Contact and Family Time
Contact and Family Time
An introduction to the role and the expectations for foster carers around contact and family time.
“One of the most important parts of our professional role in supporting and promoting contact and family time between children and young people in our care and their birth families.
Sometimes this can be really challenging, but it is crucial to build and maintain professional relationships with birth families and promote contact to the best of our ability.”
Sarah Anderson, Founder, FosterWiki
Introduction to the role and the expectations for foster carers around contact and family time
The term ‘contact’ or ‘family time’ is used to describe a foster child spending time with the birth family, either parent, siblings, grandparents or significant others.
The foster carers’ role includes supporting and promoting contact for the children and young people in their care and encouraging and helping them to maintain and develop family contacts and friendships, of course, this is subject to any limitations or provisions set out in their care plan and any court order.
Children and young people are removed from their parents to keep them safe from harm, however, this can also lead to emotional harm, so it is the job of services and carers to help minimise that emotional impact as much as possible.
What the National Minimum Standards Say
Children have, where appropriate, constructive contact with their parents, grandparents, siblings, half-siblings, wider family, friends and other people who play a significant role in their lives.
- 9.1 Children are supported and encouraged to maintain and develop family contacts and friendships, subject to any limitations or provisions set out in their care plan and any court order.
- 9.2 Foster carers are given practical help to support appropriate contact, including financial help where needed, alongside support to manage any difficult emotional or other issues that the child and foster carer may have as a result of contact.
- 9.3 Emergency restrictions on contact are only made to protect the child from significant risk to their safety or welfare and are communicated to the responsible authority within 24 hours of being imposed.
- 9.4 Ongoing restriction on communication by the child is agreed upon by the child’s responsible authority, takes the child’s wishes and feelings into account and is regularly reviewed in collaboration with the responsible authority.
- 9.5 The fostering service feeds back to the responsible authority any significant reactions a child has to contact arrangements or visits with any person.
- 9.6 When deciding whether to offer a placement, the fostering service works with the responsible authority in giving consideration to how the child’s contact with family and significant others will be supported, particularly where a child is placed at a distance from home.
- 9.7 Foster carers understand what decisions about contact are delegated to them, in line with the child’s care plan, and make those decisions in the child’s best interests.
Why is contact so important?
There are many reasons for the importance of contact in a child’s life, here are some of the main ones:
- To maintain important relationships and connections with birth family and significant others.
- It is important for a child or young person’s identity, heritage, sense of self and self-esteem.
- To help lessen the grieving and the loss of their family.
- The child can keep up to date with information about their family (age-appropriate).
- Contact and family time will be important for children and young people as they grow up, and it will assist them in how they manage those relationships later on.
- You may be preparing a child to return home.
How is contact decided?
There are regulations and guidance for fostering services around contact as it plays an important part in the health and wellbeing of children and young people. Contact will vary and is unique to each fostering placement.
Each looked after child will have their own overall care plan in which a contact plan outlines all the arrangements. This plan should refer specifically to how the child will maintain links with and receive information about family and friends The purpose of contact will be documented, understood and discussed by the team around the child and shared with the birth families.
Contact must be risk assessed by those responsible for the child or young person’s care plan and should make sure that they put in place any appropriate measures to manage that risk. Not everyone is always in agreement about how contact should be managed, when, where and how long, however, the care plan and courts must be followed.
Children and young people may have less contact with family if the decision has been made for them to remain in foster care until 18yrs and there is little chance of reunification home, it may be also that the child or young person has made that decision, or due to significant trauma or abuse. Sometimes parents can not commit to contact.
If a child or young person is significantly and adversely affected by contact the care plan can be revisited and revised.
How does contact work?
Contact can take place in contact centres, out in the community, in the birth family’s home, in the foster carers’ home (see top tip below), or anywhere else deemed suitable by social workers, courts or care plans.
It must be said that just like everything in fostering, each child, family setting, each placement, and each contact arrangement is unique. Contact will vary hugely in terms of how often, how long, maybe sometimes never, depending on care plans, which can also change throughout a child’s journey in care.
Direct contact – means meetings between the child or young person with birth parents, siblings and other extended family or significant others. It can be in person, or via online platforms such as Zoom/Teams, texts and emails.
