Contact during lockdown: A follow up interview with Professor Beth Neil

Daisy Elliott, our policy and research officer, follows up with Professor Beth Neil about her research into facilitating contact during lockdown. Neil's research, funded by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, provides a valuable insight into challenges and benefits regarding contact and what is crucial when contact is moved to an online space.

Can you give us a brief overview of the research and some key findings?

Our data came from surveys and interviews. We completed some interviews with foster carers but they were mainly done with other professionals working in the children’s sector, such as social workers, as they tended to have a general oversight of the whole process of how contact was happening during lockdown and what it was like for all parties. We did have 63 foster carers who completed the survey, plus 14 ‘other carers’ these being, for example, people who had both foster and adoptive children.

The results showed that once lockdown was announced, face to face contact had immediately been shut down almost entirely. However, some foster carers worried it had carried on for a little too long. Video calling was reported as the main replacement for direct contact.

Did virtual contact work well for fostered children?

This depends. Age or developmental stage of the child had a big impact on how successful virtual contact was. A lot of older children already had experience of managing their own contact virtually, however, facilitating virtual contact for babies or children with intellectual disabilities proved more difficult and was often not enjoyed as much. It was reported that they had trouble concentrating on the screen and often just wanted to play.

And for the adults involved?

Foster carers reported doing more to prepare for virtual contact. They had to make calls more engaging for the child, perhaps speak with the birth family before to prompt them about how to keep the child engaged, get the equipment ready, and, in some cases, learn how to use video calling platforms.

Birth families of very young children found virtual contact particularly difficult to manage. They reported increased anxiety as they couldn’t give their child a hug and check that they were keeping safe.

Your research showed that face-to-face contact is still considered the best form of contact, but could virtual contact be more widely used?

The pandemic has forced people to try virtual contact and it has worked for some. Virtual contact could easily be one of a range of options for children in care, especially as different forms of contact are better at different stages of the child’s life.

Did any findings surprise you?

The main thing that surprised me was that virtual contact allowed closer and better relationships to be formed between birth parents and foster carers - they got more time to talk to each other compared to when children’s contact was supervised by others such as contact workers. It shows that virtual contact can have a real benefit and be an opportunity to pull the whole team around the child closer together and open up communication between the birth family and the foster family. Of course, it was not all plain sailing and there was some cases where working closely with birth families has increased the stress levels.

What would be your top tips for foster carers facilitating virtual contact?

In the research paper I developed five key principles to promote positive contact experiences for children. These apply to both physical and virtual means of contact.

Keeping the child’s needs at heart is paramount. Ask yourself whether virtual contact will make them feel safer or more insecure? Do you need to adhere to a routine, or can you be more flexible with when contact happens? Be aware that the success of virtual contact depended on the children’s relationships with their parents and the needs of each child individually.

Remember that every contact session needs to be risk managed and appropriate. But contact also has to be a fun and positive experience for all those involved. In a lot of cases, children won’t be at risk if they show their birth parent their bedroom or the pet in the fostering household, and they should be allowed to do so. Assess the risks in advance but avoid controlling the environment too much.

What’s next and do you have plans to do any more research into this topic?

I would love to find out from the children themselves how they felt about virtual contact, but social distancing restrictions may make this difficult. Contact should be led by the children’s needs but at the minute it seems that the placement type determines the type of contact, for example adopted children are not very likely to have any face to face contact with parents. It would be good to investigate this further to share good ideas and support for everyone.

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