Why is this needed?
The fact that parental responsibility is shared between special guardians (SGs) and birth parents; that the court may agree to contact arrangements which are neither binding nor realistic, and that relationships between SGs and birth parents can be fraught, all contribute to this being one of the most difficult issues which SGs have to manage.
“24. Under section 14F of the Act, as amended, the local authority must make arrangements for the provision of special guardianship support services. Including:
- assistance, including mediation services, in relation to contact between the child and their parents or relatives or any other person with whom the child has a relationship that the local authority considers to be beneficial to the welfare of the child (regulation 3(1)(c)).”
“Contact in kinship care settings is reported as being more frequent and more enduring than is the case in unrelated foster care (Farmer and Moyers, 2008). Parental contact in these settings can act as a flashpoint for many families (Hunt et al., 2010) and evidence of children’s experiences of contact are mixed, including some concerns about children’s safety (Hunt et al., 2008; Farmer, 2010; Roth et al., 2011).” (Wade et all 2014 p175).
“A negative rating for birth mother contact was more likely where children scored highly for emotional and behavioural problems and when their overall developmental progress was poor. For these children, the fallout from contact tended to exacerbate already existing problems.” (Wade et al 2014 P237)
McGrath’s (in preparation) study has identified the following issues (amongst others)
“The grandparents found there were many considerations involved in planning contact between their grandchildren and their adult children, and the other parent.
“The grandparents were usually not confident about managing contact.
“Pre-order children’s services usually managed contact and the grandparents felt children’s services rules were often generic and did not work for their family.
“Once the SGO had been granted the grandparents usually found that support for contact was quickly withdrawn. The grandparents felt they had to continue with the rules that were already in place around contact however, this was often not possible because safeguards such as contact centres either did not have space or were too expensive.
“If contact was not positive for their grandchildren, the grandparents could feel unaware of what to do. They did not know the process for stopping contact or how to get support.”
All of these issues were of concern to the carers consulted in the preparation of this document. They particularly highlighted the fact that they are often left to manage contact in situations where there are significant safeguarding concerns regarding the parents. In addition:
- Children can be very distressed by contact and sometimes retraumatised.
- Social Workers lack skills and knowledge to manage these issues and confidence to take decisions when necessary.
- Some Social Workers find these situations too complex to handle and simply walk away.
- Distressing contact for the child can place significant stresses on the whole family.
- Mediation is often not available
- Sibling contact can be complicated and time consuming to arrange, particularly when siblings are in different placements
- Where the birth parent returns to court, legal advice and financial help toward legal costs is often unavailable.
- One SG commented that contact needs to be seen in a therapeutic context.
They also pointed out that managing wider relationships within the family is additional to contact issues. Some members of the wider family can resent the role of the SG and take the side of the birth parent leading to family tensions and conflict.
“A fifth of the young people had lost contact with a sibling or mourned the loss of closeness with a sibling where contact was only occasional.
“Kinship carers were not always aware of the depth of the young people’s feelings about their siblings such as loss, self-blame or feeling rejected. They may need advice about how to help young people talk about these feelings, as well as assistance in maintaining contact with siblings, whenever possible.” (Grandparents Plus 2017a p6)
“During the teenage years, more than half of the carers had serious concerns about the harmful effects on young people of maternal (54%) or paternal contact (56%). Persistently difficult contact often involved parents who were unreliable at keeping in touch, frequently let young people down or who had lifestyles that exposed young people to inappropriate or risky situations. Parents’ behaviour during contact could vary widely, especially for those with drugs and/or alcohol misuse difficulties.” (Grandparents Plus 2017a p7)
“The children showed that relationships, links and connections with others in their lives are ongoing. They do not just end. Connections remain whether or not essential people in their lives, such as birth parents, are physically present. The children use different tools and strategies to manage these connections in a variety of nuanced ways. They wish for their feelings and current preferred strategies to be central to decisions around keeping these connections. They also acknowledge that circumstances and their wishes will change. The children feel the whole family requires help to manage these connections and relationships with each other to ensure they are trusting, caring, and reciprocal.” (Shuttleworth – in preparation)
Examples of approaches currently being taken
North London Adoption and Fostering Consortium
- Provide annual training on managing contact
- Have produced a template for contact with guidance notes (See appendix eight)
- Are setting up a 4-day mediation course for social workers
- Some families are referred to PAC-UK for mediation
- Recognise that more support in this area is needed.
- Contact is discussed as part the SGO application / support plan
- Contact training is provided for all foster carers and includes SGs
- Foster carers transitioning to SGO status may receive support for contact provided by the child’s social work team
- SGs contact the SGO team with problems around contact and workers will try to mediate and assist
- The long-term intention is to enable SGs to facilitate contact within the family independently, if possible, as part of normal family life. But the LA does facilitate contact in some cases, at least for a period
- Letter box contact is available where there is no direct contact between child and parent / other family member
- Reviews of SGO support plans consider contact arrangements.
Brighton and Hove
- Run a workshop entitled ‘How to support your child with Contact’ on an annual basis, or more frequently if the need is identified.
- Ensure prospective SGs are invited to Contact Review meetings pre-order
- Set out the support available for contact in the SGO Support Plan
- Facilitate Contact Review meetings post-order in the 6-month period of social work allocation and draw up contact agreements setting out expectations and arrangements
- Offer a Contact Intervention post-order following an Assessment of Support Needs which may include mediation between birth parents and SGs to resolve any difficulties around contact arrangements
- In some very complex scenarios, time limited contact supervision is offered as part of a plan to resolve difficulties around contact
- All carers receive an annual letter inviting them to make contact if their support needs have changed.
Kirklees provide both contact workers and training for SGs on managing contact issues.
Aspire Adoption offer
- Post SGO contact support to SGs and birth families via telephone, email and monthly support groups
- Review meetings can be agreed and chaired by support workers on an annual basis where appropriate, or arranged between parents and SG’s
- Mediation is offered if appropriate, or attendance at a mediation service, in exceptional cases.
Adopt Thames Valley will support families referred for a review of contact arrangements; provide advice and guidance; and provide support to step-down from supervised to unsupervised contact arrangements. A maximum of three direct contacts will be facilitated by Adopt Thames Valley in the course of this work. Adopt Thames Valley provide consultation services to the local authority in relation to supporting therapeutic contact post-order.
- Deliver training to professionals and guardians themselves around contact, and how to cope with complexity
- Have developed a policy document to share with local authorities to help them to think about the issues (See appendix eight)
- Offer a contact and mediation service that can be commissioned by local authorities
- Support SGs and birth parents on this and other issues via an advice line
- Offer counselling to birth parents to better manage contact.
Local authorities and regional adoption agencies report that many of their referrals for SG support involve contact issues. The nature of this issue is now better understood. SGs consulted for this document suggested the following approaches:
- Social Workers need to spend time with the Birth Parent and the SG after the Order to ensure there is clarity about what was agreed, how it is going to be implemented, how it might change in the future and how support can be accessed if necessary.
- All parties need to understand that contact arrangements and the support plan will need to change over time.
- SGs need help to understand how to manage changes in the future and particularly how to consider long term safeguarding concerns.
- Sometimes ongoing external supervision of contact is required if children are at risk.