The current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has demanded that IROs, IRO managers and social workers make adjustments to practice extremely quickly. One area of practice that has required a rapid rethink is how links between children and their birth families are promoted.
This recently published research by Neil, E., Copson, R., and Sorensen, P. (2020). Contact during lockdown: How are children and their birth families keeping in touch? London: Nuffield Family Justice Observatory/ University of East Anglia, provides a helpful overview of the current picture. Implications for practice as part of this next phase of the pandemic are also considered.
Information was collected from IROs, IRO Managers, wider professionals, birth parents, foster carers, kinship carers and adoptive parents, in order to try to urgently understand what arrangements agencies are putting in place to support children to keep in touch with their birth families during lockdown, and how this is working—especially for children. The work was carried out in 20 days during April 2020.
Across the board, “most people saw some potential for digitally mediated contact in the future, but views varied depending on individual circumstances and experiences.” (p.36)
SOME OF THE HEADLINES
Here we pick out just a few headlines, but there are many more. Therefore, do please read and discuss the full report.
Professionals and carers reported that children and young people had responded in different ways to lockdown and social distancing measures. “The temporary cessation of going to school had been significant for many. For some, the loss of their usual routine had been very unsettling but for others, not having to separate from their carers every day and attend school had provided time to work on and strengthen attachments, leading to some children presenting as far more settled.
The young person who responded to the survey expressed frustration that social workers could not visit in person, which they felt had nearly led to a placement breakdown. Professionals on the other hand, particularly IROs, reported that children were engaging far better in ‘virtual visits’ with them than they were face-to-face, and more meaningful conversations were taking place. As one IRO manager stated: ‘They’re communicating on their level. This is how young people communicate’.
Participants also gave emphasis to the importance of communication and relationships
An IRO was surprised at the way their work with young people had changed. They found that they were having more meaningful conversations with young people and getting more information about their wishes and feelings through virtual contact: ‘The quality of communication has improved’—a point reiterated by some other professionals. Interestingly, the reviewing officer also felt that the same applied to virtual communication between colleagues.Independent Reviewing Officer in “Contact during lockdown: How are children and their birth families keeping in touch?“
Supporting parents to stay in touch with children
In addition to actually setting up new arrangements for contact, professionals gave a range of examples of support they were providing to parents, or support they felt would be valuable, to enable parents to accept changes to contact. This support could also help parents to participate positively in new ways of connecting with their children. The key areas of support identified were:
- Helping parents understand the needs for changes
- Helping parents get online
- Helping parents prepare for and manage different forms of contact
Promoting family time – five key principles
The five principles below are set out in detail in the full report. They are drawn from @prof_beth_neil work into post-adoption contact, as well as the wider research around when and how contact can be positive for children.
1. Keep the child’s wishes, feelings, strengths and short and long-term needs at the centre of planning for family contact time.
2. Take into account the needs, wishes, feelings and strengths of birth family members of foster/adoptive/kinship family members.
3. Look for opportunities to build trust, collaboration, empathy and a shared sense of goals between the family caring for the child/young person and the child’s birth family so they can work together in the best interests of the child/young person.
4. Consider on an individual basis what risks there might be and make plans to manage these proportionally.
5. Aim for family contact time to be rewarding, fun and child-friendly.
key positives in using digital contact / video calls
• Preferred by some children: feels more relevant or safer.
• For some parents and children, better than not being able to see each other at all.
• Can create opportunities for better integration between a child’s two worlds, though greater involvement of carers in contact.
• Can be used flexibly.
• Saves travel time.
key challenges in using digital contact / video calls
• Difficulties for babies, under-fives and older children with disabilities.
• Fears about impact on parenting assessments.
• Parents and children missing physical contact.
• Raises new questions about risks.
• Some additional stresses for carers.
• Upsetting for some children.
• Parents, carers and children may not have equal access to digital devices or the internet; some may not know how to use digital methods.
guidance to help people manage digital contact
The research found practice was variable in relation to whether guidance had been produced to support practitioners, family members and carers. Some agencies had developed their own guidance, other professionals had shared examples of guidance with each other, or found useful sources online.
(See guidance and tips now free to download bottom of page).
Key areas where professionals wanted more guidance
• choice of digital platforms, and how to use these safely, protecting the confidentiality of carers and adoptive parent where it was necessary to do so
• ideas and guidance about how to make video calls work well, particularly in terms of being an enjoyable and safe experience of children.
In addition to these key areas, some people raised the importance of developing guidance or agreements specific to individual contact arrangements so that everybody involved understood the parameters of the new plan.
The future of digital contact
Chapter 7 of the research summarises how digital contact may be used in future, within the context of how it has been using during the COVID-19 pandemic:
• Many people involved in contact arrangements were seeing this as an opportunity to do things differently and continue the creativity and flexibility that has been seen through the pandemic thus far.
• A potential benefit of digital contact identified by some was the opportunities for increased cooperation and communication between parents and carers/adoptive parents.
• Most argued that the use of future digital contact will very much depend on individual circumstances—where it is right for one child, it won’t be for another—and this needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
• A culture of risk awareness as opposed to risk aversion has generally been seen, which is a shift in practice for many.
• Digital contact was viewed as having been very successful for a number of children.
• Birth parents’ views about digital contact were dependent on their original standpoint—but those who had little or direct contact welcomed being able to see their children more.
• The majority were clear that face-to-face contact cannot and should not be replaced with digital contact where it is working well or where it is required for assessment purposes.
Guidance for foster carers & tips for using video chats
The following resources were shared as part of a webinar held by @researchip & @ripfa in partnership with @NuffieldFJO @prof_beth_neil & @cliffmanning and provide helpful guidance in relation to *digital* family time / ‘contact’.
Download the full research report at source: Contact during lockdown: How are children and their birth families keeping…