Family Time / Contact with Parents and Siblings
SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTER
This chapter applies to arrangements for children placed in foster and residential care to have contact with their parents, anyone with Parental Responsibility who is not a parent, siblings, any relative, friend or other person connected with the child.
For arrangements for social visits and overnight stays away with friends which staff/carers may agree, see Overnight Stays and Social Visits Procedure.
AMENDMENTSection 2, Different Types of Contact was updated in December 2018 to take account of the ways in which children and young people use mobile phones and social media to keep in touch with family and friends.
1. Approving and Planning Contact
Arrangements for on going contact with family members will have a central role in the Care Plan for any child. The Children Act 1989 places a duty on local authorities to promote contact between the child and their parents, siblings, anyone with Parental Responsibility who is not a parent and any relative, friend or other person connected with the child unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the child's welfare. There is a presumption of continued contact between the child and their family while the child is Looked After, unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the child's welfare. Discussions with the child should be used to identify those people for whom it is important for them to maintain contact. This could cover those (including a parent) with whom contact has been lost and consideration should be given as to how this could be re-established.
Family time / contact arrangements should be agreed at the point when the child becomes looked after by the local authority, recorded in the Care Plan and reviewed at each statutory review by the Independent Reviewing Officer.
Family time / contact arrangements should be consistent with the child's Care Plan; which, itself, must take account of any Child Protection Plan or Contact Order / Child Arrangements Order that may be in force.
The purpose of the family time / contact and how it will be evaluated must be made clear in the Care Plan. Family time / contact arrangements should be focused on, and shaped around, the child's needs. The child's welfare is the paramount consideration at all times, and each child's wishes and needs for family time / contact should be individually considered and regularly assessed and reviewed. The wishes and feelings of the child should be ascertained, wherever possible, using advocacy and communication services if necessary. For many children, relationships with family members, previous carers, friends and others are valued. Family time / contact can be very important in helping children develop their sense of identity and understand their lives.So far as it is reasonably practicable, the wishes and feelings of the parents and the child's carers must be ascertained before a decision about family time /contact arrangements is made.
Both direct and indirect contact arrangements should always be clearly detailed, setting out how contact will take place, the venue, the frequency and how the arrangements will be reviewed. If face to face contact is not safe or appropriate, keeping in touch via letter and mobile communication should always be considered.
For older children, children who are voluntarily Accommodated under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 and young people in residential care, unless there are specific restrictions or safeguarding concerns, parents can be encouraged to visit and take an active role in their lives.
As the child matures, the plan for family time / contact should be re-evaluated. Relationships and situations change and should be re-assessed. If necessary the worker may need to return to court if there is a Contact Order / Child Arrangements Order in place that is no longer relevant, or if there are new grounds to apply for an order that will limit contact or prohibit it altogether.
Where family time / contact is extended as part of a plan to gradually return the child to the parents' care, the Placements with Parents Procedure should be followed.
For foster carers providing short breaks, the foster carer must maintain contact as agreed in the short break plan.
Being placed with siblings from both the same or different parents is reported by children to be one of their highest priorities (The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations - Volume 2: Care Planning, Placement and Case Review) however is not always possible or appropriate to place sibling groups together. Where siblings cannot be placed together all parties involved in their care should actively facilitate family time / contact between them.
Independent Reviewing Officers should ensure that Looked After Reviews consider whether family time / contact arrangements, including sibling contact, have been implemented as described in the Care Plan and confirm that the child is happy with the contact – both its frequency and its quality. The IRO should inform the child that they can access Advocacy Services if they have a complaint.
2. Different Types of Contact
Face to face meetings and visits will generally be the best way of maintaining relationships, but other means such as letters, e-mails, text messages, video calls and photograph exchanges etc. should be borne in mind. Responsible authorities and carers should work together to explore how electronic media can support positive relationships for children. Children should be supported to ensure they are safe online rather than this form of contact being avoided. It may be useful to encourage young people to share details of how they communicate with others (for example by using mobile phones or social networking sites and apps and games consoles such as Xbox or Play Station) and an agreement reached between the young person, their carer and social worker and foster carer about how safely to do this.
3. Supervised Contact
The need to supervise contact should be considered as part of the assessment and planning process by the social worker and their manager. It is the responsibility of the child's social worker to ensure that the person(s) supervising contact is appropriately skilled and experienced to do so.
When assessing if contact should be supervised, the primary issue will be the safety and welfare of the child.
Where supervised contact is deemed necessary, the reasons should be clearly recorded and the role of the supervisor or supervisors clearly defined.
A written risk assessment must be completed before supervised contacts begin.
This assessment must take account of all factors that could impact on the success of supervised contact and relevant safeguards including:
- Any history of abuse or threats of abuse to the child, carers, staff or others;
- Previous threats to disrupt contact or failure to cooperate with conditions agreed for supervised contact;
- Previous incidents or threats of abduction;
- Previous incidents of coercion or inappropriate behaviour during contact;
- The transient or unsettled lifestyle of the parents;
- The child's behaviour and needs, including medical needs.
