience is obtained.

Mackaskill C (2002) "Safe Contact? Children in permanent placement and contact with their birth relatives." Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing.

Mackaskill (2002) looked at contact for children in permanent placements and their birth families. He found that contact with members of a birth family can be harmful or challenging for a child in a permanent placement, particularly contact with relatives who have mistreated them including chronic neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Mackaskill found that the proportion of children suffering negative consequences from contact was twice the proportion for which contact had a positive effect. Problems include feelings of divided loyalty, emotional and behavioural difficulties, setbacks in progress made in placement and in some cases continued abuse during the contact.

When professionals become aware through evidence based assessment of any negative impact of contact on a child as a result of contact, then the social worker should consider reducing the levels of contact. Any distress that the child is experiencing, professionals should attempt to mitigate with a view to increasing contact when, and if, the child is able to cope with this.

6. The Child's Perspective

Contact is primarily for the child. It is important for parents, relatives and other important people in the child's life but at the centre is the benefit of any contact for the child. Children who are able to express themselves will be able to offer views on contact. For infants they are dependent on professionals to observe the child prior to, during and after contact in order to assess the impact on the child.

Contact may promote very strong emotions for a child. For some children it will trigger a re -experience of trauma they have suffered at the hands of carers. This may not be immediately obvious. It is vitally important that the social worker and contact supervisors have knowledge of the past history of the child's family and the child's' experiences within the family.

Loxterkamp, L (2010) "Contact and Truth: The unfolding predicament in Adoption." Pub. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology Oct 1 2010. 15. 601-612

Lorne Loxterkamp (2010), Consultant child and adolescent psychologist, looks at the assumption that regular contact can remedy the child's loss of their birth parents. He points to the fact that the child will need to come to terms with that loss, understanding with an increasing sophistication why they were removed from their birth family. In addition only by telling a child (obviously in an age appropriate way) the whole truth about the reasons for their removal will future shocks and feelings of being deceived be avoided. The child can develop an understanding of why they do not live with their family; they can grieve, move on and form new attachments. Contact that portrays birth parents who have been grossly culpable as being responsible for only minor failings and mistakes does not explain to a child why it cannot live within its birth family and can undermine a child's attachment to permanent carer's outside the family, be they adopters or long term foster carers.

However, there is a need to keep yourself open to a considered and balanced approach in each individual case and to look at the experience of parents as the other voice that needs to be heard, and where a weight of common history of children lost in care, would place emphasis on the need to protect the parents relationship with their child. In his review of Contact in 2010 between looked after children and their parents a level playing field, the late John Triseliotis reminds us of the complexities of human relationships on show in contact and the impacts of insensitivity and poor planning on adults as well as the child. He points out the need not to be all generalising when using research.

It is to be noted that the review was completed before the developing consensus around infant contact and does not cite that research when looking at frequency and duration, however there are valid points in his argument and as social workers we have a duty to understand them and respect their continued currency.