Contact: making good decisions for children in public law

06 March 2015

Polly BainesPolly Baynes, independent social worker and associate trainer for Research in Practice, has been working with Beth Neil from the University of East Anglia to create a Frontline Briefing and Practice Tool for Research in Practice, which focuses on contact for children as part of assessment, in adoption, permanent foster care and kinship placement. Beth Neil is a researcher and academic involved in the Contact after Adoption Study – a project that has been following a cohort of young people, now in late adolescence, since they were placed for adoption before the age of four.

Here, Polly writes about the questions we need to be asking ourselves about contact and how we can make the right decisions to make sure that contact is a positive and beneficial experience for children and young people.

Last week I spent an hour observing contact between five month old Toby* and his mother. The mother tried to do the right things – she talked to her son, waved rattles at him and changed his nappy when it was wet. But her response was mechanical and intrusive. Toby turned his head away repeatedly, remaining almost silent and unsmiling. When the contact supervisor greeted him, the baby smiled and babbled, waving his arms and legs in the air.

Later that day I visited ten year old Alina, a child of Polish origin in permanent foster care. She told me with ferocious eloquence how important it was for her to see her mother and sisters. She wanted to eat her mother’s home cooking and listen to her sisters sing (a mixture of Rhianna and Polish thrash metal).

Observations and conversations like these will always be central to making good contact plans. We have to know the child, their birth family and their carers to make plans that fit their unique and changing circumstances. But research has a vital role to play as well. It cannot be right that for many of the children in care proceedings, the key determinant of their long term contact plans remains local custom and practice.

Research has important, sometimes counter-intuitive, messages about which contact is likely to work well for which children. It reminds us to remember siblings, fathers, grandparents and previous foster carers. It also highlights the crucial role of preparation, support and regular review, using contact as a window of opportunity to intervene and improve difficult relationships whenever possible. Why do we waste the skills of our family support workers observing poor quality contact during care proceedings without using this as an opportunity to work with parents and assess their capacity to change? Why are we still sending babies like Toby to poor quality contact four times a week, despite what the research tells us about the harm this causes?

Contact takes place in the context of heightened emotion for adults, not just children and there are no established rules about how to behave when, for example, spending the afternoon with your  child who now calls somebody else Daddy. What should you write in a letter to the birth mother of your adopted daughter – is it OK to mention your recent divorce? Would it be unkind to talk about your visit to Disneyland? Why should you be able to manage contact with an angry, drug using father without help, just because you are a kinship carer and this man is your brother?

High quality professional planning and support can make a huge difference to the success of contact at every stage, ensuring that contact it is purposeful and regularly reviewed as children’s needs and wishes change. Our research Briefing and Contact Planning Tool aim to help social workers to integrate research into their thinking about contact, drawing on Beth Neil’s work to create a dynamic model for planning and reviewing that recognises the importance of supporting everybody involved – birth families, new families and children.

As the Care Inquiry told us relationships are the golden thread in vulnerable children’s lives; our plans need to start from there. The drive to return social work to a respected profession at the heart of decision making for children means that it is local authority social workers and guardians, rather than ‘experts’ who must speak  with authority in the courtroom on behalf of children like Toby and Alina. 

Find out more about the newly launched Frontline Briefing and Contact Planning Tool – Contact: Making good decisions for children in public law.

*Please note. Names and identities have been changed to protect individuals.  


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