When the UK entered lockdown as result of the coronavirus, almost all family time (contact) arrangements moved from being face-to-face to virtual. As lockdown begins to ease, albeit at different paces in the countries of the UK, new challenges are arising as face-to-face contact resumes. The Fostering Network has produced some checklists for foster carers and social workers to support services and carers through this process.
In order to capture learning from the virtual contact that has been taking place and to discuss what needs to be considered as face-to-face contact recommences, The Fostering Network has held a series of webinars open to foster carers, social workers and other professionals.
The webinars included a presentation Ruth Copson, researcher in social work at the University of East Anglia, who was part of the Nuffield family justice observatory research project on contact during lockdown (read more about the research in this blog). Their research aimed to answer how birth family contact for children in care is being facilitated, what experience people have of using digital media to facilitate contact and how well this was working.
Key findings of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory research
- The research found an almost immediate shut down of face-to-face contact and that the majority of it became virtual.
- It was reported that for children, responses to the change in contact were dependent on: the age of child, their individual needs, their previous experiences and their existing relationships.
- Foster carers expressed that there was an increased demand and responsibility put on them to facilitate contact without supervision (in some cases), to manage risks, maintain their own confidentiality and also complete their other fostering and household duties. They also reported having to manage their children’s wellbeing and reactions to contact being virtual.
- Birth families reported mixed experiences. Some felt anxious and distressed while others were more understanding that it was keeping the child safe. You can watch Ruth’s full presentation here.
Following the presentation on the research, our webinars broke up into discussion groups where attendees were invited to discuss their experiences and answer the following questions.
1. What have been the benefits and challenges of contact during lockdown?
Benefits: some foster carers and fostering services reported less anxiety for children, they liked that there was less travelling involved in virtual contact and some children appeared more settled. It was also reported that virtual contact can improve the relationship between foster carers and birth families. Children also liked showing their family their bedroom.
Challenges: foster carers and social workers both reported that video calls with young children often did not work well, that lack of physical touch was hard for birth parents and children, that sometimes foster carers felt that they were acting as contact supervisors and ‘policing’ the birth family and that firm barriers needed to be established around virtual contact to manage expectations. Some children were concerned about bringing their family member into their ‘safe space’.
2. What are you addressing now in relation to contact as lockdown restrictions are easing?
The key issue here appeared to be balancing the needs of birth families, children, foster carers and their families, and the demands of the court. Fostering services stated that currently they are addressing how social distancing is going to be maintained in face-to-face contact, with some opting to wait until physical touch between households was officially allowed. Another issue was how face-to-face contact can be re-started safely taking into consideration the views of all those involved and how this was to be risk assessed effectively.
3. What support do you feel you need in making these decisions?
There was a range of asks and ideas about what was needed to support decision making around resuming face to face contact. These included:
- Training for foster carers to manage contact whether virtual or face- to-face.
- Improved communication and more supportive decision-making, including support from the child’s and the supervising social worker.
- Greater consistency between local authorities on approach, especially for independent fostering service foster carers who may be looking after children from different local authorities.
- A need to learn from lockdown and incorporate positive aspects into the child’s contact plan (such as taking a blended approach of face-to-face and virtual contact).
We look forward to hosting similar events about other issues in the future.