‘Social workers should do everything to help children in care maintain the relationships that matter’

Shelly Reed faced challenges staying in touch with family when in care, though a good social worker made a difference. She says practitioners must involve young people in decisions and be proactive to make contact work

Teenager looking upset
Photo; motortion/Adobe Stock

By Shelly Reed

I still remember vividly the day that my younger brother and I overheard in the school reception that we would be taken into care and separated, 10 miles apart.

When we were ushered out by our social worker at the time, the plan was for me to be dropped off first and my brother next. I felt a mixture of excitement, confusion and hope when we arrived at what would be my first and only foster placement. But it was overshadowed by the anxiety of not knowing where my brother was going to be placed, and the guilt of seeing him walking around a house where only I would stay.

I recall the first week settling into my new home was really difficult. I lay awake most nights anxious and worried about where my mum and brother were. Were they safe? Were they happy?

Experience of contact overwhelmingly negative

Sadly, my experience of being separated from my brother in the care system and my feelings of uncertainty about when I would see my family, are far from unusual. Staying Connected, a recent report by Coram Voice and the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford, featuring the views of over 7,500 children on their contact arrangements with their birth families, found that many children and young people in care were unhappy about how much contact they had their families. Most of the over 3,000 written comments about the time they spent with their families were negative, with only 185 from young people who felt this was “just right”.

When my brother and I were taken into care, we were supported to see each other and our mum regularly, up to three times a week, at the beginning. But unfortunately, this wasn’t a permanent set-up. At one point, contact became sporadic after a change in social worker and the trauma of the removal hit home and changed the dynamic with my siblings.

I missed my brothers and felt I didn’t know them anymore.”

Thankfully, a new, really supportive social worker, who I remember to this day, listened when I said I wanted to see my brothers more. I was also grateful that each of our carers helped co-ordinate a weekly meet-up.

However, not all children in care are supported in the same way. The research found that only half (50%) of the young people surveyed felt that their wishes had been listened to and that they had been involved in the decisions social workers made about their lives.

Dissatisfaction with level of contact

It’s not whether children see their families or not that influences their wellbeing but whether they felt it was the right amount.  Sadly, as children progress through the care system, their feelings of dissatisfaction at how often they see their siblings seems to grow. Roughly one in five (22%) 8- to 10-year-olds feel they see their siblings too little, rising to one in three (31%) for 11- to 18-year-olds. Worryingly, 19% didn’t see their siblings at all.

While most children and young people wanted to see their families more, the research also found that some wanted less contact with their families. As one young person who participated noted: “I feel like every time I see them, I come back generally upset or in some sort of negative mood. I feel I need to see them a little bit less to help me with my emotions.”

Children and young people can also face a number of barriers that hindered their family time, such as having to travel long distances or expensive travel costs. One young person expressed frustration with family contact being arranged at inconvenient times: “I am told the ‘contact team’ doesn’t work at weekends. If that is their job, then they should work when I can have contact … not just business hours. It’s stupid, stupid, stupid. My mum works and so after school contact is difficult and only an hour!”

Some children also said that they would prefer to spend time with family away from contact centres, and for this to feel normalised, with more every day activities such as going to the park or going for a meal. Once I was a certain age, my mum and I were trusted to meet away from contact centres and we’d to go to a café or my favourite, Nando’s.

Spontaneous contact ‘felt illegal’

But it wasn’t always like this. I remember times when I would go through the area of the city where my mum worked and I asked my social worker, a different one this time, if I was able to see my mum, just to give her a simple hug. I was told I could only do this if I had planned in advance and that even if we bumped into each other, I would always have to report this back. So seeing my mum spontaneously felt illegal.

Seeing extended family members or other adults who were important to them was highlighted by young people, but this is not always included in their plans. I was not supported at all to see my extended family. I remember requesting to see my godfather and another person who I considered family but because they weren’t blood relatives, I was told that social services would not support contact. This was particularly difficult, as to me family is what you make of it, and it felt that this wasn’t understood.

I didn’t see those people at all throughout my time in care, and I feel a huge amount of regret as both are no longer here, and I mourn a relationship I never will have.”

Ultimately, despite some obvious effort to support my relationships with family members, the connection with my family feels more distant than ever. The concept of love and hugs between me and my family just doesn’t seem to have the same meaning for me as it does for many others. I am very independent, but I wonder if I had lived with my brother, would we still be close? Relationships with family members are hard to recreate and nothing can prepare you for the feeling of being split up from the people you spent every day of your life so far with.

The Staying Connected report makes a number of important recommendations for professionals, such as exploring the key relationships in young people’s lives with them, involving them in decision making and being proactive about making the arrangements to support children and young people to spend time with people who are important to them.

It is also crucial to keep young people updated on their families and ensure that they have a full understanding of why certain decisions were made that so that they aren’t living with uncertainty. My brother and I knew when we were due to see each other, and we looked forward to it. We weren’t left wondering when we could see each other. All those working with children and young people in care should do everything they can to make sure that children have special memorable experiences with their families so that these relationships are meaningful.

