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.
How do foster children and birth families benefit from contact?
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.
How can birth family contact be difficult?
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.
How can foster carers help children prepare?
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.
Ways for foster carers to support birth family contact
- Provide a safe and constant place for them to return to. This is actually one of the most important things.
- Don’t be judgmental or criticise birth parents, even if they don’t turn up. Criticising can lead to divided loyalties as foster children may feel they have to choose between their foster parents and their birth parents. Also, the child is half mum and half dad, so criticising birth parents can be damaging for their self-esteem.
- Find ways to help the child to settle again and understand why this can be a difficult process. Contact with birth families can be simultaneously positive and negative. Make sure the child is given space to process their feelings. Offer comfort if it is needed. Don’t take any expression of rejection or negative behaviour personally.
- Infants thrive on regular routine so bear this in mind and avoid arranging contact at nap time or times when they are likely to be overtired. Keep things as familiar, for example by sending bottles from the foster home.
- Above all try to put yourself in your child’s shoes and understand how they might be feeling.
What can help the child to settle again after contact?
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.
What can foster carers do if contact continues to be difficult?
- Use your recording processes to record these difficulties so you have evidence of any patterns.
- Speak to your local authority social worker and your National Fostering Group supervising social worker. You can also raise the issue in your reviews.
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.
How should foster carers talk about birth parents to foster children?
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’s important to remain neutral. Allow the child to express their wishes and how they feel.
- Relationships and memories with birth family members can be both positive and negative so be led by the child.
- If you are negative, you might hear only negative things from them.
- Conversely, if you are too positive it can lead the child to feel they can only talk about good things.
How much interaction will foster carers have with birth parents?
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.
How do birth parents tend to feel about foster carers?
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.
Laura’s top 4 pieces of advice on birth family contact
- Do not assume you know what the foster child is feeling.
- Be led by child without making assumptions and be aware that their feelings can change over time.
- Although we mostly tend to talk about birth parents, wider family members can also be very important to children and maintaining these relationships can be very important
- Plan for quiet time afterwards.