by Surviving Safeguarding
“Fucking pull yourself together” I was once told in a contact session with my newborn.
At an already vulnerable time, it felt like an assault. I just about held it together until I got home. That was when I burst into tears.
I have been forced to breastfeed my newborn infant in front of a male contact supervisor – not, as far as I know, a qualified breastfeeding specialist – who then advised me to “think about bottle feeding” because my son was having trouble latching on.
Precious, yearned for contact sessions with my children have been held in dirty, cold rooms with filthy carpets.
I have arrived at these approved contact venues only after scouring charity shops for second-hand board games because I knew from experience that there would be nothing for us to do there.
What does this say about the value placed on contact between parents and children in care by a local authority which is supposed to promote and support family relationships?
I am a mother with extensive experience of the child protection system: I have been through six sets of public law proceedings in the family court over the last four years. My youngest child was removed at birth in 2013: the local authority then applied to have him adopted without my consent. I recognised the concerns of the local authority, turned my life around and fought with all I had. Despite being given a less than 1% chance of success, my child was returned to my care.
The years of care proceedings mean that I have been required to engage in 305 contact sessions supervised by the local authority since May 2012.
A parent’s attendance at contact, and the way that those contacts are assessed, count for a great deal in the way that social workers form and present their view of a parent in evidence to the family court.
During the proceedings, and since, we have had a number of dreadful contact experiences.
These include contact supervisors arriving late; taking my children to the wrong venue so that by the time they arrived at the right one our session was cut short; and even rushing the session to an end so they could finish their shift.
Sometimes supervisors have openly taken notes, vocally criticised my parenting in front of my children, and undermined my authority by chastising my children in front of me.
It is hard to get across just how devastating such insensitivity can be when you have looked forward to seeing your children and want to enjoy the short time you have together.
In my case, contact has often been several times a week; some parents may only be granted a three or four contact sessions a year.
Two of my children aged two and seven are now back in my care, another is 19 and lives at home with me, and two remain in foster care. We all continue to meet as a family once a fortnight, for two hours.
This contact remains supervised, despite the fact three children live in my care with no social work involvement. This is not just my only time to attempt to sustain a relationship with my children in foster placements – it is the only way all the siblings can continue their relationship.
We often struggle because supervised, assessed sessions in the synthetic environment of a contact centre are utterly alien to the normal dynamic of family life.
My children and I are keenly aware that our every word and action may be noted down and used in evidence in any future meeting or court hearing. Every member of the family modifies their behaviour because of the artificiality of this situation, which, as I have observed over the years, shapes and also painfully distorts the relationships between parents and their children, and also between siblings.
This raises questions as to the authenticity and reliability of assessed contacts when evidence is presented to a judge.
As the government drives for more adoption, done faster, and the importance of birth family ties is seemingly marginalised – despite it being prioritised in statute – I want to ask why really good quality, family-centred contact is not, in reality, being well enough resourced or indeed thoughtfully supported by local authorities.
Experienced social workers have said they sometimes felt contact was “last on the list”, particularly during proceedings. Some talked about “block booking” venues, because there weren’t enough to go around. This means families have no choice in where contact takes place.
Other parents felt that contact was organised in line with what suited the local authority, rather than taking into account individual family needs. This is particularly prevalent, I was told, when there are additional needs within the family, perhaps learning difficulties, disabilities or when English is not the family’s first language.
My own children, and others children with experience of the care system, wanted contact to be “safe” and “fun”. The consensus, I have found, is that contact is not getting the attention it deserves.
Plainly, risk must be determined at the outset, but thereafter the focus should be on the quality of the contact. It matters greatly that contact feels as “normal” as possible, as this helps to repair, rebuild and strengthen familial relationships. Sibling contact needs to be carefully considered and promoted as we know these to be the most enduring relationships of our lives.
For me, venue is key, and ordinary, daily activities should be woven into each session.
There’s a lot to be said for sitting down at a table together and eating a meal you’ve cooked for your children.
Where risk assessments allow, things like trips to the park, bike rides and feeding the ducks are simple, everyday experiences which create lasting memories. You’re missing out as a family on ordinary, daily routines like the school run and this increases the importance and value of contact; doing simple, everyday activities together creates an atmosphere of normality for that brief period of time. Surely it’s also easier to assess a contact when you can see a family interacting in this way?
What works for one family will not necessarily work for all. Families should be “skills matched” and in some cases “gender matched” with their supervisors. If there is a learning difficulty or additional need, the supervisor should have experience or training in the relevant field.
Supervisors – and indeed frontline contact centre staff – should have some service user led training in how it feels when two hours a fortnight is the only time a child and parent get to see each other. Without this sustained consciousness of how much is at stake in contact, as a birth parent, you can sometimes feel very judged during the sessions, which affects your confidence over time.
Those reviewing contact might do well to always keep in the forefront of their minds: “If this were my family, together for just 90 minutes in a grubby municipal meeting room with a contact supervisor noting down our every word, how would we feel?” Only when we consider with empathy other people’s painful family circumstances, and their heartfelt hopes for a better future, will things begin to change.
“Surviving Safeguarding” is a parent’s guide to the child protection process. It offers suggestions and advice that were described by a High Court Judge in October 2015 as “reasonable, balanced and sensitive”.