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7.6.4 Questions to be Considered when Making Decisions about Newborn Babies and Infant Contact

This chapter identifies the particular issues with regard to Contact arrangements for babies, including that of the issue of ‘attachment’ at this stage – a key aspect of any child’s development – together with the importance of ensuring some form of consistent routine. The chapter details a range of research on contact.


Guidance on Contact for Children in Care

This chapter was added to the manual in April 2014.


  1. Issues
  2. Contact in Care Proceedings
  3. Legislation
  4. Suggested Duration and Frequency of Contact for Newborns and Infants
  5. Checklist of Good Practice for Arranging Infant Contact
  6. Relevant Research

1. Issues

  1. Good quality contact with parents and connected persons is essential as reunification of the child to its parents/family is the primary goal;
  2. Evidence from research and practice indicates that for most children who are separated from their parents, siblings, or other close relatives, it is in their best interests to have some contact with their family. It is also important that this is a positive experience;
  3. There is a legal duty (under Section 34 Children Act 1989) for the local authority to allow reasonable contact between children in care and their parents. There is a duty to promote contact between children in care and their families;
  4. Even though there is a duty to promote contact, children have the right to be protected from harmful contact. For children subject to an Interim Care Order or a full Care Order, the local authority may refuse contact for a limited period (up to a maximum of 7 days). An application will be need to be made to the court to allow the local authority to refuse contact for more than seven days;
  5. Contact should be compatible with the child's needs taking into account their age, ethnicity, culture, religion and disability. It should also promote their developmental needs.

2. Contact in Care Proceedings

Appropriate contact should be promoted between children and families which supports, the safety, welfare and wellbeing of children.

Contact is a bridge that connects the new environment (foster care or placement with connected persons) to the home environment. It can help the child to manage the transition from one to another.

Contact can promote attachment and can also maintain a child's sense of identity. In addition it provides a sense of their past, and helps them to connect to the present and the future.

In the first two years of a child's life the issue of attachment is significant. Attachment is multilayered. Key to successful attachment is a primary care giver, and for the infant in the care of the local authority that will be the foster carer who is providing consistent, safe, stable and loving care. This can be a parent, a relative or foster carer. The building of a secure attachment to a carer in the early life of an infant enables that attachment to be transferred to parents if reunified or to a family member or adopters.The development of secure positive attachment provides the child with a secure base to explore the world.

A baby's primary attachment figure is going to be the person that gives him/her the greatest amount of good quality care. If an infant is looked after, that will be, for the foreseeable future, his foster carer.

This attachment will have a developmental benefit for the child, whatever the outcome in terms of care planning. If the child is well cared for and is allowed to settle and develop in as stress free an environment as possible, then the development of a later attachment with a birth parent will stand a better chance of success. If a baby believes they are loveable and believes in the capacity of adults to care, then they will be able to made secure attachments when moving on from the foster carer.

However, if the baby is stressed,( for example by long journey's to contact, and inconsistency of carer during contact), and his /her needs are not met, at this crucial stage, by a carer who attuned to his/ her needs, it will be more difficult for the baby to make strong and healthy attachments later and this could have a damaging effect on future care plans, including those for reunification.

Good care outside of the family can help to alleviate the trauma an infant may experience when removed from the family home and support the infant to manage the future be it return to the family home or placement outside of the family.

Parents who are both wishing to care for the child and are in dispute frequently get involved in asking for equal contact. The baby's needs have to be at the forefront of planning. There needs to be sufficient time for the baby to recover in between contact sessions. The need for regular routines to be maintained and a secure attachment to a primary carer to be fostered is central to any decision making.

Rather than infants having separate contact with several family members, amalgamating contact should be considered. Identified important people can attend one of the parent’s contacts with the child rather than separate contact being arranged. Sibling contact needs careful consideration.

