Why policy on contact with children and birth families needs a rethink

Academics share their concerns about recent messages on birth family contact coming out of the fostering stocktake

Photo: Olesia Bilkei/Fotolia

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.

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9 Responses to Why policy on contact with children and birth families needs a rethink

  1. Ruth February 13, 2018 at 8:18 pm #

    As an adopter who has instigated direct contact with birth family, I have seen the devistating impact the severance of all family links and relationships has on children and the amazing experience shared relationships between adoptive and birth families can be. As a social worker I can see how complicated and difficult this can be for some, however life is complicated and difficult and that’s what makes us human as do birth ties and an understanding of where we come from. As a social worker I’ve also seen many social workers think adoption wipes away the trauma of early experiences and the separation from birth family rather than acknowledge the additional layer of trauma that adoption can me for many – a major overhaul of current models and trauma/ attachment training for social workers is much needed in my humble opinion

    • Stuart February 16, 2018 at 7:56 am #

      Don’t be humble, I think you’re dead right.
      Thanks & good luck.

    • Emma February 21, 2018 at 8:53 am #

      Couldn’t agree more Ruth! I’m both an adopter & a social worker and am currently hoping to make arrangements for direct contact with my daughters’ birth family as letterbox contact just isn’t working for her. Or any of us! But the professional resistance to this is huge and trying to pick apart what is genuine, evidenced concern and what is just professional bias / assumption is hard. Well done to you for negotiating your way through that. I’m looking forward to reaching that point & getting some meaningful face-to-face contact for my daughter & her very much missed Mum.

  2. Debbie February 13, 2018 at 9:20 pm #

    I would be interested to know if the authors have personal experience of the re-traumatising effects of contact on children who have been physically or sexually abused by their families? If so, then I stand corrected. But it is very easy to theorise about ‘rights’ when you’re not the one who tries to comfort a child who is vividly ‘reliving’ terrifying experiences suffered in their families, for days or weeks prior to or after contact. Trying to settle them when they wake screaming from nightmares, dealing with the aftermath as they re-enact disturbing memories at school and at home, seeing them fall apart again after the beginnings of healing that you have been observing, trying to assure them that although you delivered them to contact, you are not part of the birth family’s world and will not treat them in the same way. Yes, children generally want to know about their past and identity, and have every right to explore this. But where they have been subjected to systematic and constant abuse, for pity’s sake let’s put their needs first, and give them a chance to heal, so that they are meeting birth family as mature and stable young people who are less likely to be re-traumatised by the experience.

    • Robin Sen February 15, 2018 at 9:12 am #

      Hi Debbie. All three of us have worked as child and family practitioners and between us have considerable experience of arranging, managing, assessing and supervising contact for children in care. One of the authors is also a current foster carer. Your experience sounds tough and I’m aware that carers are often the people who have to respond when a child is distressed before or after contact. I agree with a view that contact should be in a child’s interests. I take issue with universal positions that presume contact should never happen, including in families where there has been physical and sexual abuse. Where contact is dangerous or damaging, or where a child clearly and consistently indicates they do not want it, there is no argument that it should not happen. However it is often not as simple as that. We know that some children in foster care retain strong emotional ties to their birth families and long to see them despite having had negative experiences, including abuse, while in their birth family’s care and no contact can be harder for some children to manage than having contact, even difficult contact. Some children need to know they have their birth family’s permission to move on before they can settle and commit to a long-term placement. Some need to hear that abuse they were subject to was not their fault and it may be particularly important for the child to hear this from the person who abused them. In such situations any potential contact needs to be closely assessed to ensure that it will be safe. And, birth families, children and carers need to be well supported before, during and after contact for it to work well. Even with such support not all birth families will be able to give children the messages they need to hear. But some can, and do. So I don’t think universal prescriptions on contact – either way – are helpful.

  3. Alan Cooper February 14, 2018 at 2:58 pm #

    At last a sensible view of what contact should be – individualised to the child and always subject to review and change. Never set in stone.

    It is also way past the time when stone age U.K. adoption practice re contact should have changed. About 30 years past the time.

  4. P muxworthy February 15, 2018 at 8:24 pm #

    I am a grandparent who had a very strong bond with my grandsons who have been forcefully adopted I also have their sibling who they can no longer see none of you adopters see the impact it has on a sibling my granddaughter is 8 and now suffers emotionally not understanding why she can’t see her brothers the impact of loseing our grandsons will never go away do you adopters take on board that not all these children taken have been harmed future emotional harm that is why my grandsons were taken not because they were harmed in anyway me and their grandfather as never harmed them or their parents they were just to immature to take care of them we have a very strong relationship with our grandchildren but we are not allowed direct contact it’s so wrong why should we be punished for parents wrong also do you see what it does to the children who are taken and missing their families my grandsons ask after me all the time the foster carer mentioned this to me he wants to know when he is seeing nanny again well now he won’t will he as they have closed adoption so my poor little grandsons will be confused as to why they can no longer see me or their grandfather or their sister and you wonder why your adoptees gave behavioural issues ask yourself this what is so wrong the birth grandparents to have direct contact few times a year doing they should rethink it

  5. Paul February 19, 2018 at 12:46 pm #

    This article simply reflects what has been recognised as good practice for many years – contact that reflects what is in the best interest of each individual child, after a careful and considered assessment. More details are set out in this good practice guide from 2012: https://corambaaf.org.uk/books/planning-contact-permanent-placements

  6. Tracey March 9, 2018 at 12:24 am #

    New legislation in New South Wales Australia promotes adoption, the only adoption in NSW is open adoption, with direct birth family contact.