Do foster carers have to supervise contact with birth families?
Many new foster carers have questions about how the contact young people have with their birth families works and what role they, as a carer, have in those contact sessions.
In this article, we’ll demystify some of the terminology used to describe contact and explain what foster carers can expect contact to be like.
Initial decisions about contact in foster care
When a young person is placed in foster care, their local authority social worker will make some decisions about that young person’s ongoing contact with their birth family. This involves a risk assessment that looks at where, with whom, and how often family contact can happen.
Separating young people from their birth families is one of the most drastic measures that can be taken to safeguard a child from harm. Removing a young person from their parents to a foster care environment can create some level of safety, but it can also lead to emotional harm or increased risks in other areas. So, the decisions about care that are made by the professionals around that young person will be informed by a desire to cause the least amount of harm possible for the young person and their family. It’s a delicate balance.
Young people and contact with their birth families
It’s common for young people in foster care to want to remain in contact with their family. Despite there being clear risks or harm experienced by young people, often involving their parents, staying connected to family is sometimes one of the most important parts of their identity and they want to have control over that.
It’s important to listen to a young person, with genuine curiosity and empathy, if they’re talking with you about the separation from their family.
Agreements about contact
Parents, young people, family members and professionals are seldom in agreement about how family contact should be managed. Contact can either be arranged via the courts or independently between the local authority and parents.
Young people can often think that limited contact with their family is due to something they themselves have done. Children who have made disclosures to professionals about abuse they have experienced while at home can especially find this difficult.
Often young people have less contact with their family when:
- The decision has been made for them to remain in foster carer until adulthood and there is little chance of them returning home
- The child clearly expresses with language or behaviour that they do not want to see their family
- Significant and traumatic abuse has been experienced by the child
- A parent is not able to commit to regular contact
- A young person’s behaviour deteriorates after contact and is significantly impacting their time in foster care.
Management of contact
Depending on the legislation which underpins who has the parental responsibility for a young person in foster care, contact is generally arranged, managed and planned by the child’s social worker in conjunction with their birth parents or grandparents.
A young person is in foster care as a place of safety. This generally means they will have a significant reduction in the time they can spend with their birth family. If it was safe enough for a child to be at home, then they would be at home: this will always be the preferred option.
Sometimes foster carers may be asked by Social Services to supervise the contact a young person has with their family.
This will depend upon how the risks to the young person have been assessed, what feels comfortable for the foster carer and the young person, whether the foster carer supervising contact will negatively impact on the relationship with their young person and how the birth family feels about their child being looked after by a foster carer.
If there is a good relationship between the foster carer, parents and young person, contact being supervised by a foster carer can make sense, as it can feel more comfortable.
What contact looks like
Family contact is rarely at a young person’s foster placement, as this address is usually confidential and needs to remain a safe and relaxing space. Young people seeing their parents can bring up a lot of emotions linked to trauma, which means having contact at their foster home or place of safety is not in a young person’s best interests.
Foster carers are usually key in transporting their young people to and from contact with family. These contact sessions can feel difficult for young people, as they’re seeing family for short and often restricted periods of time. Having their foster carer to talk to about how they’re feeling, and talking through any worries they have before and after contact, means they have a space to feel heard during an emotionally difficult time.
Generally, contact will be undertaken in a number of ways, depending on the risks associated with a young person meeting with their family. It is usually supervised, depending on the level of emotional, physical, psychological or sexual harm the young person could be exposed to.
READ MORE: Safeguarding in foster care
Kinds of contact in foster care
These are the various kinds of contact that take place in foster care situations. You may have heard some of these terms during your fostering career.
Supervised contact – A contact worker, or someone who is trained to supervise children and families during contact visits, will be part of these sessions. A contact centre (as they’re often called) is a safe place where children and parents meet to see one another. These may be local authority buildings or organisations that specialise in offering contact services for families. Sometimes contact can be supervised by a family member or friend whom the local authority has assessed as safe. This latter situation can often feel more natural than the alternative, as it’s someone both the young person and family member already have a relationship with.
Supervised community contact – Sometimes contact with birth families may be supervised by a contact worker in the community, so that an activity can be planned during their time together.
Unsupervised contact – This is where the risk has been assessed as lower. The young person, family members and social worker have agreed that this can happen at a family member’s home or in the community and doesn’t need to be supervised.
Telephone (also sometimes supervised) – This is contact between the young person or family member which is not face-to-face. It may be set days or times the young person and parent have permission to telephone one another. If it’s supervised, the young person may be asked to have the call on loudspeaker for their foster carer to listen to.
Virtual contact (also sometimes supervised) – This was common during Covid-19, with local authorities promoting contact between children and birth families in the safest way possible during the pandemic. This was often still supervised by a contact worker, if there were concerns those conversations could be emotionally or psychologically harmful to the young person.
Ad hoc and unsupervised contact – This can be more common for older young people in foster care. The young person and parent might arrange supervision between them, with the foster carer and social worker being notified when this will be happening. This is where there may be plans for reunification, the young person chooses not to have supervised contact and overall, the risks are lower. This may also include the young person having overnight stays at their family’s home.
Top tips for foster carers supervising contact
If, as a foster carer, you’re asked by the local authority to supervise contact, these pointers will be helpful:
- Ask how this decision has been risk assessed. Have you seen a risk assessment that helps you understand why you were chosen to offer this to the young person in your care?
- Talk to your supervising social worker immediately. Don’t say yes to this arrangement without being able to talk it through with someone who understands you, your skills, what is being asked of you and the risks involved in supervising contact.
- Don’t feel pressured to say yes. There is no legal obligation for a foster carer to supervise contact between young people and their birth families. Promoting and supporting contact as highlighted in the National Minimum Standards is different to supervising contact.
- Ask for clear guidance. If you do agree to supervise contact and it’s assessed as safe to do so, ask for clear guidance around what would constitute you ending the contact session, what risks you need to be made aware of and how you’re to record the session.
- Talk with your young person. Ask how it feels for them to have you supervising the contact, what they expect from you, and if there is anything they need from you in moments they may feel worried or overwhelmed.
- Monitor the situation. If you think supervising contact has negatively impacted your relationship with your young person, talk to them to check this out. Then talk to your supervising social worker and local authority social worker. Foster carers offer a place of safety – we need to listen to our young person if they feel this has changed or been compromised in some way by contact being supervised by their foster carer.
- Ask for some training. Ask your supervising social worker for training around supervising contact sessions.
- Ask the experts. Talk to a more experienced fostering colleague who has supervised contact and ask for some advice and guidance around best practice and what to expect.
READ MORE: Can single people become foster carers?
Live in London and want to become a foster carer?
If you’re in south or east London and you’re interested in becoming a foster carer, give the helpful team at Lika a call on 020 8667 2111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re here to answer all your questions.
Lika recruits foster carers in the London boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Merton, Lambeth, Westminster, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Ilford, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea.