Helping children in care stay in contact with their birth families during COVID-19
Susan Collings, Amy Conley Wright, Sarah Ciftci
For the 44,900 children in out-of-home care in Australia, contact with their birth families is usually face-to-face. However, social restrictions in place during COVID-19 have meant this is not always possible, with most agencies cancelling face-to-face visits as a safety measure unless reunification is imminent.
This short article provides suggestions consistent with good practice principles for how caseworkers can help children in care stay connected with their birth family from a distance. Beginning with an overview of good practice principles for supported contact, it outlines how these principles have been applied to help families stay connected.
Good practice principles for supported contact
The authors have previously outlined the principles underpinning good practice for supporting birth family contact. In New South Wales, for example, the common principles for contact include:
- 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 the contact experience.
At its core, good practice is about building trusting and respectful relationships.
Supporting families with virtual visits
In early April 2020, the authors hosted an online forum with out-of-home care caseworkers as part of research they are leading to trial new practices that align with the good practice principles.
In these extraordinary times, the authors heard that caseworkers had adapted their practice while focusing on the good practice principles. This included: keeping in mind the core purpose of contact and planning visits around new changes to routines; supporting children, parents and carers to build trust; and improving contact experiences by offering new ways to connect.
Caseworkers found practical solutions to help children stay in touch with people who are important to them. Some agencies shifted to supporting families with virtual visits; and the authors heard that many families had embraced the change.
Caseworkers had initiated visits on video conference platforms to encourage families to use video calls to help them connect over a screen. They sourced secure video chat and photo sharing apps, and recommended suitable online interactive games.
Caseworkers brainstormed solutions to predictable problems:
- If parents did not own a mobile phone, agencies created a library so parents could borrow one.
- If parents lacked phone credit, agencies paid for extra data or phone credit.
To support this shift, the authors created resources to help families engage in video chats, as well as to help children use craft activities to stay in touch when technology isn’t available. To support family engagement, the authors also created resources for social online games and conversation starters.
Unexpected benefits of virtual visits
In some cases, virtual visits had the unexpected benefit of allowing children to spend more time with their birth family than usual because they take less effort to schedule.
Video allows children to lead the interaction – showing where they live and introducing birth family members to their favourite things and to their carers. Virtual visits are also less formal, so everyone can be more relaxed than at more structured physical visits. Carers also get to welcome the child’s relatives into their home via video, which can go a long way towards building trust with birth families.
A caseworker who participated in the forum shared an example that illustrates the benefits of the good practice principles:
The mum was struggling because her two children had not been in care long and she was still adjusting. It was really nice for her to have video calls with her kids because she got to see what their bedrooms look like and see how well everyone in the family gets along. After the last video call, she sent me an email saying how thankful she was that the children were being well looked after and that it was the right place for them.
Before they started using video calls, the carer had made some negative comments about the mother. Seeing her and the children getting along on video chats made the carer feel more empathy towards the mum.
It would have taken ages to get where we are now if we were still doing supervised contact every three months.
Considerations for practice
Virtual visits may not work for everyone. Caseworkers will need to help families work through how best to include technology in the way children and birth relatives connect, including planning with and fitting to routines, and setting and managing expectations.
The use of screen time with children introduces a need for caseworkers to support families by putting in place digital safety precautions to protect children from a risk of online harm, including exposure to child exploitation. Carers may need advice on online safety and maintaining privacy. Families may also need assistance from caseworkers to develop ground rules for when, how and who attends virtual visits, so they comply with existing arrangements.
An unexpected benefit to arise during the pandemic is the opportunity for caseworkers to trial new positive ways of working with families and to expand their practice toolkit.
Incorporating video calls into birth family contact may be an antidote to the rigidity of structured and infrequent visits. In applying good practice principles to a changing environment, caseworkers have found new ways of working and offered insights into how family contact may continue to evolve once physical restrictions have eased.
How will you use the evidence or information in this short article in your work? We would love to hear from you in the Comments field below.
Further reading and related resources
- This series of resources, published by the Research Centre for Children and Families, aim to support families maintain contact where face-to-face visits are not possible:
- Lifelong connections for children in permanent care: What supports families to make contact work?
This short article discusses promising practices to help support contact between carers and birth families for children in permanent care.
- Children's Contact Services: Key issues
This CFCA paper discusses the characteristics of families using Children's Contact Services and key issues in service provision that were identified through a search of Australian and international literature.
- “No voice, no opinion, nothing”: Parents’ experiences when children are removed and placed in care
This CFCA short article discusses recent research, which suggests that parents whose children have been placed in out-of-home care should be more meaningfully included in their lives.
- Online safety
This CFCA resource sheet provides information about online safety for service providers and other professionals who work with families and children.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020). Child protection Australia 2018–19 (Child welfare series no. 72). Canberra: AIHW.
1 This is the approximate number of children aged 0–17 years in out-of-home care at 30 June 2019 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020).
Featured image: © GettyImages/FG Trade