Where any of the above features in the risk assessment, and supervised contact is to continue, the risk assessment must state the specific measures to be put in place to minimise risks. The assessment must then be approved and signed by the social worker's team manager.
Where supervised contact takes place, the detailed arrangements for the supervision must be set out in the Care Plan.
In addition, there should be a written agreement with the parents and other relevant parties having supervised contact, signed by them, which should state clearly any specific conditions relating to the contact and any expectations placed on the parents or relevant parties:
- The agreement should be clear about where the contact must take place and whether any flexibility is allowed for activity or movements within or away from the agreed location;
- It should also be clear about whether the person(s) having contact are permitted to give the child food, drinks, gifts or money during contact;
- It should state clearly the circumstances in which contact will be terminated;
- The agreement should state the adults who will be allowed to attend for supervised contact and supervisors should be asked to apply that strictly;
- Particular attention should be given to when and how visits are ended. It may be more appropriate for all "goodbyes" take place indoors with the visitors asked to leave before supervisors return children to their placements or carers;
- Significant changes to Care Plans, Court proceedings and/or decisions made about the frequency of future contact are all likely to be potential tension points so extra vigilance should apply at any contacts arranged around these times.
The staff/carers and any other person involved in the supervision of the contact should have copies of the Care Plan and the agreement with the parents or relevant adults.
Where possible, those supervising the contact should be known to the child and the family before the supervised contact takes place.
In the event of problems emerging, the supervisors must be clear who to contact and what details they will need to share.
The supervisor's observations of the contact must be clearly recorded in the child's record and shared with the parents.
The supervisor must immediately report to the social worker any concerns about the child's or parents' conduct during the contact. The social worker in consultation with his/her manager should consider the need to review the risk assessment and/or the contact arrangements in light of the concerns expressed.
4. Review of Contact Arrangements
The social worker and his/her manager should keep contact arrangements, including the continuing need for supervision, under regular review.
The risk assessment in relation to the arrangements for supervising contact must be reviewed at least every 6 months, or sooner, if any incident or report identifies concerns.
Where the child is the subject of a Child Protection Plan, the contact arrangements should also be reviewed as required in the Child Protection Plan.
Any significant reactions that the child has to contact should be reported to the child's social worker by those observing contact arrangements, for example foster carers, residential staff and/or supervisors of contact.
The contact arrangements should also be reviewed in any Placement Planning Meeting and at the child's Looked After Review.
Any contact arrangements which are agreed as a result of new friendships formed during the child's placement should be included within the Care Plan.
Where a Contact Order is in force and it is considered that the contact arrangements set out in the Order should be altered, the agreement of the child and the parents should be sought and legal advice should be obtained as to the need to seek a variation of the Court Order.
5. Cancellation, Suspension or Termination of Contact
Contact should never be cancelled unless there is a very good reason, e.g. it is deemed that it would not be safe for it to take place or the child/ adult/sibling attending is too unwell for it to take place. Contact should take place in accordance with the child's Placement Plan, Court Order and any Court Directions.
Wherever possible, the staff/carer should consult the child's social worker in advance if they consider there is a good reason to cancel the contact.
If contact is cancelled, the social worker or, if the social worker is not available, the staff/carer must ensure that the child and, as far as practicable, the parent or relevant adult is informed in advance and that the reason for the decision is explained. The social worker or staff/carer should arrange an alternative contact.
If contact does not take place and consultation has not been possible with the social worker, the staff/carer must inform the child's social worker as soon as possible and confirm in writing the decision to cancel and the reason.
N.B. Contact arrangements must not be withdrawn as a sanction imposed on a child.
Emergency restrictions on contact can only be made to protect the child from significant risk and must be notified to the Placing Authority (child's social worker) within 24 hours.
5.1 Suspending or Terminating Contact
Any proposal to suspend or terminate the contact should be considered as part of the child's Looked After Review, unless the circumstances require an urgent decision to be made, in which case the social worker must be consulted and legal advice should be obtained.
Any such proposal should be made in the context of the overall aims and objectives of the Care Plan.
Even where it is not possible to hold a Looked After Review because of the urgency of the situation, the reasons for the proposal must be explained to the parents and to the child, and their agreement obtained if possible.
Where the proposal is to suspend the contact, the length and purpose of the suspension together with the basis upon which contact will be reinstated must be made clear.
Where the child is the subject of an Emergency Protection Order, Interim Care Order or full Care Order, an application to the Court for authority to terminate the contact will always be necessary if contact is to be suspended for more than 7 days. As soon as such a decision is made, Legal Services should be contacted as a matter of urgency so that the necessary court action can be initiated.
Written confirmation of the decision made and, where relevant, the intended court application, together with the reasons, must be sent to the parents/relevant parties, child (depending on age) and any other relevant person (for example the child's advocate, an Independent Visitor or Children's Guardian). Staff/carers and other agencies involved with the child's care must also be informed.