Guidance on Contact for Children in Care

This chapter explores the issues around contact of Children Looked After and the need to balance positive contact for a child separated from their parent or carer against the safeguarding issues that may still be prevalent through the emotional experiences of the child. The chapter highlights research that explores of the issues around this.


This chapter was added to the manual in April 2014.

1. 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.

The majority of children who come into local authority foster care return to the care of their families. While the child is being cared for legally the local authority is required to make contact arrangements with the child's birth parents. This contact should take place as long as it is in the child's best interest, the child is safeguarded and it promotes the child's welfare.

Frequent and lengthy contact is often viewed by parent's and their advocates in court as a pre cursor to a child being reunited with the birth family and it often becomes a 'bargaining tool' in Care Proceedings with the needs of the child often becoming subsumed by the wishes of the parents.

Harriet Ward and Rebecca Brown have produced a working paper which is an overview of current research evidence regarding child development, the impact of maltreatment and how this fits in to social care and Courts decision making and the likely outcomes for a child bearing in mind it's developmental journey.

Rebecca Brown and Harriet Ward.
"Decision Making with a Child's Timeframe."
An overview of current research evidence for family justice professionals concerning child development and the impact of maltreatment.
Working Paper 16.
Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre. October 2012.
Loughborough University.

Sir Martin Narey (Govenment advisor) on adoption recently produced a paper. In this paper he points out that the Government thinks that it is the time to review practice and the law in relation to contact to made sure that arrangements are always driven by a thorough assessment of what is in the child's best interest.

Martin Narey Department of Education. 19th July 2012 Contact Arrangements for Children: A Call for Views.

Elena Giovannini completed a review of evidence on outcomes in Family Justice Children's proceedings which was published in November 2011. This drew attention to evidence suggesting that maltreated and neglected children remaining in care or placed for adoption fared better, at least in the short/medium term, than those returned home. In some cases the children who were returned home faced further abuse. The report also found that initial care plans were often over optimistic about the parent's abilities to make the necessary changes in order to parent safely. It concluded that attempting to return children home, although important, has been found to among the key reasons for delay in care proceedings.

Giovannini, E. Research Summary 6/11 Outcomes of Family Justice Children's Proceedings - A Review of the Evidence. Published November 2011.

Current legislation and statutory guidance does not make it clear how requirements for contact are set out. However, good social work practice recognises that contact arrangements written into Care Plans or working agreements need to explain the local authority's plans and arrangements and to demonstrate how they are purposeful and consistent with the long term plan for the child.

Many children in care return home. For those who cannot contact with birth family may play an important role in their future lives. The age of the child and reason it has come into care strongly influences decisions regarding the nature of contact arrangements.

Sinclair (2005) found that 40% - 50 % of children who are looked after have contact on a weekly basis. However, careful consideration needs to be given to whether contact is genuine beneficial and has definite purpose for the child concerned. For example, is contact instrumental in supporting the child's best future prospects, whether they be return to their family or a loving and stable home elsewhere. In addition well organised and purposeful contact will play a role in assessing whether a child can return home, for example forming part of the parenting assessment process.

Sinclair, I (2005) Fostering Now: Messages from Research. London. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

2. Contact in Placement

We need to question the impact that contact has on the child in permanent placement where as it is in the vast majority of cases they have been removed from their birth family because of maltreatment.

Selwyn (2004) conducted a study on contact and 21% of the children in her study were physically or sexually abused during unsupervised contact with family members. Sinclair's study unsurprisingly found that for those children who had been abused it was important to restrict contact, or cease contact altogether with the family member/members responsible. For those children with unrestricted contact with birth family, there was a higher likelihood of re abuse after return home or during contact than for those children with well managed and planned contact arrangements.

Selwyn. J (2004) Placing older children in new families: changing patterns of contact, In Neil, E and Howe D (eds) Contact in Adoption and Permanent Foster care: Research, theory and practice, London. CoramBAAF.

Sinclair I (2005) Fostering Now: Messages from Research. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Foster carers and children can give numerous examples of contact arrangements that are not well managed or well planned. Thought should be given on how to support the carer for the child who will need to be able to sensitively deal with the emotions that will be raised by contact with family members.

If escorts/sessional workers are used the same one should be used each time if possible. The journey to and from contact can often be the time when the child tries to process the confusing and often contradictory feelings that contact raises. Workers who know the child and who the child can trust to express their feelings in front of are invaluable in these circumstances. Social workers need to speak to these people as well as the carer so that a more complete picture of the child's experience is obtained.

Mackaskill (2002) looked at contact for children in permanent placements and their birth families. He found that contact with members of a birth family can be harmful or challenging for a child in a permanent placement, particularly contact with relatives who have mistreated them. Mistreatment including chronic neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Mackaskill found that the proportion of children suffering negative consequences from contact was twice the proportion for whom contact had a positive effect. Problems include feelings of divided loyalty, emotional and behavioural difficulties, set backs in progress made in placement and in some cases continued abuse during the contact.

Mackaskill C (2002) Safe Contact Children in permanent placement and contact with their birth relatives. Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing.

When professionals become aware through evidence based assessment of any negative impact of contact on a child as a result of contact, then the social worker should consider reducing the levels of contact. Any distress that the child is experiencing professionals should attempt to mitigate with a view to increasing contact when and if the child is able to cope with this.

3. The Child's Perspective

Contact is primarily for the child. It is important for parents, relatives and other important people in the child's life but at the centre is the benefit of any contact for the child. Children who able to express themselves will be able to offer views on contact. For infants they are dependant on professionals to observe the child prior to, during and after contact in order to assess the impact on the child.

Contact may promote very strong emotions for a child. For some children it will trigger a re experience of trauma they have suffered at the hands of carers. This may not be immediately obvious. It is vitally important that the social worker and contact supervisors have knowledge of the past history of the child's family and the child's' experiences within the family.

Lorne Loxterkamp (2010) Consultant child and adolescent psychologist looks at the assumption that regular contact can remedy the child's loss of their birth parents. He points to the fact that the child will need to come to terms with that loss, understanding with an increasing sophistication why they were removed from their birth family.

In addition, only by telling a child (obviously in an age appropriate way) the whole truth about the reasons for their removal will future shocks and feelings of being deceived be avoided. The child can develop an understanding of why they do not live with their family; they can grieve, move on and form new attachments. For contact to have value it must be based on the truth, not a favourable attitude towards parents who have abused.

Contact that portrays birth parents who have been grossly culpable as being responsible for only minor failings and mistakes does not explain to a child why it cannot live within it's birth family and can undermine a child's attachment to permanent carer's outside the family, be they adopters or long term foster carers.

Loxterkamp, L (2010) Contact and Truth: The unfolding predicament in Adoption. Pub. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology Oct 1 2010. 15. 601-612.

4. Purpose of Contact During Care Proceedings

During Care Proceedings the purpose of contact is to form part of an assessment:

  1. Assessing:
    • Commitment;
    • Emotional availability to the child (attunement);
    • Basic parenting skills (feeding, playing, changing);
    • Willingness to take advice.
  2. For the parent to have the opportunity to retain or build a relationship/familiarity (not to be the primary attachment figure ) and to be able to enjoy spending time together;
  3. To enable a child to experience a parent as a familiar figure.

Planning contact to make sure it meets the child's needs is essential:

  1. Make sure that the Core Assessment has sufficient information on the matters that are important for deciding on contact - e.g. nature/type of attachment (focusing on the child's needs) parents' ability to commit to a particular regime, who in the wider family / community is important to the child. Contact arrangements to siblings are particularly important;
  1. Ensure that plans for contact are discussed fully at the Legal Gateway/Planning Meeting. Do not just concentrate on threshold;
  1. Provide clear plans, both in the social worker's initial statement and first Care Plan, evidencing your reasons for recommendation for frequency/venue/type of supervision with reference to the core assessment;
  1. Make certain that the timetable for the child remains at the centre of all plans so that the focus is firmly on the needs of the child. For example if the child is being introduced to a new school or nursery, activities whilst in foster care then the implication for timing and frequency of contact should be considered;
  1. Getting the balance for the child right, in particular where there are a large number of family and extended family members can be difficult. Make every effort to share contact between suitable family members;
  1. Sibling contact needs careful consideration. Each child's individual needs and the family dynamics need to be taken into account. Every child has differing experiences of living in the family home. Bear in mind when arranging sibling contact that a child maybe the favourite or the scapegoat. The favoured child may put pressure onto other siblings to not reveal anything about their life with their parents. Pressure may also be put on a child by siblings to express a view that it wants to return home. Kinship carers and or foster carers should if it is appropriate be able to arrange for sibling groups to meet.

Most of the young people in the care system have experienced adversity in their lives and the maltreatment and conflict within the family is the background for these young people. Contact needs to be as positive and conflict free as possible for the young person.

Contact for children and young people in the care system is very complex, and unless it is carefully and purposefully planned and well-managed, can affect outcome adversely.

Moyers S et al (2005) British Journal of Social Work, 36, 541-559. Contact with Family members and its impact on adolescents and foster placements.

This study was based on the impact on adolescents / young people in foster care on contact with their families.

Difficulties that were identified were:

  1. Unreliable contact. Young people were upset when parents did not turn up or were late for contact;
  2. Inappropriate amounts of contact. Some having too much contact, interfering with other activities;
  3. Safety during contact. Most contact with older children was not supervised and placed a number at risk of physical and sexual abuse;
  4. Replay of negative relationships. This can occur with siblings as well. Entrenched, unresolved attachment difficulties re-enacted during contact, rejecting/abusive/neglectful messages from parents and family members;
  5. Contact made unpleasant by parents speaking badly about the young person's carers. Actions by family members (including siblings) undermining the authority of the carers.

Within the group a year after placement 57% were reporting that contact was problematic. 56% of placements broke down because of contact difficulties, compared to 24% where there were no difficulties.

Occasionally contact deteriorated due to conflict in the relationship or changed arrangements. For the majority, the young people continued to have contact with relatives who were rejecting, unreliable and neglectful and it was difficult for the young people to cope with or understand these experiences. A few needed to return home to test reality against their fantasy that things could be different.

Whilst contact difficulties were directly related to placement outcome, absence of contact was not. It may be that the lack of contact was constant and allowed the young person the space and time to try to come to terms with rejection. Rejection that occurred during contact was associated with the young person trying time and time again to get their unresolved attachment needs met and failing every time.

5. Implications for Practice in Organising Contact for Young People in Care Proceedings

Contact needs to be managed in a more pro active way for adolescents and young people with regular reviews of its purpose. Foster carers can often alert social workers to the difficulties that the young person in experiencing, so regular contact with the carer is essential.

Work with parent's to improve contact might assist in a re negotiation of the relationship with the child. Positive contact with grandparents and family members can be a source of stability and this could in some cases counteract the negativity of contact with birth parents.

The study concluded that children and adolescents need more help in understanding and managing their relationships with family members, including siblings. The study suggested that adolescents in particular are often left to manage contact arrangements on their own. Many were given the responsibility of deciding on length and frequency of contact despite social workers knowledge of family dynamics and adverse effects of contact on the child.

In conclusion the same careful planning and a constant reviewing of contact arrangements are needed for this group of young people as it is for infants and newborns.