Contact with Parents/Adults and Siblings
SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTER
This chapter applies to arrangements for children placed in foster and residential care to have family time 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 Social Visits (Including Overnight Stays) Procedure.
For guidance regarding frequency of family time within the context of permanence, see Permanence Planning Guidance.
NOTE: The responsible authority should review this policy (in particular the issue of sibling family time) with their local Children in Care Council and other Children in Care.
NOTE: Although 'Contact' is the term generally used throughout guidance and regulation regarding time or communication with the child's birth family, in Devon time spent with members of the child's family is, wherever possible, referred to as 'Birth Family Time'.
Section 3, Supervised Contact was updated in October 2022 to reflect a finding by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman that the supervisor's observations of the contact must be clearly recorded in the child's record and shared with the parents within 3 months of the visit.
1. Approving and Planning Contact
The responsible authority has a duty to endeavour to promote family time between the child and parents, siblings, anyone with Parental Responsibility who is not a parent, any relative, friend or other person connected with the child unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the child's welfare. The assessment and discussions with the child will identify those people for whom it is important to maintain family time. This may include those (including a parent) with whom contact has been lost and consideration should be given as to how this could be re-established.
This should be in a manner consistent with the child's Care Plan; which, itself, must take account of any Child Protection Plan or Contact Order that may be in force. 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.
Family time between children and their parents, siblings or relevant others may only be permitted if previously agreed by the social worker and should be set out in the child's Placement Plan.
The purpose of the family time and how it will be evaluated must be made clear in the Plan. Family time 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 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 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 arrangements is made.
Both direct and indirect family time arrangements should always be clearly detailed, setting out how family time will take place, the venue, the frequency and how the arrangements will be reviewed. The use of mobile communication should also be considered.
Where family time 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 family time as agreed in the Short Break Plan.
Maintaining family time 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, June 2015). It is not always possible or appropriate to place sibling groups together. Where siblings cannot be placed together it requires the active involvement of all parties to facilitate family time between them.Independent Reviewing Officers should ensure that Looked After Reviews consider whether family time arrangements including sibling family time in Care Plans has been implemented and that the child is happy with the family time 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, mobile communication, 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 family time being avoided. It may be useful to encourage young people to share details of how they communicate with others (this may include mobile phones or other social networking sites and apps and consoles such as Xbox or Play Station) and an agreement reached between the young person, social worker and foster carer about how safely to do this.
3. Supervised Contact
The need to supervise family time 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 family time is appropriately skilled and experienced to do so.
The primary focus of the assessment of this issue will be the safety and welfare of the child.
Where supervised family time is deemed necessary, the reasons should be clearly recorded and the role of the supervisor or supervisors clearly defined.
A written risk management plan must be completed before supervised family times begin.
This assessment must take account of all factors that could impact on the success of supervised family time and relevant safeguards including:
- Any history of abuse or threats of abuse to the child, carers, staff or others;
- Previous threats to disrupt family time or failure to cooperate with conditions agreed for supervised family time;
- Previous incidents or threats of abduction;
- Previous incidents of coercion or inappropriate behaviour during family time;
- 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 management tool, and supervised family time is to continue, the risk management tool 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 family time takes place, the detailed arrangements for the supervision must be set out in the Placement Plan.
In addition, there should be a written agreement with the parents and other relevant parties having supervised family time, signed by them, which should state clearly any specific conditions relating to the family time and any expectations placed on the parents or relevant parties:
- The agreement should be clear about where the family time 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 family time are permitted to give the child food, drinks, gifts or money during family time;
- It should state clearly the circumstances in which family time will be terminated.
The agreement should state the adults who will be allowed to attend for supervised family time 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 that 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 family time are all likely to be potential tension points so extra vigilance should apply at any family times arranged around these times.
The staff/carers and any other person involved in the supervision of the family time should have copies of the Placement Plan and the agreement with the parents or relevant adults.
Where possible, those supervising the family time should be known to the child and the family before the supervised family time takes place
In the event of problems emerging, the supervisors must be clear who to family time and what details they will need to share.
The supervisor's observations of the family time must be clearly recorded in the child's record and shared with the parents within 3 months of the visit (Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman finding).
The supervisor must immediately report to the social worker any concerns about the child or parents conduct during the family time. The social worker in consultation with their Manager should consider the need to review the risk management tool and/or the family time arrangements in light of the concerns expressed.See Section 4, Review of Family time Arrangements.
4. Review of Family time Arrangements
The social worker and their Manager should keep family time arrangements, including the continuing need for supervision, under regular review.
The risk management tool in relation to the arrangements for supervising family time must be reviewed at least every six months, or sooner if any incident or report identifies concerns.
Where the child is the subject of a Child Protection Plan, the family time arrangements should also be reviewed as required in the Child Protection Plan.
Any significant reactions that the child has to family time should be reported to the child's social worker by those observing family time arrangements, for example foster carers, residential staff and/or supervisors of family time.
The family time arrangements should also be reviewed in any Placement Planning Meeting and at the child's Looked After Review.Where a Contact Order is in force and it is considered that the family time 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
Family time 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. Family time 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 family time.
If family time 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 family time.
If family time 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.
NB Family time arrangements must not be withdrawn as a sanction imposed on a child.Emergency restrictions on family time 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 family time 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 family time, the length and purpose of the suspension together with the basis upon which family time 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 family time will always be necessary if family time is to be suspended for more than 7 days. As soon as such a decision is made, Legal Services should be family timeed 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.