Indirect contact – means through letters, cards, and presents usually through a third party (such as a social worker).
Supervised contact – A trained qualified contact worker will supervise these sessions. They are held in a contact centre, out in the community, or in family homes.
Unsupervised contact – This is when contact can happen in a family member’s home or out in the community and the risk has been assessed to be low enough for this to happen.
Telephone contact – This can be supervised or unsupervised. It can be set at times of the day or at any time, sometimes on loudspeaker, according to the care plan.
Virtual contact – As with telephone contact, supervised or unsupervised according to the care plan.
High-frequency contact for babies and infants – This can be as much as 7 days a week and can be challenging even when carefully supervised, it can be disruptive to an infant’s daily routines and must therefore be closely monitored and supported. Foster carers will need a high degree of organisation and flexibility.
There is likely to be a contact book that carers record, things like the children’s milestones, any activities they have done or school/nursery, maybe hair cuts and anything that may be of significant information or interest to the birth parents, who will also record their feedback in the contact book.
Young people’s unsupervised contact – Young people may arrange their own contact with parents and family and notify their carers and social workers when this is happening, again according to the care plan. Unsupervised ad hoc contact can be challenging and will require different kinds of support and management on the part of the foster carer.
Contact in fostering home – Contact is rarely at the foster carers’ home, nor should it be unless circumstances are right (remember all placements and care plans are unique).
The child’s fostering family and home should remain a safe space where they can feel secure and relaxed, seeing parents can be a challenging time and emotions heightened so having contact in their safe space is not always in their best interests.
Foster carers supervising contact – If there is a good relationship between foster carers and birth parents/family and all are in agreement then a foster carer can supervise contact.
Top Tip: As a foster carer you are not a trained or qualified supervisor or contact worker, neither are you insured nor protected when things go wrong. If you are asked to supervise contact it is ok to decline because of these reasons, do not under any circumstances be pressurised into it.If you are asked and feel it is not appropriate, safe or in the interests of the child speak immediately to your supervising social worker. If you feel vulnerable in raising this seek help from independent representatives.
Top Tip: As in the tip for not being pressurised into supervising contact if you feel it is not appropriate, the same goes for anyone pressuring you to have contact in your home.This is a safe space for your children and young people and contact is not always appropriate in it, it is not in the child’s interest. Home is also your safe space.
Social worker’s role
- To consider the purpose of contact arrangements.
- Be responsible for the frequency, safety and quality of contact.
- Ensure the wishes and feelings of the child are heard and that of birth families and carers.
- Provide support for the child, birth parents/and families.
- Have regular discussions with and support foster carers, listen to their concerns for the child and for themselves and provide any financial assistance or facilitate expenses associated with the contact.
- Ensure contact is maintained with significant extended families such as siblings and grandparents, these may be crucial especially if contact with parents is challenging.
- Take time to reassess if parents are regularly missing contact or not turning up, and also take into account that birth parents may not maintain contact or that it’s less often when a child is in long-term care.
- Contact arrangements for babies or infants must put their needs first. Contact should be fitted in around day to daycare (feeding, sleep times etc).
Foster carer’s role in promoting contact
Foster carers are required to understand the importance of promoting contact for the children in their care, and support them to maintain and develop relationships with birth parents, extended family and significant others (as per care plans).
Developing professional working relationships with the birth families is crucial. Sometimes foster carers can find contact difficult for many reasons, this will often include the challenges around contact negatively impacting a child or difficulties with birth parents.
However, it is part of our professional role to abide by care plans, contact arrangements and court orders even if we are not in agreement with them.
Where appropriate and in accordance with care plans foster carers may be asked to supervise contact, they may also be asked to transport children to contact centres and other contacts and wait to bring them back again afterwards.
Recording and reporting
As ever in fostering it is important that you report and record and this is important when it comes to contact. It is better to do it as soon after as you can so everything is fresh in your mind, make sure you stick to facts, not opinions and be mindful that the children will likely read their records as young adults.
Contact books – For babies and younger children, you will often have a contact book, especially for supervised contact at contact centres. This is so you can keep parents up to date with the baby or child’s developmental milestones, and recordings of other events. Make sure your entries are factual and avoid opinion-based statements.
