Advice on a case involving a mother with substance misuse issues who fails to show up at contact meetings with her children
Tracy*, 27, has a long history of alcohol and drug abuse. She lives with another partner, who is suspected of being a drug dealer. She has only occasional contact with her two children, Mary*, eight, and Jeffrey*, seven, who are in care. The children have no contact with their father. Mary and Jeffrey have been in various foster placements over the past five years, but have been relatively settled with their latest placement for two years.
Tracy has a chaotic lifestyle and sometimes fails to show up to arranged meetings. Earlier this year, she met Jeffrey on his birthday, but she was under the influence of drink and drugs and was abusive to the staff at the family contact centre. On Mary’s last birthday, Tracy failed to show up. Both birthdays were upsetting for the children.
The children have mixed feelings about their mother and seem increasingly reluctant to see her. The foster carers do not want any contact to take place because the children have been upset after meetings.
Tracy says things have improved for her and that she’s now got her life “back on track”. However, there is little evidence to substantiate this. It is Mary’s birthday next month and Tracy has been particularly insistent about meeting her because she wants to make amends for last year’s no-show.
Tracy does not want to meet them at the family contact centre, but “somewhere normal like the local leisure centre”.
*Names have been changed
The social worker view
John Platt, operational manager and qualified social worker, Fostering People
Contact for Mary and Jeffrey should be seen within the context of their long-term plans and these aren’t clear. With five years in care and only aged eight and seven, the chances for a successful adoption are fading.
The children’s mixed feelings about contact are not surprising. Last year wasn’t a success and it’s likely they have picked up on their carers’ reluctance for contact. But they will have torn loyalties because, despite her difficulties, their mother has almost certainly been the only constant in their lives.
Some work is needed before the next contact. I would ask the fostering agency to talk with their carers – there is a duty to promote contact unless the experience is so negative that the authority needs to consider a court application for permission to refuse contact. This seems unlikely at this stage.
The social worker needs to spend some time with the children to be confident about the children’s wishes and feelings.
Finally, I would arrange contact, taking into account the children’s wishes. Safeguards are needed to ensure that, if Mum does not attend, the children do not even go to contact; she should ring in before and arrive early. The venue may or may not be the family centre, depending on the assessed risks but, as the child’s social worker, I would supervise on this occasion, given the difficulties last time.
Longer term, contact will be successful only if the adults can work together. Pre- and post-contact meetings of the carers and Mum can build effective working relationships.
The expert view
Jacky Slade, regional consultant for the Fostering Network and author of Contact, a book exploring the issues and responsibilities involved in contact with birth families
The contact for Mary and Jeffrey should not be happening in a vacuum. Within the care plan there should be a risk-assessed contact plan defining the purpose, frequency, venue supervision and support needed for Mary and Jeffrey’s contact with Tracy. All these should be viewed through the lens of enabling the children to achieve a “secure base” in their foster home.
The psychological problems for parents trying to maintain links with their fostered children have to be carefully considered and understood. Tracy’s record on contact appears to be unsettling to the children and increasing their ambivalence towards her. It is not clear what help, if any, she has had to understand her own feelings and the impact of her behaviour on her children. Until this happens, any strategy for supporting her and managing the contact will be flawed.
The children’s needs suggest that Tracy should not be excluded but, until her behaviour is better understood, the venue for contact should remain the same. A contact plan which avoids significant emotional events like birthdays should be put into place. It should be regularly reviewed as the children’s needs change and as Tracy’s capacity to meet those needs develops.
The service user view
Jennifer Sarumi, 18, Voice
It is no surprise that Jeffrey and Mary have mixed feelings about their mother; they must have felt unloved and now are feeling angry.
Given their experiences living with their mother’s chaotic lifestyle, stability is the most important thing for them and it’s positive that they are settling in a placement.
The children may say they don’t want to see their mother again but it is unlikely this is what they truly feel. They would miss her, especially at times such as their birthdays. It’s probably not that they do not wish to see their mother but rather they wish she was pleasant to be around.
They may not notice Tracy’s efforts and willingness to keep in contact but the social workers have. In order to prevent the children’s negative feelings from developing, their wishes should be respected and they should not be forced to see her in any situation. However, social workers should make it a priority to try to develop a relationship between the children and their mother.
Having contact in a controlled setting such as a family contact centre only reminds a family of why they are in the situation they are in and the children probably also feel that this is not normal.
Because they have almost certainly missed opportunities to enjoy leisure time with their mother in the past, it would be a relief to go to the cinema or bowling with her instead because such activities will be pleasurable on both sides.
Needless to say, this can only work if it is certain that Tracy is not under the influence of alcohol and drugs.