*This article was updated on 27 October 2017
by Jenny Simpson
The recent rewritten practitioner guide “Social Networking and Adoption” by Julia Feast and Elaine Dibben from CoramBAAF has highlighted once again the increasing and inescapable influence of social media in social work.
Importantly, this revised publication provides a series of useful tips in relation to contact and social media. Quite rightly there is an emphasis on risk, as well as the sense of betrayal adoptive parents are likely to feel when their adopted child gets in touch with members of their birth family without their knowledge or consent.
The authors stress the important links between adolescent development, the search for identity, belonging and a sense of curiosity.
CoramBAAF has yet to revise their publication “Foster Care and Social Networking: A Guide for Social Workers and Foster Carers” and while we wait for this revised publication, what new ways of working can be carried out by social work practitioners involved in fostering?
Research by MacDonald et al and Wilson point to the fact that the use of mobile phones by young people in care is a normal and natural way to keep in touch with members of their families and maintain relationships, despite what has been agreed or ordered as part of their contact arrangements.
Crucially, the research identifies that for some young people in care their use of mobile phones, the internet and other mobile communication technologies can be a form of self-care. For example, the ability for a young person to destress through gaming on Xbox, or listening to a playlist from Spotify may be a particularly productive in terms of emotional self-management.
A key point raised by the research of MacDonald et al is that any contact plan for a young person in care cannot simply focus on face-to-face, telephone or letter contact; integral to the contact plan must be the use of mobile communication technology by the young person. This will include not only mobile phones but also a variety of social networking sites and apps, as well as games, for example, PlayStation and Xbox, all of which can be used to communicate with others.
With the above in mind, MacDonald et al suggest that it is far more preferable to have a two-stage approach when considering contact. The first stage should be concerned with regulated contact ie face-to-face or letters.
The second stage involves unregulated contact where it will be necessary to consider the benefits that could be achieved by making use of such mobile communication technology, for example, maintaining emotional attachments with certain members of the birth family.
They also strongly suggest thinking through the potential risks, for example, when a birth parent with a history of alcohol abuse rings unexpectedly while intoxicated, which could cause considerable distress to a young person in care.
Therefore, in order to effectively take account of both the benefits and risk factors the authors stipulate the importance of ensuring that the care plan, and in particular the element concerned with contact, is based on the careful analysis of the child in care’s needs, attachment history and resilience.
Series of strategies
There will be a need for practitioners to draw up a series of strategies in relation to unregulated contact before it becomes a concern, and to consider ways in which this type of contact can maximise benefits but also minimise any potential maltreatment.
There will also be a need for practitioners to support both children in care and their foster carers to manage difficult situations through the development of a range of skills and also the provision of information in relation to where to find help and support.
Anecdotal information would suggest that social work practitioners have been making use of written agreements to negotiate with young people in care their use of mobile communication technologies.
A crucial aspect of such agreements is appreciating that devices like smart phones are used for purposes of entertainment (playing of games, watching films or YouTube), planning social events, as well as staying in touch with friends and family.
Therefore, a blanket approach, as stated previously, cannot be readily applied. In the absence of any practice guidelines, how might a practitioner develop a written agreement in conjunction with a young person in care?
One useful approach is to ask the young person in care to bring a list of what s/he thinks should be included in the written agreement, the same request should also be made to the foster carer, and the practitioner should also bring a list of their own. From here the negotiation begins with a view to developing a written agreement that is both understood and owned by all the parties.
Another potential method is the use of an Ecomap that encourages the young person in care to provide details of who they have strong and weak links with, and what associated platforms are used to communicate. A discussion can then take place using the information the young person has provided.
It is acknowledged that there will be areas that are non-negotiable because of matters related to safeguarding, for example, maintaining contact with an abusive parent. Again, anecdotal examples of practice would point to social work practitioners bringing such issues to Looked After Children (LAC) Reviews, so that the discussion can take account of a wide range of perspectives, including the young person’s, either at the LAC Review itself or beforehand, as part of the preparatory discussions.
Consideration should also be given to encouraging young people in care between the ages of 11-14 years to voluntarily share details of the communication they have with and from others, as well as their use of the internet. Such practice can also be supported by foster carers, who make use of a range of mobile communication technology as part of their everyday lives.
However, to expect young people in care who are over 15 years of age to share details of their mobile phone use is possibly failing to appreciate that independence and a sense of privacy are a part of adolescent development and therefore it is likely that an approach unique to the young person in care will need to be developed.
The use of social media by children and young people in care continues to provoke new dilemmas that may only be answered through engagement with new ways of working that remain child-focused. But now it also includes, in a much greater way, the necessity to work with and support children and young people in care, as well as their fosters carers, on how best to manage contact using mobile communication technologies.
Jenny Simpson is the head of social work for England at the Open University.
*This article was corrected on 27 October to make clear that CoramBAAF’s Foster Care and Social Networking guide is still on sale.