It's one of the things that makes fostering what it is, enabling vital relationships to be continued even when a young person cannot, for whatever reason, live with their birth parents. In the majority of cases it's an essential part of fostering which can bring significant benefits to looked after children and young people and their birth families.
And yet, despite the benefits that contact can bring, all too often I hear that contact can be a time of great stress and distress. Some of this is unavoidable because, despite all the potential positives, for many fostered children and young people contact can be an upsetting, unsettling and confusing time bringing to the surface a range of emotions which can be difficult for them to deal with. However, there are some aspects of contact arrangements, support and preparation which unnecessarily add complication and confusion to what is already a time of heightened emotions. We believe that these elements can, and must, be changed in order to improve the quality of contact across the UK.
The importance of building relationships
Relationships are the golden thread in any person's life, and are perhaps even more important to children who can't live with their birth families. While children come in to care for a reason, there is a good deal of research and experience that demonstrates that children who have been uprooted from their birth family often need help to develop a strong sense of their own identity. Contact can enable them to understand this identity - their heritage, traditions, religion, history and so on - in spite of living apart from relatives. Getting contact right is crucial for fostered children and young people's wellbeing and, in many cases, for the stability of a fostering placement.
Many children in foster care think about their families a lot, and may worry about their relatives' welfare and what's going on at home. Seeing their families can reassure them that things are alright. It can also help them to come to terms with why they are in care and perhaps even realise why they can't go home just yet.
Fostered children may have strong attachments to one or both of their parents, even if these are not very positive. Well-managed contact can help children and their parents develop more positive relationships for the future. This is important as a child moves on to independence and vital if a return home is a possibility.
So, contact is an integral part of fostering and an important part of helping fostered children maintain relationships with their birth family. So why is it so often more difficult than it ought to be? Why does the fostering system make it more complicated and stressful than it need be?
Juggling what the court has instructed for contact and the demands on a foster carer can be very difficult, especially as the responsibility for arranging contact sits with the child's social worker who may not know the fostering family very well. This can lead to poorly arranged sessions taking place in non-child friendly environments, or situations where a foster carer who is looking after two or three children ends up having to be at different contacts at the same time. This creates a negative experience for foster carers, birth families and fostered children.
We hear from foster carers who have experienced contact being cancelled or altered at the last minute. Incidences of foster carers not being fully informed of contact arrangements - such as which birth family members will be present - are also common, and both foster carer and fostered child are therefore unprepared for the meeting. Last minute adjustments or surprises can generate extreme anxiety for all parties and may damage the trust a fostered child has for their foster carer, which could ultimately jeopardise the placement.
More must be done to make contact a positive experience for foster carers, birth families and most importantly children and young people.
Better facilities must be put into place for when contact has to take place in a formal setting. High quality facilities that are suitable for families with children of all ages to meet in do exist, but there is a lack of consistency. These better facilities must be accompanied by a more flexible approach to where contact can take place (such as partaking in an activity like bowling or playing in the park).
Where the decision making rests
However, I think the single biggest change that could improve contact would be to bring the foster carer much more into the decision making about where and when contact should take place. We believe that the supervising social worker, who should know the fostering family well, should become responsible for the contact arrangements in place of the children's social worker, thus preventing the situation where a foster carer with three children in placement has to be in three places at the same time.
Foster carers often know the children in their care better than anyone else in the team around the child. They also know their own schedule better than anyone and they are the members of the team who have to support the child through the consequences of poorly planned contact. Along with their supervising social worker, they should be trusted to fulfil the court's requirements regarding contact in a way which is in the best interests of their fostered child(ren) and which works for the them and the birth family.
Moving the responsibility for the contact arrangements to the supervising social worker would also mean better support for the foster carer when it comes to contact. There could, if required, be better pre- and post-contact briefings allowing the foster carer to become more confident in helping to make contact the best it can be.
Ultimately, we must find a way to make contact work for everyone - better contact means better relationships and that's crucial to children's outcomes. We hope that the various reviews of fostering and the care system that are currently taking place across the UK will take a serious look at how to make this happen.