Contact at Christmas. Should an alcoholic mother be given access to her fostered children?

A mother who misuses alcohol and drugs is keen on seeing her children at Christmas. But their foster carers object

The names of the service users have been changed

SITUATION: Maria Fahey, six, and Joe O’Shea, five, have been in various foster care placements, often separately, over the past four years. However, they have been in a settled placement together for about 18 months. Both their fathers have lost contact.

Their mother, Theresa Burke, 24, who has a history of alcohol and drug abuse, lives with her new partner, Sean McAllion, 35, who is involved in the drug scene and is also suspected of acting as Theresa’s pimp.

PROBLEM: Since October Theresa has been ringing (often drunk) about Christmas contact. The foster carers are not enthusiastic about this. Contact arranged for Christmas Eve 2004 failed to happen because Theresa at the last moment rang to say she wasn’t coming – it was all too painful for her. The social worker was left to face the children’s pain at the fact that she was letting them down, at Christmas of all times.

Last year she turned up but was drunk, fell over and cracked her head – requiring an ambulance. 

This year Theresa is insisting on treating her children to a Big Mac as she “now has money”.

Staff and carers do not want any contact to take place in McDonald’s as this means (at best) giving and receiving presents in full view of the public. Maria and Joe have said they don’t love their mummy any more and want Father Christmas to bring them a new one.


If this was my case, the first piece of information that I would require would be to find out where things are up to with care  planning as both children have been in care for some time. As the adoption team, we would have a permanence worker involved by this stage and be looking to secure legal orders for the children with a clear permanence plan.

Given the children’s ages, I would be looking at a plan for adoption as it seems they are unable to return home or be placed with a family member.

I would assess the request for Christmas contact by looking at what the contact plans are and if contact falls within the usual pattern. Initially, I would have concerns about contact before Christmas, as it seems that this would be meeting mum’s needs not the children’s. I would look to organise contact after Christmas in the days before the new year. Dependent on where the children were up to with their feelings about their mum, I would not tell them that contact was going ahead until as late as possible.

The social worker should have a discussion with Theresa about expectations and advise that we would expect her to turn up between 30 minutes and one hour early, so we can assess if she is drunk. I would have an exchange of gifts at either the foster carers’ home or a community-based contact centre. I would then allow the trip to McDonald’s to go ahead.

This would then avoid the exchange of presents in public. Christmas, birthdays and so on are always an emotional time when planning contacts between children and their families. I feel that the needs of the children should remain paramount.

My concern would be that the past two Christmas contacts had not gone well and this was likely to be due in part to the high emotions around at this time of year making contact painful for Theresa. I would want to know why she feels that things would be different this year.

As a manager within the placement service, I’d suggest a case review meeting should take place to clarify the plan for the  children as there appears to be some drift. I would ensure that the foster carers’ views were taken into account and that they were supported in whatever decisions were made about contact.

I presume that a permanency plan exists, given that the children have been settled in placement for 18 months. If this is correct, I would not force the issue of contact as I feel that this could effectively cause far more disruption and harm to the children than good.

I feel that when there is a plan in place for permanency, contact should be limited to three times a year. Given Theresa’s current issues and concerns I feel that this contact would have to remain supervised, and should not include her partner.

It is very easy to make decisions which can be influenced by the seasonal festivities. However, Maria and Joe are clearly saying that they do not want their mummy; they want a new one. This could be suggested as clear evidence of the damage that the previous problematic contacts had done to the children. At all times we must continue to recognise the paramount importance of meeting the children’s needs and not the mother’s.

So, in this case, their wishes and feelings should be considered in terms of contact and they should be given the opportunity to state their preferences, despite what they have already said. This should be conducted in a sensitive manner by the social worker and their choices should be recorded and taken into consideration.

If contact went ahead, I feel that it should be done in a less public place. I have often despaired at the high number of such contacts taking place in McDonald’s and similar venues as they afford no privacy or security should anything go wrong.

Family centres are far more suitable places for contact because elements of risk can be monitored and better contained. I would plan for the social worker to meet with Theresa an hour before contact to ensure that she was sober, capable of meeting the children and briefed on what behaviour would be expected from her.

If it was decided after discussion with the children that contact should not take place, as a team manager I would meet Theresa and the social worker to explain our decision-making and what had affected it. This may also offer Theresa the opportunity to make arrangements for any gifts and so on that she had planned to give to the children.

Bearing in mind Theresa’s emotional difficulties and circumstances, it is essential that any contact is carefully planned, writes Mark Houston.

We must remember that the foster carers know Maria and Joe very well and would have a good understanding of how they may react to problems and disappointments. Their advice (which was that it would not be in the children’s best interest for them to see Theresa) should be taken seriously.

Nevertheless, I believe the ultimate decision should be made by Maria and Joe. While contact may have caused problems and upset in previous years, it would be understandable if the children were still keen to see their mother sometime over the Christmas period.

If this is the case, then I would want to see the foster carers and social worker make every possible effort to enable some form of contact to take place. In this scenario, the foster carers should prepare themselves to support the children if the arrangements do not go to plan. It is important to recognise that while Maria and Joe are mature enough to make informed decisions, they have been through trauma and instability. They may well be very mixed about their feelings towards Theresa.

I would suggest that the foster carers and social worker speak with the children at length to find out what they really want. If they still say they do not love Theresa and insist that they do not want to see her, those views should be respected and upheld.

However, being refused Christmas contact could leave Theresa feeling that the authorities are trying to curtail her relationship with her children. This could make her more determined to see Maria and Joe and could worsen the situation. For this reason, it is important that the social worker explains to Theresa why contact has been refused on this occasion, but does not discourage her from wanting access to her children in general.

I understand the staff’s concerns about the implications of contact taking place in a public place. However, sensitive handling is needed. It could be detrimental to both the children and Theresa if the social worker were to dictate that they must not meet at McDonald’s. I believe that the best way forward would be for the social worker to ask Maria and Joe where they would most like to meet their mother and choose a venue in line with their preferences. The social worker would then need to persuade Theresa that the children’s preferred venue would be more suitable under the circumstances.

Mark Houston is a care leaver

This article appeared in the 7 December issue, under the headline “Not even at Christmas?”

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.