Shelly Reed is participation co-ordinator at Coram Voice. She has been involved in participation and shaping services for children in care and those with care experience since the age of 11, and recently completed a degree in education.

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8 Responses to ‘Social workers should do everything to help children in care maintain the relationships that matter’

  1. Opal Lady July 20, 2022 at 5:16 pm #

    I agree completely. Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world wherein LAC have one or even two social workers on their journey(s).

    I was a LAC for 18 years. Apart from our dad making a concerted effort to take my 5 siblings and myself out for contact – It didn’t happen. Due to the complexity of the situation, I grew up hardly knowing them.

    Sadly l, this continues all too often today for many children and young people..

    The answer? One of them is to treat us Social Workers with respect, not overload and pay us a decent wage so that we feel valued and aren’t the ‘poor relatives’. That way we stand a chance of having a stable service which can be extended to the vulnerable children and young people we purport to care for!

  2. Sarina July 21, 2022 at 7:56 am #

    There is still not enough put into resources for social care. More workers are needed and more investment in training. There needs to be a big change from the government, social workers want to have the time to give to young people but high caseloads put a block on this.
    Every social worker would love to spend quality time with the children they work with but without the resources this just isn’t possible. More investment is needed into all areas, more staff to support contact, transport for supporting family time shouldn’t be so hard, children should be able to see people who they are connected with.
    It boils down to finance, too much on agency/locum workers, Foster placements through agencies, independent living/supported homes all cost a ridiculous amount of money which could be better distributed into supporting children and young people.
    Social workers need to be listened to, have better pay to create stability in teams, more job satisfaction and in turn, this would reduce agency pay in the long term. Here would also be less turnover of staff giving children less change.

  3. Victoria Maria July 21, 2022 at 2:11 pm #

    Great article, thank you for raising much needed attention on this.

    My brother was named as a violent perpetrator and was issued with an injunction order so he couldn’t have contact with me and my mother….yet, I wish the authorities knew that he was only ever fighting back and was the only one who kept me safe.

    Hear one voice and change their world, hear all their voices and change the world.

  4. Dolores July 22, 2022 at 10:39 am #

    I Believe I was lucky being brought up in care I got to know my mother My grandparents and my brother.. As well as my brother’s girlfriends throughout the years along with his children. I had the contact as I was in care from 3mouths old with same Foster family which is very rare. My social worker change but from 1st social worker what up the contact with my real family was maintained thought out my life. I got to know my Extended family like my grandaunt My 1st cousin’s my 2nd cousins and my 3rd cousins. Those family connections are important to. Now am social worker for 35 years.

  5. Donna Pevy July 23, 2022 at 12:14 pm #

    I left care over 30 years ago, the support even when you were in kids home wasn’t there. There was no help support with homework or help in getting you to school. Once you were there Social workers & care staff left you to get on with things. I left care with a drug problem, single parent with no education. Plus I’m dyslexic and have PTSD which I got no support for, had to get my own support to find theses things out . All my siblings were in care two older brothers which I don’t really know one was murder over 10 years ago.

    The care system has a lot to answer for, I have mental health issues now I have to go private because once again the NHS also a standing joke.

    I do hope the care system has changed and young people and children get the help and support that is needed. The care system is really Important for family’s.

  6. Kristy Jackson July 25, 2022 at 5:35 pm #

    As a caseworker I felt very strongly about this, and felt that sometimes we would worry that if we allowed too much spontaneity and excessive visits, we would be showing the courts that we felt there was more safety than there actually was. Honestly, I’ve done the spontaneous “go to the workplace and let the kid hug their mom”, and tried very hard to have visits outside care centres. Social workers are upset that we can’t do these things for the kids. Rural social workers struggle harder with distance between parents and kids. Parents have moved to the city to be closer to their kids, and then they lose money and their jobs that provided stability. I think the system needs to be overhauled and operated less secretly. Everyone should have open dialogue about safety and what that means. Sometimes good enough is actually safe.

  7. Nicola Blake July 25, 2022 at 6:03 pm #

    So much blame placed on social services… We need to tackle the root cause of family breakdowns and that is almost always inadequate parenting. If only there was much more early intervention… I was a teen in care in the 90s and was very fortunate in my positive experience and I never sugar coated my parents inadequate care. I was happy to be rescued and between my sister & I we maintained contact via telephone and arranged meet ups as she was placed with my grandparents. I’m now a foster carer myself and always promote contact when it’s wanted and report when it’s not going well. The system isn’t perfect and an overhaul of box ticking is really needed.

  8. Lyn July 28, 2022 at 8:30 am #

    Not just social workers, but the caregivers as well need to be supported. Too long of a novel for our story so in short the caregivers should have a voice and support networks as well