Key findings

DIRECT CONTACT means meetings between the child/young person and birth family members and/or significant others, and includes phone calls, texting and emails.

INDIRECT CONTACT mean letters and cards from members of the birth family and /or significant others, usually through a third person.

Practice points

What we know from research

Types of contact

Contact can be through meetings, phone calls or letters with specific members of the family. Meetings can be unsupervised or supervised by social workers, foster carers, other professionals and sometimes other family members or friends.

Contact can take place in a variety of venues. Meetings can take place at different dates and times, regularly or every now and then. However, making arrangements that please everybody and are in the best interests of the child can sometimes be complex and difficult.

Children’s opinions on contact

Contact is a key issue for children. They often spend a lot of time thinking about their relationship with their family and are often distressed by the thought of contact. Many children think about their families every day (2). When children in another study were asked to think of their two most important wishes for their future, a quarter prioritised seeing more of, or being reunited with, their birth family (3).

Children often want more contact with fathers and other family members, such as grandmothers and siblings, as well as mothers, even if they are happy in their placement and do not want to return home. Some want contact with particular family members, and not with others (17), while other children prefer indirect to direct contact.

Decisions need to be made around the different aspects of contact. You will need to consider the child’s wishes and feelings on the variety of contact options, such as indirect and direct contact as well as contact with different family members. Contact must always be 'fine tuned’, assessing and taking into account any risks. (17)

Many looked-after children - 40 - 50 per cent - have contact with a family member at least weekly and only a minority, between one in six or seven children, do not have any contact with a member of their birth family (3).

Birth parent views on contact

Parents often have mixed feelings about having their children in care and this can affect the way they feel about contact arrangements. Feelings can range from relief to shame, and concern that they have 'failed’, or can be mixture of all of these. Most parents desperately miss their child, want to have contact, and may often find the experience very distressing (2).

Parents often have difficulty in asking for help when their child returns home because of the associated stigma and the possible risk of losing their child again. When their child is accommodated at their request or as result of the child’s difficult behaviour they often welcome it, but they often resent compulsory intervention (3).

Contact and re-abuse

Direct, and even sometimes indirect, contact can allow abuse to continue. One study found that in situations where the child had been abused, and there was unsupervised contact with all family members, placement breakdown was three times more likely to occur, as well as re-abuse (17).

The relationship between contact and improved outcomes

Research (3) argues that contact between birth families and children does not, on its own, facilitate reunification or improve relationships. Additional interventions are also needed. Contact can, however, achieve specific and perhaps more limited and realistic goals, such as reassuring children about what is happening at home.

Other research knowledge (2) on the relationship between outcomes and contact is summarised by a series of linked reviews of studies about contact in fostering and adoption, mainly in the UK (50-53). When researchers reviewed the studies they did not find a clear relationship between contact and improved outcomes in areas such as placement stability and improvements in the child’s mental health. They did not always find that different factors had been considered in the research and queried whether imprecise definitions of contact and weak measures of outcomes had been used. They noted a failure to effectively consider the quality, purpose and setting of the contact and to use small self-selected samples.

Whilst a certain level of contact is needed if reunification is to be achieved, it is now uncertain whether contact as a factor by itself results in the improved outcomes previously thought to be associated with it.

Good outcomes, such as reduced placement breakdown, improved mental health in children and returning home, may be more a result of factors that preceded placement. Children who have direct contact with birth parents usually already have a good attachment to them, which precedes their placement and because of this they may be better adjusted, more likely to experience a stable placement and more likely to go home to their parents (54). More research is urgently needed in this area.

Current practice assumes a strong underlying principle, supported by legislation, that contact is generally beneficial and should be promoted as long as it is in the child’s best interests and does not increase risk (55). However in some situations there may often be dilemmas and concerns about contact.

Views of foster carers

Foster carers, whilst generally positive about contact, report some serious problems associated with it. These include drinking, serious mental health problems and violence from members of the birth family. They also express concern about more common problems such as unreliability and have worries about the impact of contact on the behaviour of the foster child, as well as their own children (3).