Tips, guidance and things to be mindful of
contact varies as much as each fostering placement does. Sometimes it goes well and foster carers are able to forge positive professional relationships with birth families that benefit the child and promote good outcomes. Very often, however, contact can be one of the most challenging parts of a foster carer’s professional role.
What might foster carers find difficult?
The negative impact on the child, Children can often come home from contact distressed, angry, sad, feeling loss, or even guilt, some children can even think they are to blame for a parent’s distress or for being in care.
It is an extremely complex time for them emotionally.
This can be so challenging for carers, the placement can feel undermined and the carers are often at a loss as to how to help the child or young person, it can be frustrating and disruptive if things had been going well.
It is also a time when carers can be worried about allegations from the child, this can be in an attempt to break the placement in the hope they will be returned home and also from birth families, wanting to undermine the stability of the placement and to assert some authority in what can feel like a powerless time.
There are all sorts of ways to address this, from sourcing training on attachment and trauma to help understand what is the underlying cause of the reaction to contact and tap into training courses that help to understand challenging behaviours and the reasons for them.
FosterWiki team member
Contact is also a time when carers can be more vulnerable to allegations, both from the child, birth families, contact supervisors, extended family or social workers.
Take a look at FosterWiki’s Help I have had an allegation made against me page.
What can you do?
Record, record, record – As always the experts by experience at FosterWiki recommend you record contact meticulously and whilst it is fresh in your mind. If there is anything that concerns you or you feel vulnerable to an allegation for any reason put it in writing. Make sure your reporting and recording are dated, and timed, if it is not possible to do this electronically send an email so that it got a date and a time you reported it.
TOP TIP: Make sure you develop professional working relationships with birth parents and family, have boundaries and stick to them however hard this may be.
Many foster carers learn the hard way as they are kind and care, so often extend that in a way that is not helpful to birth families and “befriends” them rather than keeping it to a professional relationship (which can also be kind, just in a different way).
Be mindful that when a ‘friendship’ with a birth parent or family member goes wrong, it can often go very wrong, can lead to very difficult situations and allegations, and is rarely beneficial for the child. Your provider should deliver training on this.
Check that the allegations support, representation, and defence casework you have in place is the right one for you. Once an allegation has happened it’s too late to make sure you have the right cover. Take a look at the NUPFC which can provide you with independent support in allegations.
Having support, protection and representation in place, is not dissimilar to car insurance, once something happened it is too late. You may feel everything is going ok and you don’t need it, or you put it off, however, in fostering things can change very fast and it’s alright until it isn’t.
Top Tips from experts by experience
- If contact is out in the community with a teen we stay close by, we have an emergency text code ready and they just press send if they find it challenging and want to leave early. I usually get them to meet in a shopping centre and I have coffee in another shop, but am on hand should things go wrong.If I get the code I ring and say we have to go as some things come up and they can leave without it causing any conflict. I always have a plan with them to do something afterwards, usually, their favourite thing whatever that is, as if they are angry, upset or re-traumatised it stops them from hooking up with friends and acting out on their feelings elsewhere.
- We ensure that we do not dismiss their feelings or discourage them from their feelings about their parents or family, as sometimes our instinct is to ‘fix’ it or try and cheer them up and change the subject.However we have learned to sit with them, however hard that might be for us, and listen and become attuned to their non-verbal emotional expressions as well as the verbal ones.
- I never dismiss their family or disparage them in any way, even when the youngsters might be doing it themselves. I only listen, as they can love and hate their parents at the same time, never take sides, just listen and let them know we hear them in whichever place they are.
- I always have something planned for the little ones afterwards, usually, MacDonalds as they love it, so if contact has been hard or they are hyper or upset it’s good to have something nice to do and for them to look forward to.
- The contract can go one of several ways, but when it is distressing for them it is really hard to bear. It’s also difficult knowing we can’t restrict or stop contact, only the LA can do that, but seeing the effect on them can be so hard.
- If a child is unwell then you must contact the child’s social worker as soon as possible so they can cancel arrangements.
- The other thing that can happen, which was totally unexpected, is how conflicted a child can feel, they often come back hating you as they feel so guilty that they’ve somehow betrayed their family, it is so sad that they carry so much on their shoulders.
