Contact between Children Absent in State Care and Their Families – Scottish Parents’ Perspectives

4 Aug, 2021

July 2021

Summary

This paper reports on survey work and group discussion undertaken by a Scottish parent-led support group (Parents Advocacy and Rights – PAAR) that supports parents with children in the care system, child protection, children’s hearings, and other situations where they have lost care of their children, or risk losing care. This report further delves in further to parents’ particular experiences of contact and finds: 

    • arrangements and facilities for contact that are demeaning, and neither parent nor child-centred 
    • a disconnect between official time scales and families’ timings
    • misunderstandings over the behaviour of parents and children during contact that are generally settled to the detriment of parents
    • disruptions and cancellations that convey a message that parental contact can be readily dispensed with
    • for parents and families, there is an abiding experience of injustice relating to the concept and practice of contact

Two observations are made in the conclusion. The assumption that once a child has been taken into state care that this care will meet their needs is challenged. There is fundamental lack of appreciation of the depth to which child loss is experienced by parents. 

Scottish Parents Experiences of Contact: The PAAR Survey and Follow-Up Small Group Discussion 

As discussed in a previous paper’s overview of the survey results (https://www.pfan.uk/uncovering-the-pain/), the PAAR survey was undertaken online and anonymously involving a mix of Likert scale-type questions, closed questions and provision of free text sections. No information is available as to descriptive characteristics of the respondents or the children involved. Furthermore, it can be assumed, given the pro-parent nature of PAAR, that a large majority of those that completed the survey would be critical of existing arrangements for contact and wish for their voices to be heard. 

A hundred and one responses were given to the section in the 2019 Survey on Contact, the majority of whom (81) experienced contact with their child on a more than monthly basis with some having this three times a week. When asked ‘Is/was contact meeting the needs of your child?’, 42/97 (43%) replied at the far end of the scale that it was not. Six responses (6%) were in agreement that contact was meeting/had met the needs of their child or children. Five parents were neutral. Out of ninety-four replies to the question ‘was contact supervised?’, eighty responded in the affirmative. In keeping with the observations from the literature, sixty replies to the question ‘Was contact cancelled regularly by the local authority or regularly disrupted (60/91) indicated that visits had been cancelled or regularly disrupted. 

The five themes that follow are those that emerged from fifty-six parents’ contributions to a Free Text section at the end of the Survey Questionnaire’s section on Contact, together with the perspectives and experiences of eight PAAR supporters and members in a follow-up small group discussion focussing specifically on contact.

Arrangements and facilities 

Of the survey respondents that spoke to facilities (91), half felt that these were poor or unsuitable, with eight replies indicating satisfaction. For the majority: “…facilities are not good at the contact centre, new carpets not lino. No toys I take a taxi full up every time. No table to sit for lunch, no highchairs” (Section2 Free Text 18), another parent said that “The contact centre which we used was poorly equipped to meet the needs of children over the age of 3. This made it hard to settle kids and enjoy our time together. (S2 FT19). The effort that goes into establishing and maintaining contact is superhuman given the obstacles when children in foster care may be many hours and miles away: “the two hundred mile journey there was too much for me” (S1 FT21). Another spoke to the distance that separated siblings: “Our older children are 35miles away from their home town and younger children are in their home town” (S2 FT45). 

Official Time Scales Are Not Those of Parents and Families 

The second theme spoke to the disconnect between the feelings of urgency and loss that parents experienced and the official pace of action. Every minute, every hour a parent’s child is in the care of strangers can be agony. This insight seems not to be grasped by the authorities: 

“…the opportunity for phone calls etc when you’re going 4/5 days with no news, I would call out of hours social work at weekends to get updates, eventually into month 5 it was agreed f/c and support workers would contact me with an update but only after being told that I was continually being a nuisance” (S2 FT39)

Within contact visits, every minute is valuable: “The family worker doing contact likes to chat and find out things, but for me that takes time away from my child, they could sit in the background and wait to be spoken to. Time is precious”. (S2 FT3). It was not uncommon for contact to take months to set up – four months for siblings to wait to see each other (S2. FT44). This parent’s child in care saw his older brothers “…only once in the whole 6 months he was away from home” (S2FT44). At the extreme edge, contact took years to set up: “2 years to establish sibling contact with a sibling who did nothing wrong” (S2.FT6). 

On ‘Best Behaviour’?

