With the rise in mobile phone usage and social networking websites, how far should young people in foster care be monitored to thwart manipulative birth parents, asks Jo Stephenson
Regulating contact between children in care and their birth parents has always been a delicate balancing act, but the proliferation of ways of communicating, including text messages and social networking sites, has made it even more challenging.
“Mobile phones have changed the face of contact with older children,” says Professor Gillian Schofield, co-director of the University of the East of England’s Centre for Research on the Child and Family. “It’s a big challenge for foster carers, social workers and, to an extent, children and birth parents as to how this is managed.
“Technology is an important part of fitting in for teenagers, so it’s not fair to say ‘you can’t have a Facebook profile because you’re in care’.”
Research into the experiences of birth parents, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and led by Schofield, found some birth parents were using mobiles to text or call children daily.
Unregulated contact with birth parents may be unsettling for vulnerable children but at worst can be dangerous. One foster carer on communitycare.co.uk’s discussion forum, CareSpace, posted about a child who had attempted suicide after being contacted by her birth mother through Facebook.
“Where a parent is manipulative or seeking contact that may harm the stability of a placement then that’s very difficult,” says Alison Paddle, spokesperson for Nagalro, the professional association for children’s guardians.
“A foster carer may have to consider whether to allow a child to have a mobile phone or resort to inappropriate levels of monitoring over something friends have easy access to.”
Some parents are using social networking sites to undermine placements, according to social workers on CareSpace, by saying things they would not be able to in supervised contact, such as telling children they are “coming home soon”.
However, practitioners have also found technology can aid contact. “I have a long-term looked-after teenager who has regular Facebook chats with his birth mum although they have had no direct contact for many years,” said one.
Children often feel they have to keep contact using messaging services and texts secret for fear of having their internet access or phone removed. However, foster carers also have to deal with the fall-out from such contact. Children have traced relatives and been upset because they have had “friend requests” refused on Facebook or have seen photos of birth parents enjoying themselves.
“Facebook and texting can be a great way to maintain contact because supervised, irregular visits can be so false,” said one foster carer on CareSpace. “But for most of my children who are vulnerable and confused, it’s been difficult. The perceived need to be secretive and the lack of being able to withdraw without the smokescreen of social workers can be a lot to take on.”
It is unclear whether concerns have translated into court orders, although judges have been asking questions and are aware of the possibilities of technology, say family law experts.
It’s an issue that will only grow as technology evolves and becomes ever more sophisticated, says Raina Sheridan, deputy chief executive of the Fostering Network. She believes more research is key, while fostering services should address the issue with foster carers.
“There needs to be better guidance and it needs to be explicit in the care plan so that it can be seen as something positive rather than something that comes out of nowhere,” says Sheridan.
Although contact may be more difficult to monitor, this does not mean social workers should give up on setting limits, adds Schofield.
Wider issues include a growing number of cases where people who have been adopted have traced birth parents or been found through social networking sites. “It can be a real shock to have this contact out of the blue,” says Julia Feast, policy consultant with the British Association of Adoption and Fostering, which is preparing new guidance.
But technology also offers opportunities, says Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust. E-mail can be a less daunting and less intrusive form of communication between children and birth parents than face-to-face contact. However, she says social workers and foster carers are “way, way behind” young people in understanding technology such as social networking.
Foster carers tend to be older and may not be as confident using technology. Meanwhile, efforts to ensure children in care have access to IT may leave them as the only one in a household with a computer. Where there is a lack of confidence or knowledge, foster carers tend to favour placing restrictions, internet access included.
“They are very nervous of the internet so it’s about filters, blocking and supervised access and this means young people aren’t learning how to use the online world safely and to their benefit,” Finlayson adds.
There are simple ways to protect children from unwanted or dangerous contact, such as getting them to use a different name on Facebook, but she says more research is needed.
The solution may be training for social workers, carers and young people on how to get the best out of technology.
“A few leaflets or a piece of guidance is not going to be enough,” Finlayson says. “People need to know how to use new technology in order to understand it. We’ll probably end up with some kind of training requirement for social workers who work with young people.”
HOW TO MAKE TECHNOLOGY WORK FOR YOU AND THE CHILD
● Text messages are a quick and easy way to send reminders about meetings or appointments and a form of communication that young people relate to.
● E-mail can help social workers communicate more regularly with children placed at a distance and help maintain contact between children in care and birth parents.
● Vulnerable children and young people can gain help, support and information online, including sharing experiences with others in similar situations through web forums.
● Instant messenger services, Skype, Facebook and Twitter help looked-after children stay in touch with siblings and maintain links with other key people, former schools, sports clubs and their home community.
● In the future technology will play a bigger role in “life story work” for adopted children and may include virtual files including digital photos and video clips.
● The internet helps keep social workers up to date with the latest developments in practice nationally and internationally. They can access online journals, be part of online communities and find help and advice.
This article is published in the 5 November 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “The subtext to birth parent contact”