“You’ve got five minutes left of the session Jane.*” The voice that came out of my mouth was not my own it, it sounded meek and shaky. Jane turned round and said: “I’ve asked for you lot not to count down the session, can’t you see it’s upsetting her?” I mumbled an apology and continued writing down my observations on my clipboard.
For those of you reading this who have not yet encountered a contact session, supervised contact is used as a safe method for children to meet with parents, carers or family members when it has been determined that a child has suffered, or is at risk of suffering, harm during contact with a particular person or people.
Supervised contact gives professionals the opportunity to assess the possibility of children being able to return to their parent’s care, and allows evidence to be collected, through observation, that helps to make long-term decisions in the best interests of the child.
For my first contact sessions I was asked to observe interaction between parents and a child under the age of two. An older teenage sibling was also present. I was assisting a qualified social worker as the parents had previously made allegations against a member of staff who had supervised contact.
The session was difficult and stressful. I was asked to record the events and my observations during the one-hour session. I felt very stressed because, although I had previously recorded my observations in early years educational settings, it was not clear to me exactly what I should write.
I followed the technique I had learnt at university and wrote a narrative observation. However, I also noted issues I felt were inappropriate, such as the parents calling their two-year-old ‘sexy’, and the emotional distress of the teenage sibling during the session, which upset the child.
The parents had a clear disdain for social services and I could feel myself sweating when they required supervision when taking their child to the toilet. The environment felt invasive and unnatural.
Prior to the session, the worker I was working with had told me they did not like this family and their body language and tone in the contact room felt oppressive. The imbalance of power made me feel shamefaced and heartless.
I had no knowledge of the case or the reasons why the child had been removed. The session ended after the mother had become irritated with me for asking her to start packing up and her teenage daughter had asked why we were ‘so heartless’.
Once they had gone the worker advised me he did not have the time to look at my observation and asked me to pass it to the children’s social worker. I blinked back tears as I felt I had engaged in the type of social work I normally criticise. I slept badly that night. I was annoyed with myself for not exhibiting confidence or promoting a positive contact environment and promised myself I would take action.
The next day I typed up my observation, including my concerns and the issues Mum had raised about me calling time on the session, and asked if I could observe the next session. I also asked for feedback on my observation and to meet with the social worker to get a synopsis of the case. The social worker met with me and gave me feedback, as well as tips for analysis for what I had observed. She also told me the reasons that children had been removed from Mum’s care and showed me the risk assessment undertaken for contact.
This information made me feel much more confident about the next contact session. I asked the worker supporting me if they would also record an observation so we could compare after the session to aid my development. I spoke to the parents prior to the session and asked if they would prefer me to tap them on the shoulder when the session was five minutes from ending.
They were much happier with this, and also supported me putting their children in the car, which allowed them to be more included in the process. I observed a third session for the family later in the week, and the parents greeted me with smiles. This meant so much to me; I knew my changes had created a much more positive contact environment for both the parents and children. This made me feel confident in my own abilities.
From my experiences so far, I believe developing the confidence to be assertive is a key attribute to developing good practice. I have learnt that, when used effectively, these attributes can help overcome barriers in even the most demanding situations.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.