  • The Parents

“They have to almost try to mismanage their feelings as they try to survive the stress and the shame that they’re feeling” (Group Discussant 1 – GD1).

As indicated, the literature speaks to parental discomfort during contact. For the Survey respondents, contact was supervised by unqualified overly interventionist staff. (S2 FT 4) who “continually interrupted for the smallest of reasons” (S2. FT15) and no positives were recorded: “My sons cuddle me but this is not reported” S2. FT18). The parent who said this went on: 

“Contacts are happy, my sons are happy but this is not reported. No positive things apart from I love seeing them and I take toys up. I take lots snacks, drinks varied. But never reported. There needs to be a witness for parents at contact” (S2 FT18).

The unusual unreality of the ‘session’ itself was spoken to but especially the strictures that surrounded parental conduct came up: “It was like a mini celebration at first but became agonizing as we are not allowed to discuss freely. Contact suspended at this time as my ‘behaviour’ is unreasonable. I am autistic and failed to hold it together”. (S2 FT12). The bizarreness of the compound of behavioural rules and the fakeness of the contact session is conveyed in this account: 

“…they told me I had to appear happy and bright and never criticise social work and never talk about court or what had happened and that if I cried or showed my emotions this would distress my daughter and so contact would immediately stop. It was supervised by 2 workers on every occasion, sitting right in our faces and writing down what we said. My daughter, having autism, could not understand why I was being so “fake” and now that she is home she has told me she believed that I thought all of this was right, that she was in the right place and that I was happy about it. Can you imagine the pain of that?” (S2 FT51)

Many spoke of the minutiae of the process of being supervised, “the little things”:

“…like I kept asking for knowledge of what was going to happen next for my daughter so that when I’m having to say goodbye to her, I could say “but you’re going to go do this fun thing next, or you’re going to go have this for lunch or this is coming up” so that I could give her something tangible to be looking forward to and not be focusing on the fact that we were parting because I felt that would be a healthier step in the right direction instead of putting the emphasis on goodbye. And that was never assisted. And I think it could be such a small thing if we could cooperate on sharing information in a constructive way for children instead of being quite cagey and reluctant to share any information with the parent as though they’re somehow, I don’t know, going to misuse the fact that the child might have a ham sandwich for lunch at the park” (GD2).

Festive days, birthdays, important family commemorations can often be the subject of official thoughtlessness. Contact planned for Mother’s Day was resented by one parent who had more pleasant memories of previous ones. The same occasion for another was too much: “I had a meltdown at last contact on Mother’s Day, and because of this ‘behaviour’, contact was stopped” (S2 FT50). 

  • The Children 

Unlike the Survey format, the Group discussion allowed a dialogue and exploration of the effect of contact on the children. One parent spoke of her two year’s old behaviour during contact: 

“When she thought they weren’t looking, she’d say different things, you know, when we were finally further away from them, and in a position where we could go swimming together, she would ask me questions like, “Where’s my car seat?, Mummy, is my car seat in your car?”, she still wanted to know that her stuff was at home. But she knew that she couldn’t ask that in front of the contact supervisor”. (GD3)

Another moved group participants to tears with her empathy for what she felt was her child’s predicament: 

“You think of a child who has been taken away from their mother. And then they get to see them. And they go, “Oh, you know, Mum, it’s Mum”, and then she goes away again. So, a child eventually begins to think, ‘you can’t trust this. This is a horrible experience. I’m not going to go through this again’. So they start saying “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to see Mum”, because what it means is “I suffer loss every single time.” (GD4)

Over ten years ago Triseliotis observed that contact ‘remains a mixture of art and science, possibly more balanced towards art’ (2010, p 59) and observed that there was ‘No script’ for how parents were to conduct themselves and a lack of clarity over how practitioners assess and judge the quality of contact (p 64). He also went on to comment that children’s behaviour during and post-contact was often poorly understood. Distress was often assessed as a reason for limiting or ceasing contact, rather than expression of a child’s feelings of loss or even anger. 

Cancellations and disruptions

Echoed in the literature on contact, the distance between parent and child in care was a constant theme. In one case a six hour car journey was necessary, in others, multiple changes of public transport were involved each costing money out of benefits. Once after getting from Glasgow to the Highlands where their child was being fostered, one parent was told ‘oh it’s cancelled’!!!” (S2 FT28). Sometimes child care reviews involving parents were scheduled for contact days meaning that the parent had to choose between seeing their child and representing themselves. (S2 FT31).

