“It made all of my happy memories really sad, and I couldn’t deal with them. I had to avoid everything that had made me happy, so things like videos, songs, music. Christmas was tinged with a sadness because at Christmas you want to be with your family.”
Ella* is talking about how it felt growing up as a teenager after she had left her foster family. Placed with adopters at age 10, and adopted at 11, Ella was forced to say goodbye to a foster family who she had lived with for four years.
While there were a few initial visits, eventually all contact stopped.
“You lose an entire family all at once and there’s no acknowledgement of that. If I had lost my family in a car accident or something people would recognise I would be bereaved but there was no recognition of bereavement. It was almost an enforced bereavement.”
Ella, now 31, says at times the separation made her teenage years “a living hell”, and she isn’t the only person to have felt this way.
Research by The Fostering Network, published last week, said many foster carers and young people had been prevented from keeping in contact after a placement ended. While this will not affect all children in care, 31,100 children left the care system last year, and 75% of all children in care are housed in foster placements. Research published last year found almost one in four children in foster care had two or more placements between April 2014 and March 2015.
“There seems to be a bit of a blindspot in this area of social work practice, because there’s so much focus on the next placement, or adoptive placement, or foster care succeeding,” says Vicki Swain, campaigns manager at The Fostering Network.
“It’s everyone protecting themselves by not giving the children the opportunity to show their emotions. It’s panicking. It’s worrying that the next placement isn’t going to work because that child is emotional because actually we know that a secure attachment will help that child bond with their new family,” Swain says. “I just think social workers panic, because they see a child being unsettled and they are like ‘retreat, stop contact!’”
She says social workers have told her how, particularly in adoption cases, there is a tendency to want to shut the adoptive family away to make sure the placement works, and services often fear that involving a child’s previous carers at this point in their life will unsettle them.
Free of baggage
This has also been seen by independent fostering consultant and social worker Alan Fisher, who says he isn’t sure why local authorities or fostering agencies may not consider contact after the placement has ended.
However, he says when he entered the profession, there was a strand of practice that said there should not be contact when a child moves on.
“I think the reason was that the child moved free of any baggage, so [they] could separate [themselves] from any issues from previous foster carers and that the new foster carers/adopters had the right to look after that child.”
“I’m not aware of any research which says that it is good. My feeling is that you have to do it on a child by child basis,” Fisher says. He thinks contact between a foster carer and child after the placement ends, and what impact it has, is not assessed enough by social workers.
“Social workers assess all sorts of things but typically [contact with foster carers] is not included in moving on plans and I think that’s got something to do with custom and practice really,” Fisher says, adding it can be a reflection of inconsistent social work practice.
Nushra Mansuri, a professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, agrees, calling this area “a gap”, and occasionally “reactive practice”.
“I think there is something missing and it does need a more proactive approach and maybe policy direction to say it’s so important that young people in care don’t lose relationships with people who are important to them,” Mansuri says.
She thinks it can happen because when a child moves placement everyone around them focuses on the transition, and it may make them reluctant to pursue contact.
“The existing foster carers are always really significant about helping through that transition phase but initially the social workers may be thinking it’s not so good if they are not having contact with their existing carers as they are moving on, because that could make it difficult.”
In a 2014 judgment on the issue of allowing contact between foster carers and a child after a placement broke down, a judge criticised the local authority for entering “with a closed mind”.
“They take the view the placement with the Ms (the foster carers) has broken down and so they should be treated as past history,” the judge said, and he concluded: “Foster parents are not pawns to be picked up and set aside at will. They are valuable resources with much to give for the benefit of the child and this should be exploited for the child’s benefit when the placement breaks down.”
Government guidance also says an authority “has a duty to endeavour to promote contact between the child and their parents, any person who is not a parent but who has parental responsibility for the child, and any relative, friend or other person connected with the child, unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the child’s welfare”.
Recommendations on this issue were also made in the 2013 care inquiry, which the judge refers to, which questioned “Why do we persist in breaking children’s old relationships when we introduce them to future carers, despite knowing that so many children who do not happen to be in care manage to negotiate complex family relationships as they grow up?”
It added: “Continuity of relationships is essential in helping children to construct their identity and to develop a strong sense of belonging, both of which are crucial to their wellbeing. The inquiry heard how identity develops throughout life but is particularly important in childhood, how an understanding of the past is an important aspect of developing one’s identity.”
Ella says when she was going through the process the conversations were about contact with birth family members, rather than with the family she had spent the past four years with.
Another issue, according to Al Coates, an adoptive parent of 15 years, can be adopter insecurity. He says that when he adopted his first child “we did just slam the door behind us”, but when he adopted his last child, who had been in foster care previously, “within 10 days we had the foster carers round to our house and kept that on”.
“There is this dogma that children can only hold one set of parents in mind,” Coates says on why contact might not be kept as a child moves on to adoption.
He also says there are concerns about getting who a child considers their “psychological parent”, their last foster carers, to be the same as their “physical parent”, the adopter.
“[Services] are looking that that might confuse them. I’m not sure that’s the reality, I think children are much more able to manage that,” Coates says.
Jon Fayle, vice chair of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers, says the practice may be based on a “mistaken belief that new attachments are impeded by sustaining old attachments”.
Fayle also says that, in his experience, when children are moving placements it is generally considered if an important relationship for the child can be sustained, although he does recall a case where he was told a young person should “get used” to saying goodbye.
On the other hand, Coates says there may be valid reasons for contact not being pursued: “There are children who move from foster carers to new foster carers perhaps because of allegations, or are just moving from short-term foster care to long-term foster care. Perhaps [there’s] the actual stresses and strains on the system that actually, social workers are too busy to look at contact.”
Fayle agrees, and says there are circumstances where a new relationship could be undermined, and often it can come down to the approach of the former carers.
Coates doesn’t want people to underestimate the impact this has on foster carers. “I have a friend who is a foster carer, and him, his wife and daughter cared for a newborn right through to adoption and literally the door was slammed, and they were just bereft.
“This baby they had looked after, and was loved to bits, was then gone.”
Following the publication of its research, The Fostering Network has called on the government to issue guidelines on this area. Swain thinks remembering that good attachments need to be continued is key to this type of work.
“Ask people ‘actually is it a good thing for children to be prevented from having contact with their former foster carers?’. These are fostering services saying no phone calls, not just for the foster carer but for the brothers and sisters they might have grown up with, it’s breaking off attachments with a lot of people,” Swain says.
She adds: “There’s no evidence out there anywhere that says taking a child away and cutting off all contact is the best thing for them.”
She doesn’t think the contact needs to be very intensive, however.
“What makes new attachments work is having old ones to support them and making that progress gradual.
“This is why we want the government to develop guidelines because there’s not a right or wrong for every child. It doesn’t mean that a foster carer should be there every day when a child moves into a new family. It might mean in the first week they have a phone call, they might do some kind of FaceTime.”
Fisher agrees: “It is not considered to be important or of sufficient importance for the child, let alone for the foster carer. I would say that, in my experience, when it’s done right it is absolutely essential for the child.”
For Ella, contact was maintained in the form of secretive letters to her foster sister, before eventually reconnecting with her foster family in her twenties. “It was nice to know that people I lived with for four years missed me. It wasn’t a negative thing, I wrote my letter and said I really miss you and they wrote back saying the same.”
She says she didn’t openly pursue contact with her former foster carers because she didn’t want her adoptive parents to get jealous, which she thinks now is something she may have misinterpreted because she didn’t know if ending contact was something that was normal. “I didn’t know anyone else who was adopted, I thought that was just what happened.”
*Name has been changed.