Fostering a child has many different components but nearly all foster children will have contact with their birth family. Foster carers play an important role in supporting their foster children through this sometimes difficult process.
As a Supervising Social Worker for NFA East, one of our local fostering agencies, Laura Rawlings supports foster carers in Norfolk. Here she shares her thoughts about birth family contact and offers tips and advice.
The 1989 Children Act requires local authorities to support contact with birth families, unless it is not in the best interest of the child.
Continued contact provides continuity for children and young people, most of whom will have experienced multiple losses during their lives. It also provides an ongoing sense of identity, which is important for children.
Birth families benefit from the reassurance that their child is being well cared for. Maintaining contact helps them to continue having a relationship with their child as he or she develops and reaches adulthood when they can make their own choices.
Many foster carers report behavioural changes in children after contact with their birth family. It can bring to the forefront difficult feelings, such as loss, rejection and sadness.
The same is true for the birth family, of course, as they have had to pick themselves up and carry on after their children have been removed.
This will differ for different children. Some value knowing the dates in advance so they can prepare but others struggle with this and it can create anxiety.
Try to establish their wishes and feelings and find out what works best for them. If they are very young, this can be difficult. It will be different for children of different ages.
In the case of younger children, there might be a high level of contact to maintain the attachment relationship.
However, teenagers are preparing to become more independent and contact may take place in the community – in a café or a park – as they might do when they are adults.
During Covid there has mostly been virtual contact, which has worked well for some children and less well for others.
Make a plan to have some quiet time and do low key activities. The child may need time to process difficult feelings so I would avoid planning big family days out at this time.
It’s rare for birth family contact to be stopped altogether. However, it can be reduced or arrangements changed or tweaked to make it a more positive experience.
It can be difficult to navigate which is why we provide training around it. I also run a regular support group for foster carers and talking to others who face similar challenges can be very useful.
It varies case by case. If the child is likely to go home to their birth family, you might have frequent contact. Or there might be a no contact order in place. And everything in between.
Again, it varies. In my 13 years of working as a social worker, I’d say the vast majority are grateful towards foster carers and respect that they are doing a good job of looking after their children. Some even send Christmas cards and presents.
They may have a more difficult relationship with the local authority, however. The majority of foster children are under a Care Order, which means parental responsibility is shared between the local authority and the birth parents.
This means that birth parents’ views and wishes should be sought and taken into consideration. Within reason, the local authority can override them if it is deemed to be in the best interests of the child (for example, around unhealthy food or too many sweets).
Normally issues can be resolved by the social worker, who may ask parents (using the example above) to bring different treats to the contact sessions.