The contact plan and working agreement should be reviewed regularly to ensure it continues to meet the changing needs of the child. Parent's engagement with contact needs to be kept under constant review. Not turning up to contact or regularly turning up late provides evidence about a parent’s commitment. For example if a number of contacts are missed without a parent having medical proof/or other proof of not being able to attend then this should trigger a meeting with parents to consider revising contact arrangements to ensure the child does not experience unnecessary disruption to its routines.

The Contact Policy will address in full the requirements of the contact plan and will have links to relevant research.

Following is a list of considerations. This list is not conclusive as each case will need to be assessed individually:

  • The venue for contact. Contact at a foster carer's home would be ideal. However, a risk assessment should take place before that could be arranged;
  • Distance to contact would need considering. Arrangements for sibling contact that is organised in such a way as to prevent disruption as much as possible to the routine of each child;
  • Timing of contact. This would need to fit in with the baby/infants routine;
  • Breast feeding parents should be supplied with breast pumps, bottles and a cool bag to enable them to express and freeze milk to supply to the carer for their baby;
  • Guidance on practical issue such as parents contacting the contact service prior to attending, missed sessions and timely reviewing of contact will all be placed in the Contact Policy;
  • During the drawing up of the contact agreement it will be made clear what sessions will be used for assessment. There will also be an expectation that contact staff will advise and assist parents with parenting tasks during contact and monitor their ability to understand and carry out the tasks;
  • In addition in the Contact Policy working with parents in contact to explore issues that arise using contact notes and in some cases video clips will be addressed. How the quality of contact is reviewed and assessed will be made clear to the parent;
  • It is important that there is discussion by the social worker with the foster carer regarding the presentation of the baby/child before and after contact. This will provide important information on the child's experiences of contact and will form part of the overall assessment process, as will the social worker's own personal observation of contact;
  • The Children's Guardian should be involved in discussions regarding any changes in contact. Their views based on their personal observations of contact should be sought and recorded. Their views regarding the presentation of the child in placement before and after contact based on their personal observations should also be sought and recorded.

3. Legislation

The local authority has a duty to promote contact, under Section 34 of the Children Act 1989. Section 34 places a duty on local authorities to allow the child in its care, reasonable contact with his parents and 'other persons' prescribed within s34 (1) of the act.

This duty exists in the absence of any orders for contact. If no agreement is reached on what level of contact should be afforded the child and its parents (or others) the Act provides for the court to make orders by its own motion when making a care order for the child.

However, children have the right to be protected from harmful contact. For children subject to an Interim Care Order or a full Care Order, the local authority can only suspend contact for a limited period (up to a maximum of 7 days).

The local authority duties and responsibilities are set out in The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations - Volume 2: Care Planning, Placement and Case Review.

In addition Regulation 14 of the Fostering Services Regulations 2011 places a duty on fostering services to promote contact between a child placed with a foster parent and his/her parents, relatives and friends unless such contact is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the child’s welfare.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has two articles that should be considered.

Article 3 (Best interests of the child) The best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them. All adults should do what is best for children. When adults make decisions, they should think about how their decisions will affect children. This particularly applies to budget, policy and law makers.

Article 9 (Separation from parents): Children have the right to live with their parent(s) unless it is bad for them. Children whose parents do not live together have the right to stay in contact with both parents, unless this might hurt the child.

See Fact Sheet: A summary of the Rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

4. Suggested Duration and Frequency of Contact for Newborns and Infants

It is possible to offer some guidance on what might be considered reasonable levels of contact but these should always be a base onto which the individual assessment is applied. The following is not a fixed list of choices from which to inflexibly propose contact frequency without critical thought as to the child's best interests.

The following guidelines were suggested by Coram in their practice notes 1 & 2. Kenrick (2009) and most recently this research was supported in a paper Contact Arrangements for Children: A Call for Views which was published on the 20th July 2012 by Sir Martin Narey, the Government Advisor on Adoption. (page 17)

0 - 6 months - up to three times a week for a duration of no more than three hours.

6 - 24 months - up to three times a week for duration of no more than two hours.

Over 24 months - up to two times a week for duration of no more than two hours. This will be dependant on times at nursery and other activities.

When setting out recommendations in a court statement and Care Plan it is important to distinguish between contact for infants and older children, and to present relevant research to illustrate the potential impact on the newborn/infant in order to present a plan which:

  • Minimises negative impact on the child;
  • Promotes the best interests of the child as the primary concern of the court and the local authority;
  • Allows for the benefits of contact to parents and 'others' to be retained.

5. Checklist of Good Practice for Arranging Infant Contact

  1. A focus on quality not quantity of parental contact is needed. In particular, the disruption to an infants' secure base in their attachment relationship with their foster care needs to be minimised to ensure a sense of safety, support and predictable routine;
  2. A settling in time with the foster carers before contact begins is necessary. This is a period of peace and quiet for the child which will allow the baby time to settle and develop positive attachments without diminishing the child/birth parent relationship. This is especially important for babies who are more vulnerable because they have had undergone detoxification because of being born withdrawing from drugs or alcohol;
  3. Family contact needs to support the infant-parent relationship, family strengthening and family reunification. It is often the case that family members, for example grandparents attend contact for part of the parent's contact. Agreement on who is to attend needs to be made by the social worker. Extra contact causing disruption to babies should be avoided;
  4. Contact to the absent parent, usually the father needs careful planning. If the parents are in dispute then the infant's needs should remain central and the arrangements for contact should not significantly increase in order to meet the individual parent's demands;
  5. The staff who supervise family visits should be consistent and be able to provide support, to intervene therapeutically with disturbed parent child attachment relationships and to model parenting skills;
  6. The infant needs personal support during the parental visits. The ideal person to provide this would be the care giver. If this is not possible then it should be from one or two people who are well known to the infant. The involvement of multiple strangers in contact is damaging to infants development;
  7. Infant travel needs to be kept to a minimum. Venues as close to the foster carers' home should be explored. By focusing on quality not quantity, then longer rather than more frequent visits should be considered. However, ideally the initial duration should be no longer than three hours three times a week. This enables the minimum disruption for the infant and maintains consistent and close contact with parents;
  8. Frequency of contact will still need to vary in line with plans for reunification or permanent placement outside the family;
  9. Length of visits should be determined bearing in mind the infants developmental needs and how parenting capacity and the infants needs change over time. Longer visits would allow for a cycle of feeding, sleeping, feeding and play, all with support and education for parents provided;
  10. Family and child friendly venues should be used. More visits in the parents' home, relatives' homes, parks and gardens should be considered. With appropriate risk assessments carried out where necessary. An in depth understanding of the family is needed with any previous files being carefully read. It is important to consider the experiences a child may have had in the family home and that of extended family members before arranging contact at home;
  11. If no risks are identified to the foster carers for them to be available for a short period of time to discuss the infants routine at the hand over and collection of the baby;
  12. Consistency of timetabling. Contact sessions to be at the same time each day contact is due to take place wherever possible.

It is worth remembering that the way in which contact is managed will impact on the child's life chances and that consideration of the impact on the child, both positive and negative must be included in the assessment process.

Every aspect of care planning, including reunification, will stand a better chance of success if the baby is securely attached to the primary carer during proceedings. The baby will then be in a developmental state which provides the capacity to make (not transfer to).

6. Relevant Research

High-frequency family contact: a road to nowhere for infants

Click here to view this paper.

Humphries,Cathy & Kiraly, Meredith
Child and Family Social Work, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Child and Family social work, 2010

Baby on Board. Report of the Infants in Care and Family Contact Research Project

Click here to view this paper.

University of Melbourne. February 2009
Humphries, Cathy & Kiraly, Meredith.
IBSN. 9780734040695

This was a small study conducted in Victoria, Australia. It considered 119 cases and input from 11 focus groups with a total of 118 participants. The study reviewed cases that came before the Children's Court in which contact between a child less than 12 months of age and their parents were offered contact at a rate of between 4 and 7 times a week.

The study found that the high frequency of contact for some children did not improve the rate of family reunification. 22% of children who saw parents 4 times a week returned home and 23% of those who saw parents 7 times a week returned home. One failing of this study was that it was unable to capture directly the perspectives of mothers and fathers.

Therefore arguments about the frequency of contact being able to improve the chances of rehabilitation can be disputed.

Coram Practice Notes

Coram Practice Note 1 - "Concurrent Planning – Early Permanence for Babies in Care Proceedings"

Coram Practice Note 2 - "Intensive contact with birth parents: implications for the emotional development of infants and young children placed in foster care".

Concurrent planning: a retrospective study of the continuities and discontinuities of care, and their impact on the development of infants and young children placed for adoption by the Coram Concurrent Planning Project

Click here to view this paper.

Kenrick J (2009) Adoption & Fostering 33(4) 5-17

This study was a small-scale, retrospective, qualitative study that sought to explore the tensions implicit in seeking to maintain and nurture existing attachments between birth parents and family and to maintain and develop new attachments with foster/adoptive carers.

These are short studies and can be downloaded from the Coram site.

Concurrent planning: The Roller Coaster of Uncertainty

Click here to view this paper

Jenny Kenrick. (2009)
Adoption and Fostering. Summer 2010.

Kenrick cites research around infant contact and developmental psychology. This found that contact was reported as being frequently distressing for infants despite it being carefully supported and supervised.

Contact for infants subject to care proceedings

Click here to view this paper

Schofield G & Simmonds J (2011)
Family Law. 41 June 2011. pp 70-74
Adoption and Fostering. Vol 35 No 4 pp70-75

Schofield and Simmonds commented on the study by Kenrick.

"The main concern for the infants from this study was the constant disruption to their daily routine. Unsettled and distressed or shut off and unresponsive infants would be brought back from contact, perhaps settle and recover during the evening, only to set off again the next day. This pattern was rarely limited to a specified period of assessment but continued through proceedings, including where final hearings were delayed. In contrast, on days with no contact it was possible for carers to allow the infant a relaxed day in which feeding, sleeping play and interaction with carers could follow the infants' natural rhythms- with both physical and psychological benefits."

They go on to point out " The most important issue, therefore, for infant development in relation to contact plans is the degree to which contact arrangements produce high levels of stress for the infant through discontinuity of care and potentially insensitive care during contact."

Available from Research in Practice.

Is all contact between children in care and their birth parents ‘good’ contact?

Click here to view this paper

Dr Stephanie Taplin.
Centre for Parenting and Research.
New South Wales Department of Community Services.
4-6 Cavill Avenue.
Ashfield. NSW 2131
Pub. December 2005.
IBSN. 0 7310 4388 X.

The focus of the paper was on contact with older children in long term care, predominantly foster care, where a decision has been made for the child to remain living away from the birth family in the long term.

Findings concluded that levels of contact bore no relevance to reunification.

It also found that attachment in relation to children in care is a complex issue. It cannot be assumed that the maintenance of attachments is a sufficient reason to promote frequent contact between birth parents and children. It can be argued that by promoting contact with a parent where an infant has a dysfunctional attachment the contact impedes the establishment of a more positive and functional relationship with the carer.

Contact Arrangements for Children: A Call for Views

Click here to view this paper

Department of Education
Martin Narey. Adoption advisor to the Government.
20th July 2012.

Sir Martin Narey reported on contact arrangements for children in care in particular those for whom the plans were that they would being placed for adoption. In particular he focuses on timescales and reduction of contact when a placement order is granted.

Decision Making Within a Child's Timeframe. A overview of current research evidence for family justice professionals concerning child development and the impact of maltreatment

Click here to view this paper

Working paper 16.
Rebecca Brown and Harriet Ward.
Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre.
October 2012.

This document provides an overview of the impact on children of delays in the Court process. It is an overview of research evidence which was commissioned in response to the Family Justice Review recommendations for training and development for Family Justice professionals and includes a greater emphasis on child development.