by Brigid Featherstone, Robin Sen and Anna Gupta.
The recent government review of foster care in England has raised some concerns with regards to the section on contact.
The report tendentiously presents both research and the law. Contact is a complicated issue and most research reflects this complexity.
By contrast, the report partially cites some of the findings of one study of kinship care in Australia from 2007/8 in support of a sweeping claim that ‘a large proportion of parental contact is not in the child’s interests’ (p.83).
It ignores a range of other research evidence about contact in the UK, which challenges this simplistic view.
This research indicates that many children in foster care tend to desperately want contact with their birth families but can also find its emotional impact hard. Yet, those children who want contact and are denied it tend to struggle more. Some children may want contact with some birth family members but not others.
Their views on contact may change as they grow.
‘Important and meaningful’
A minority of children may want less contact, or no contact, but to have their birth family origins respected, or to leave open the possibility of future contact.
Contact is hugely important and meaningful for many children in foster care, but it can also be problematic and, occasionally, unsafe. For some children, contact with a particular birth family member may be both positive and negative – which is unsurprising given the complicated relationships which can be involved.
This varied picture suggests the need to carefully tailor individual contact plans, to strike a balance between a child’s needs and wishes around contact, to allow the flexibility for plans to change, and to support these plans in a way that allows the contact which happens to be as positive as possible.
Secondly, the report claims ‘the presumption in favour of contact was….removed in the Children and Families Act of 2014’ (p.83). This is again misleading. The Children and Families Act 2014 inserted additional clauses into s.34 of the Children Act 1989 to strengthen the ability of a local authority to refuse contact on child welfare grounds.
However, the local authority duty under s.34(1) to ‘allow the child reasonable contact’ with their parents remains in the 1989 Act. In other words, the obligation is on the local authority to allow reasonable contact unless it can reasonably argue that such contact is not consistent with safeguarding or promoting the child’s welfare.
The obligation is not on parents to demonstrate that contact is in the child’s welfare before it should be allowed. In our view, this clearly means a presumption in favour of contact remains in law.
It is particularly puzzling to see such a perspective on contact in relation to fostering at a time when there is real interest in opening up debate on contact in adoption based upon research findings and the views of all impacted.
Re-think the current model
Recently, the enquiry into the role of the social worker in adoption noted that a key message was the need to rethink the current model of contact. The enquiry heard that in England, Scotland and Wales, letterbox contact is the usual model with birth families, with direct contact rarely an option. Even where birth relatives pose no risk, direct contact is not normally considered.
For example, grandparents who have not been involved in harming children are often not offered direct contact. The lack or cessation of direct contact can ‘store up trouble’, especially for birth families and adopted people in a context where seeking reunification in later life was widespread.
The frequent loss of relationships with significant people, including siblings from birth and foster families, was also of concern. Having no direct contact was seen as having implications for siblings who remain at home or are born after the adoption, and whose voices are unheard.
As one adopted person told the enquiry: ‘Contact is not even about foster care and adoption. It is about something much deeper, something much more ancient than modern policies and procedures. It’s about the connections you make with people as you live your life. It’s about the right to love and be loved.’
A rethink of contact arrangements between those adopted and their birth families was considered essential by adopters, adopted people and birth families. There is a need to move away from standardisation and formulas to individualised contact planning, pointing out children of different ages have different contact needs.
We would suggest that this message is also helpful in relation to fostering and other care options.
Brigid Featherstone is a professor of social work at the University of Huddersfield. Anna Gupta is a professor of social worker at the University of London. Robin Sen is a lecturer of social work at the University of Sheffield.