Injustice

There were reports of injustices large and small, such as respite provided for carers of their children but not for the parents whilst their child was with them; of Facetime being provided for carers so as help them be introduced to children, but not made available to parents to speak with their children. In the Group discussion, one parent spoke of the administrative process: 

“I thought it was absolutely gutting and appalling to have to sign a multi-page consent form. You know, saying that all these different rules and things that I had to agree to, just before I was even allowed to see my child, it was really dehumanising. It made me feel like a criminal, to have to sign all these different things. And it also felt two sided because the things that were in there, were things that every other people were allowed to do with my child, but I wasn’t” (GD5). 

Whether or not this was deemed necessary by the authorities, the parental experience evinced here is that of both bafflement and alienation, which somewhat defeats the point of contact. Another parent in the group spoke of the feeling of punishment:

“It kind of snowballs into this global narrative about who you are as a person. And you’re in that predicament in the first place. Because the global narrative is, you’re a bad mother, you’re a mother, who is somehow putting your child at risk, you are a mother who deserves, and that’s, I think, the most humiliating and cruel aspect of this, you deserve to be in the predicament that you’re in. And you deserve to be supervised”. (GD6)

In general, the experience of contact was hugely disempowering. Parents were often last to be consulted about arrangements, facilities were often substandard, fractures in relationships caused by a child’s coming into care were compounded by official delay and not appreciated, and the physical distances between child and parent were felt as a proxy for the emotional gap that had been opened up. 

One parent’s response concludes that their contact experience was: “Just hard all round, I grieve before I see them and I grieve afterwards and I’m always left to think/feel what is the purpose of it and would it be better off I didn’t see them at all” (S2 FT23). 

Conclusion

The belief that children are better cared for following placement than would otherwise be the case prevails among professionals as well as the community. (Nunno and Motz, 1988, p 523)

Traditionally reports such as this conclude with recommendations. However, we are in the fourth decade of recommendations (Millham et al 1986) with little if any new thinking as to whether the system works at all, so just two ‘big’ issues are put on the table here. The first is that state care is automatically assumed to be always better and continuously better than the families from which a child has been removed. For example, the influence of multiple moves between state cares is rarely acknowledged in the literature on contact. In this survey, one child was reported to have had 18 different placements over a period of twenty-six weeks. Also unacknowledged is the damage that can be done to a baby or a child where ‘respite care’ for their foster parent results in them shifted from one carer to another – temporary – home. 

The second point relates to filial deprivation and loss (Jenkins and Norman, 1972) and parents’ efforts to deal with this. Giving food, providing nurture, is a powerful signifier for parents of children absent in care; it is a mark of the continuing ability to love and cherish. It also a fundamental of parental identity, yet food and feeding was a battle ground during contact sessions, one parent in the group discussion crystalises this: 

“I feel that shadowing parents and documenting whether or not they choose a banana over a cucumber for a snack – you know, too much sugar content – or whether or not they offer their child juice, especially when parents are only seeing their children for, say, once a fortnight and they’d like to be able to briefly treat their child in that tiny moment. And yet it’s used against them, like they have no nutritional understanding or awareness” (GD1).

It seems that here there is a failure to empathise with the parental experience, a lack of comprehension of the depth of detriment to parental identity (and consequently others – these are parents who have or will have other children), and avoidance of discussion of the damage to parent-child relationship, which, irrespective of the ultimate destination of a child in state care, cannot be obliterated. 

Ultimately, confusions and disputes over contact are a product of a system and processes that for parents, children and social workers will always be complex, confusing and from the experiences uncovered in this survey, it seems broken beyond reform. The tragic thing is that we have known about this for nearly forty years. 

References

Jenkins S. and Norman E. 1972. Filial Deprivation and Foster Care. New York: Columbia University Press.

Millham S., Bullock R., Hosie K. and Haak M. 1986. Lost in care: The problems of maintaining links between children in care and their families. Gower: Basingstoke.

Nunno M. and Motz J. 1988. The development of an effective response to the abuse of children in out-of-home care. Child Abuse and Neglect 12(4) 521–528.

Triseliotis J. 2010. Contact between looked after children and their parents. A level playing field? Adoption & Fostering 34(3) 59–66.

Gary Clapton, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh