Lifelong connections for children in permanent care: What supports families to make contact work?

Lifelong connections for children in permanent care: What supports families to make contact work?

8 August 2018
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This short article discusses promising practices to help support contact between carers and birth families for children in permanent care.

A distinctive feature of the Australian out-of-home care (OOHC) system is its support for children in permanent care to maintain ongoing contact with their birth family when it is in the child’s best interests. This aligns with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 9.3), which promotes children’s rights to maintain connections to people who are significant in their lives. In New South Wales, the Children’s Court identifies that the purpose of contact for children in permanent care is to maintain connections with kin and culture, as well as relationships that have positive features.

Research evidence on contact between carers and birth families

International evidence presents a mixed picture of the impact of birth family contact on children in permanent care. When successful, family connections help children adapt, overcome attachment difficulties and come to terms with their loss. When it does not go ahead as planned, children can feel rejected and disappointed. When it goes badly, it can undermine children’s sense of security and the stability of their placement. Children can be distressed if birth parents undermine carers, make promises they cannot fulfil, offer gifts or otherwise encourage an idealised image that can make separation more difficult for children to understand and accept.

In temporary OOHC placements, supervised contact is a critical part of restorative practices that aim to preserve parent-child attachment. In some cases, supervised contact also continues in long-term foster care. However, in kinship care, guardianship or open adoption, birth and permanent families are expected to manage contact arrangements between themselves. These adults are placed in a relationship by their connection to a child, forged under challenging circumstances. It can be a big ask to expect them to find common ground so they can work together.

Most permanent care and birth families will need help from skilled practitioners to navigate this complex set of dynamics and to keep the child’s needs paramount. In New South Wales, a climate of rapid policy change and increased accountability to achieve permanency goals has highlighted the need to build caseworker capacity to work with families across the care continuum.

Our research shows that contact has been a major source of stress and confusion for carers in New South Wales. The prospect of managing interactions with birth families without help from their agency has made many carers reluctant to pursue open adoption and guardianship. At the same time, many carers have reported that they were deeply dissatisfied with the support received from agencies. Carers reported doubts about the availability of support from their agency and concerns about being judged if they react emotionally to the challenges they face. Many carers felt that agencies were unclear about the purpose of contact with birth families. Birth parents in New South Wales have echoed many of these sentiments, calling for agency processes around contact visits to be more relationship-based.

How caseworkers can better support carers and birth families

Evidence-based practices to improve relationships between families in the United Kingdom and United States are grounded in the following shared elements:

  1. Empathic and respectful communication between families to build trust and commitment to the child
  2. Quality time spent together, not just a once-off event
  3. Planning focused on the purpose and goals of contact
  4. Post-contact reflection that helps to air and resolve problems and deal with emotions
  5. Recognition that contact is dynamic and plans need to be flexible
  6. Understanding that contact is potentially transformative for the adults involved.

While principles alone are unlikely to change practice, they are necessary to shape new practices. Developed for the NSW OOHC system, Common principles for contact highlight the importance of:

  • having a clear purpose for contact
  • planning with and fitting to routines
  • setting and managing expectations
  • showing respect and building trust
  • supporting children, parents and carers
  • reviewing and improving contact experience.

Caseworkers can help families to open up a dialogue for building understanding and trust. Intentional strategies include arranging an informal meeting for new carers and birth parents to share their hopes, expectations and fears about contact and then debriefing with both parties after contact so problems are addressed early. Providing help to get to or from a visit and having someone to talk to afterwards can give birth parents crucial emotional and practical support.

Conclusion

Despite many examples of promising practice, implementation of supported contact has been inconsistent. It is imperative that the sector finds ways to share and learn from good practice, and that organisations commit to embedding these principles through investment in staff skill development. Finally, caseworkers themselves need to be open to new ways of working with families that are based on openness, creativity and a genuine commitment to collaboration with families.

Further reading and related resources

Acknowledgements

The Institute of Open Adoption Studies is funded by the NSW Government.

Featured image: © GettyImages/giselleflissak

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Authors

Susan Collings

Dr Susan Collings is Research Fellow at the Institute of Open Adoption Studies, The University of Sydney.

Amy Conley Wright

Associate Professor Amy Conley Wright is Director of the Institute of Open Adoption Studies, The University of Sydney.

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