Since March 2020, government restrictions on the meeting of family members from other households has presented a significant barrier to children in care having face-to-face contact with their birth families. The following page details the current government guidance around meeting others, The Fostering Network’s view, practice resources developed by The Fostering Network and other useful resources.
Governments’ guidance (in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) from the outset has been clear that the expectation is for contact between children in care and their birth families to continue as it is essential for children and families to remain in touch and, for many children, the consequences of not seeing relatives would be traumatising.
Government guidance sets out that contact arrangements for children in care should be assessed on a case by case basis taking into account a range of factors including the government’s social distancing guidance and the needs of the child. The guidance makes clear that it may not be possible, or appropriate, for the usual face-to-face contact to happen during lockdown and keeping in touch may need to take place virtually. The expectation is that the spirit of any contact orders made in relation to children in care be maintained. This requires social workers to determine how best to support valuable family interactions based on the circumstances of each case and children to be reassured that this position is temporary and will be reviewed as soon as possible.
The Fostering Network’s view
The Fostering Network believes all decisions around contact arrangements should continue to be assessed on a case by case basis taking into account both the needs, wishes and concerns of the child and those caring for them. In reviewing contact plans the safety, health and welfare of children, their foster carers and birth families must always be the key priority.
Adapting the practices established during lockdown as restrictions ease is the next challenge and, in many ways, will be more complex and nuanced than adapting to the sudden changes brought by lockdown. There will need to be a flexible and sensitive approach to the decisions to enable children to keep connected with their birth family while minimising the health risks to the child and those around the child. It will raise questions of rights and responsibilities and different perspectives and priorities among those in the team around the child.
We believe the key will be planning on a case by case basis, taking into account all the relevant factors in determining the best approach for each child in the context of the continued health risks in relation to Covid-19.
The key principles, taken from Neil’s research contact during lockdown: how are children and their birth families keeping in touch?, which underpin family contact for children in care should be applied throughout this time:
- Keep the child’s wishes, feelings, strengths and short and long-term needs at the centre of planning for family contact time;
- Take into account the needs, wishes, feelings and strengths of birth family members and of foster carers and their family members;
- Look for opportunities to build trust, collaboration, empathy and a shared sense of goals between the family caring for the child/young person and the child’s birth family so they can work together in the best interests of the child/young person;
- Consider on an individual basis what risks there might be and make plans to manage these proportionally; and
- Aim for family contact time to be rewarding, fun and child-friendly.
The Fostering Network have produced practice resources for foster carers and social workers to support the decisions being make around contact plans and highlight issues to consider.
- Covid-19 contact arrangements: Social worker checklist
- Covid-19 contact arrangements: Foster carer checklist
- Read our blog about things to consider for online family time.
- This resource from the University of Sydney's Research Centre for Children and Families that gives tips for using video chat for family time is also very useful.
- The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory have also published research about contact arrangements during lockdown. You can also watch a webinar on their research here.
- The PCFSW & Social Work England have produced a Best Practice Guide for Video Call/Contact and Virtual/Online Home Visit this would also be relevant for other countries in the UK.
- Social Work Scotland’s framework for decision-makers to ensure children in public care maintain strong connections with family during Covid-19 pandemic.
- Family Rights Group have published advice for kinship carers (although it would be relevant to any foster carer) to help children maintain relationships throughout the outbreak.
- House of Commons library briefing paper Coronavirus: Separated Families and Contact with Children in Care FAQs (UK)