- Work together with your team if you believe that contact is being seriously detrimental to your child or young person. Make sure you have reported and recorded everything and give them the reasons why and discuss it.Services do have to take the child’s wishes and feelings into account, the children come first despite the balance they need with birth parents’ needs and rights, it is a tricky balance especially when you see your child constantly distressed by contact.
- Very often our only role at contact is to transport the child there and then step back, that’s tough too.
- Contact can often go better (when allowed) out in the community rather than in a contact centre as it feels more normal to a child and having an activity to do is often better than sitting around.Foster carers can sometimes supervise this themselves if they’ve built up good working relationships with birth families, it may be better for the child, but also be mindful here about those conflicting feelings and a child feeling they have to ‘choose’, however, if they are doing an activity this helps.
- Some foster carers can try and block contact with siblings, especially when it’s an older sibling that they feel might be a ‘bad influence’ and destabilise the placement with the younger siblings, however hard it is they must promote contact with siblings, its so important for the children and young people in the present but also for their future.
- Foster carers have the choice of whether they wish to supervise contact or not. If it does not feel safe to do so or you feel it will be a detriment to the child then say no, there is no legal or contractual obligation for the foster carer to supervise contact. If you have been asked to supervise contact don’t be afraid to ask if the decision has been risk assessed.Do not feel you have to say yes, talk it through with someone who understands your skill sets and experience and the risks involved.
- Remember that ‘promoting and supporting contact’ as highlighted in the National Minimum Standards is quite different to supervising contact. There is no legal obligation for a foster carer to supervise contact, if you don’t feel it’s right or safe do not feel pressurised to say yes.
- If you feel that you are supervising contact is having a negative impact on your relationship with your child or young person don’t be afraid to raise this, it is important for placement stability that this relationship is not jeopardised.
- If you are supervising contact get some really clear written guidance on things like what would constitute you ending the session, how you are to record it and ensure that you have been made aware of any risks.
- Before committing to a new placement find out what contact arrangements are in place and if it is viable for you.
Foster carer’s comments
“My view of this is that it’s tricky and the success of it is totally dependent on the situation. I have supervised some really positive contacts, which have been of huge benefit to the young people I have cared for.
It enabled a more “normal” time to make memories and share experiences etc. I have also on the other hand struggled immensely with a parent who I felt was controlling and manipulative, who wouldn’t agree to anything in terms of days and times and would refute any suggestions I made. It was impossible to manage.”
“I’ve had really positive family time and quite a negative family time. It’s important to remain neutral and remember that I haven’t walked in their shoes. I speak to the family as I would anyone else- if they are open to talking to me.
I have little communication books in baby bags and always ask for their opinions on what they want for their child ie: foods, toys, lotions etc. I always give a little update on what the child has been doing.
Some parents respond, and some don’t. It’s important that the child always sees the carer behaving in a polite manner and that their parents are not portrayed by me in a negative light.”
“Unfortunately we have too many contacts, and they are just in the holidays, which means most of the school holidays are taken up with them, which isn’t conducive for family life or normal life as their contacts are normally very upsetting.
We used to go away most school holidays but we don’t anymore. I also have the issue with a couple of family members having my number and trying to be my ‘friend’ it’s very difficult to manage as the SWs are leaving it more and more to me to arrange and organise.”
- National Minimum Standards.
- The Fostering Services Regulations 2011.
- The Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulations 2009.
- The Care Planning, 2013(Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2013.
- Top 10 Tips for Reporting and Recording.
- What is an allegation.
- 10 Top Allegation Tips You Need to Know.
- What to do when an allegation is made against you.
- DN College Group.
Research and statistics on contact
- Managing risks and benefits of contact: https://fosteringandadoption.rip.org.uk/topics/managing-risks/
- National Minimum Standards.
Information, Help and Support
Help and support created for foster carers, by foster carers, we are the experts by experience. We have the first foster carers knowledge bank.
Access both the open pages and members area. Both are free to access and footprint-free. The member’s area gives you privileged confidential access to FosterWiki’s experts by experience for advice and guidance. You will also find short courses and guides from the foster carer’s perspective, top tips, allegation help, templates, and the ability to add to FosterWiki. With more content being uploaded regularly.
Please let us know what information or advice pages you would find useful and we will put them in place. https://fosterwiki.com/register/