The importance of maintaining a child’s relationships
As a foster carer, you will probably have received training and have a good idea about the importance of maintaining relationships for children in care. Children in care are not different – we all need strong, supportive relationships in our lives, and we can never have too many.
The Care Inquiry’s ‘Making not Breaking’ report had this to say about relationships:
“The weight of evidence, from all quarters, convinces us that the relationships with people who care for and about children are the golden thread in children’s lives, and that the quality of a child’s relationships is the lens through which we should view what we do and plan to do.”
Most foster carers will have first-hand experience of seeing a child they are fostering work through a relationship with someone and benefit from it. It is though, important to remember that relationships are complicated things and not always plain-sailing.
Relationships don’t only mean with former foster carers or birth parents, we must remember that when a child stays put for any length of time they will make a number of relationships – foster siblings, grandparents, aunties and uncles, school friends, even their hairdresser etc. How would you feel if you were then uprooted from everything and everyone you knew and told you are not allowed to contact them again?
Perhaps most important, is to always remember that these are the child’s relationships, not ours. Decisions should always be taken in the best interests of the child, but we should be slow to ignore their wishes. That it may be difficult, expensive or inconvenient for us to support that contact is not an argument.
Will it unsettle a child you have, if they have contact with past carers?
Possibly. Most foster carers will have seen that contact with birth parents can be unsettling to the child, and the principles are no different here. This can come out as bad behaviour at home or school; withdrawal; anxiousness, or perhaps a more subtle change in behaviour. However, just because a child is ‘unsettled’ by contact, doesn’t mean that the contact is not positive and beneficial to the child in the longer-term.
Many relationships, particularly with birth parents, are maintained, even when some of them are of questionable value to the child. This is quite normal – most of us have relationships we keep up, even though they are not perfect. Children should not be treated differently, just because they are in care. Isolating a child in the name of ‘stability’ should not be an argument except in the most exceptional of circumstances and then the reasons should be clearly thought out and regularly reviewed.
Should children be encouraged to keep relationships?
Yes, but only if they want to. Usually children will benefit from maintaining relationships and therefore to links to their past. Children in care all too often get moved about. This can make keeping in touch with people who are important to them difficult, but that only makes the role of foster carers more important.
This does not mean that every foster parent should be sitting down with their children and persuading them to have contact, but rather that we need to be being positive about their relationships of all types. We must be careful not to close off or isolate a child from its past, or make them feel that they can not talk about people they cared about and who cared for them.
Ensuring a child with you is heard
If you are fostering a child who is wanting contact with someone, you should ensure that their social worker is aware. If they are refused contact, you should ensure that the child has an independent advocate. The social worker should be able to provide you with a list of approved organisations.
You should ensure the child has an advocate whether you agree with the child having contact or not. If the contact is not appropriate, then it will not happen, but the child has the right to have had its views properly considered.
How much contact is ‘right’?
That will depend on the individual child and the circumstances. In general, we believe that the more contact, the less pressure the child feels. If you were only allowed to see your mum once every three months, you would probably feel anxious about it, even if she was the best mum in the world.
Clearly, there are some instances where too much contact can be detrimental to the child. When a child moves placement, it is often right to control the amount of contact to allow the child to settle. However, this should be balanced with the need for the child to receive re-assurance from the former carer about the new placement. The Local Authority should be taking this into consideration when it makes a plan about a move. Too often, we know some Local Authorities take an approach of moving a child and effectively ‘deleting’ their previous placement, which is an important part of their life history, in the name of ‘stability’.
If a child you are caring for is about to move and you believe that they would want to maintain contact and that you can benefit the child, you should always get a written plan from the Local Authority which includes what contact will be allowed. Do this before the child moves.
What if you feel a child you had needs contact with you?
As above, if you can, get a written plan about contact before the child moves. In our experience though, Local Authorities are often reluctant to commit their stated plans to paper.
If your child has already moved and you feel the Local Authority is not promoting contact where it would help the child, try talking to your social worker first. Although they may not be able to help directly, they may at least be able to give you a perspective on the reasons the Local Authority is making that decision. Talking may also give you an opportunity to assess and clarify your own feelings.
If you still feel contact is the right way to go, you will need to approach the social worker on the childcare team responsible for the new placement. You could try to convince them that you could help the stability of the new placement. Perhaps if they allow contact between you and the new carer, you could talk to them about contact and how it may help the child?
You could also try talking to the child’s Independent Reviewing Officer. They have substantial influence over the child’s care plan. However, as the government has recognised, some IROs are reluctant to take any substantive action against their employer – the Local Authority.
Unfortunately, in our experience, decisions are often taken at the level of the child’s social worker and once it has been established it can be very difficult to get any debate or re-examination of the issue.
You can make a complaint to the Local Authority. You should ask your Local Authority to view your complaint under the 2006 Guidance for complaints. This is statutory guidance (meaning that they are legally obligated) and includes independent involvement if your feel your complaint is not properly investigated. A copy of the guidance is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/childrens-social-care-getting-the-best-from-complaints
Be aware that there is a three month window from when the child leaves in which you can apply for a Contact Order.
Contact Orders and the Courts
The courts should always be the last resort. Any application for a Contact Order is likely to be long, stressful and potentially (although not necessarily) costly.
Once you start legal action against your Local Authority, you will be suspended as a foster carer and you are unlikely to be able to foster for them again, no-matter what the outcome. Even if you are fully re-instated as a foster carer some Local Authorities will most likely just not use you, saying that they ‘don’t have a suitable child’.
However, sometimes the issues are so important and the opposing positions so intractable that there is no other course but to go to court. See our section on the law and how to apply for a Contact Order.
Places to get support
There are support groups, legal helplines, forums and other sources of information available on this page. Fostering Contact will also be happy to talk to you. If you contact us, please remember to respect the confidentiality of the child.