We can appreciate from speaking to kinship carers how challenging it can be sometimes to manage contact arrangements with birth parents. Although each situation is different, we have put this factsheet together to provide some general information about contact arrangements and to help answer some of the more frequently asked questions we get from kinship carers we advise.
What is contact?
Contact arrangements involve children and their immediate family members. Contact can also include siblings, half-siblings, extended family members and other people who are important in the children’s lives.
Contact can happen in many ways, for example, it can be face-to-face visits, overnight or days out, this is known as ‘direct contact’. This type of contact could be arranged within the kinship carers home or at a contact centre or another neutral venue. It can also be supervised or unsupervised.
However, not all contact is in person, some contact can be arranged via letter, telephone, video calls, emails, or texts, this is known as ‘indirect contact’. Again, this can be supervised or unsupervised. In most cases, it is important for children to have contact with their parents, siblings and other family members, as this enables them to maintain a relationship with their family and make sense of their life history & identity. There are times when it is not safe for a child to have contact with their parents or family, this decision can be made by kinship carer with parental responsibility, the local authority or a family court. This is because kinship carers, courts and local authorities have a legal duty to protect children from anyone who is considered dangerous or poses a risk to their physical or emotional well-being. In all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child should always be paramount.
Helping children in kinship care prepare for contact
How you prepare a child for contact with their parents will depend on their age, maturity and whether it is an interim or permanent arrangement. If the local authority is involved through an interim care order and care proceedings, then contact is important as it provides observations of a parent child relationship and helps to make decisions about whether a child should be rehabilitated back to their parent’s care. If permanent plans for the child have been made at the end of care proceedings, where it has been decided that the child cannot be returned to their parents care and should live elsewhere permanently, then contact is about helping a child to maintain a relationship with their parents, siblings or other important family members.
Some children will feel it is important for them to know the exact date contact will take place with their parents so that they can prepare. Whilst others may struggle with this, and it may cause great stress and anxiety. It is always important to engage with the child, find out what works best for them and listen to their wishes and feelings. If the child is very young, then this may be difficult. For interim arrangements there may be a high level of contact to maintain the relationship between child and parent and provide observations that will help to inform permanent plans for children. Contact will be different for different ages, and it needs to be reviewed regularly as the child becomes older. Contact which is right for a child aged 3 will not be right for a child aged 13. A younger child will need more support with preparing for contact and teenagers may be preparing to become more independent and therefore contact may take place outdoors, for example in a park or cafe.
Managing contact with the birth parents
As a kinship carer, managing contact with the parents can often be difficult and stressful. Their role in the children’s lives will have changed significantly, and often the birth parents will feel sad, distressed, or angry regarding the loss of their children and their identity as a parent. They may not be supportive of their child living with you and may openly let you and the child know how they feel. This can cause a great strain on your relationship with them and there could be an element of ‘divided loyalties’ for you.
It’s also important to be aware of the children’s feelings, they may feel torn in their loyalties between you and their parents. They may also place the blame on you when contact with their parents doesn’t go to plan. Contact will often take place when the parents are confused, upset and struggling with other difficulties in their lives. Parents may promise to take their children out somewhere fun or arrange to meet at a certain time, but then fail to up. This often leaves the children feeling sad, distressed, insecure and angry. As a result of this, relationships on all sides can become extremely contentious and difficult.
When the birth parents’ actions are not acceptable, using a confident and open approach works best. Try not to be judgemental or criticise the birth parents, even if they fail to turn up. It’s important to help the child settle again and explain in an age-related way, that the parents are going through a difficult time. Try to honest and open with them, help them understand that it’s not their fault and the parents are simply having a difficult time, but this does not mean they love them any less.
Allow the child space to process their feelings, offer comfort if needed. It might help to plan some low-key activities together for them to process how the feel. As mentioned above, a child may not want to talk, they may reject your offer of comfort or act in a negative way through behaviour, don’t take this personally, it’s just their way of showing their frustrations.
A useful decision-making tool for contact
A useful decision-making tool for contact
It can be helpful to follow the steps below to help you with making decisions around contact. This exercise could be used in meetings with kinship carers, parents and professionals to set up contact plans as part of a special guardianship support plan.
1) What is the purpose of contact – i.e. to look at rehabilitation with parents or to maintain a relationship with parents?
2) What is the child’s existing relationship like with birth parents, siblings or other family members?
3) Frequency of contact
4) Duration of contact
5) Supervision or not?
6) Contact venue?
7) Who pays for what?
8) Dealing with birthdays, Christmas and special occasions i.e. mother’s day, father’s day, wider family celebrations, exchange of presents
9) How to deal with unplanned contact incidents?
10) What happens when things go wrong?
11) Reviewing contact plans.
Contact & Legal Orders – Your Rights
Some contact arrangements are explicitly laid out for some special guardians as part of their support plan, while others are expected to make informal arrangements themselves. When making informal arrangements, you will be expected to arrange a contact date as well supervise contact, although you may initially receive support with this from your local authority. Whilst these arrangements are not legally binding, a parent could apply to the court for contact through child arrangements order if they felt contact was being restricted or if they wanted more contact.
A court can also order contact through child arrangements order even if you as the carer believes it’s not in the child’s best interests. If an order is made by the court, you must ensure contact takes place based on the directions made within the child arrangement order. Courts would only normally make an order for contact as part of a child arrangements order if it is felt that the kinship carer would not be able to achieve contact for any reason, this would run alongside the special guardianship support plan.
Decisions regarding contact can be particularly challenging where birth parents have poor mental health, drug, or alcohol issues. If you feel contact isn’t working, then it is important to initially discuss your concerns with a social worker who will be able to support you. If a social worker can’t support you, then you may want to speak to one of our advisers regarding mediation or applying to court for a variation of the contact order.
Contact with a child in care.
Children who have been placed in local authority foster care have the right to maintain links with family members, where it is safe for them to do so. Children’s services must allow reasonable contact with parents, siblings and anyone else who holds parental responsibility. All looked after children should have an overall care plan which outlines all the arrangements in relation to contact. This plan should refer specifically to how the child will maintain links with and receive information about their family and other important people for them such as friends.
Children’s services also have a general duty to promote contact with the wider family. However, wider family members who do not have parental responsibility will not have an automatic legal right to contact with a child in foster care.
As a wider family member, if you are not happy with the level of contact children’s services are allowing, you should first speak to child’s social worker. You can also ask for your contact to be considered as part of a Looked After Child Review meeting which is chaired by an independent reviewing officer. If contact continues to be prevented, then you can apply to seek leave (permission) from the family court before making a court application for contact through a child arrangements order.
Before taking any action regarding contact it is in your best interest to seek independent legal advice. Please contact our advice service for more information about where you can seek free independent legal advice.