Contact Standards and Procedures
Where children are Looked After by the Local Authority, a key consideration of the Courts is the issue of their contact with their parents. The theoretical basis for the perceived importance of this issue is in attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969), which has led to the growth in continuation of contact following adoption and an increased concern about children's contact with their non-resident parent following divorce and separation. However, the factors differentiating 'good' from 'bad' contact are not always clear and practitioners are often led by the Court as to the frequency and duration of contact sessions. This document is intended to identify what constitutes good practice in contact and to outline procedures by which it might be achieved.
2. Requirement for Contact
The legal position on contact can be summarised as follows:
- In Care Proceedings, the Local Authority has a duty to promote reasonable contact between the child and its parents, any guardian, any person who has Parental Responsibility and any person in whose favour a Child Arrangements Order was made, or any person who had care of the child by virtue of a Court Order made under the Court's inherent jurisdiction;
- Contact with parents, grandparents, other relatives and friends is an important part of a child's life;
- Lack of contact between the child and connected persons can be a major factor in decisions regarding the future of the child;
- The Court has a duty to consider contact arrangements before making a Care Order and may make a Contact Order particular to the child in other circumstances;
- Upon application by the Local Authority or child, the Court may make an order for contact between the child and any named person under S34(2) of the above act;
- In normal circumstances, the Local Authority including social worker, the Contact Team, the child and connected persons should agree contact arrangements prior to an order being made, but, if agreement is not possible, can seek the Court's assistance;
- S34(6) enables the Local Authority to refuse contact for up to a period of 7 days where this is necessary to safeguard the welfare of the children and the refusal is decided upon in an emergency. Should it not be in the child's best interests to reinstate contact after 7 days, the Local Authority needs to seek authority from the Court to refuse beyond the 7 day period;
- The Local Authority has the power to make payments to assist contact, for example reimbursing the costs incurred by attending contact by parents and others.
There is sometimes a presumption that more contact is better, especially with babies. However, there are a number of studies (e.g. Kenrick, 2009), which show that frequent contact can be disruptive to the child's development and potentially perpetuate the abuse they may already have suffered.
"The nature of contact arrangements should in all cases be determined by the needs of the child and what is in their best interests. Poorly planned and badly managed arrangements can be harmful for the child and distress and disruption caused by contact are in themselves potentially harmful. Research shows children experience behavioural difficulties and anxiety before and after contact and, at worst, children can be exposed to further abuse." ('Contact Arrangements for Children: A Call for Views', DfE, July 2012).
3. Contact Priorities
Contact Team resources are finite, therefore it makes sense to prioritise how these are used. These priorities should be reviewed regularly to ensure they meet the needs of children, their families and the social work teams. Prioritising contact in this way is intended to allow the Contact Team to allocate cases more quickly, deal with unexpected developments in a case and assist social workers with assessment.
It is assumed that all referrals to the Contact Team require supervised contact. Where supervision is not necessary or the child merely needs to be transported to contact, other arrangements should be made.
- Priority 1: Contact for children under the age of 1, who are accommodated due to an order, Police Powers or Section 20 accommodation. Contact for children who are being rehabilitated home or to wider family, where this needs facilitating. Priority 1 contacts should be allocated a key worker within five working days;
- Priority 2: Contact for children aged between 1 and 13, who are subject to Interim Care Orders, Emergency Protection Orders, Police Protection or Section 20 accommodation. Contact for children where a final hearing has decided on long term plans away from home, but only for a period of two months after the hearing date. Priority 2 contacts should be allocated a key worker within 2 weeks. Where contact needs to start within two weeks, a temporary key worker will be allocated.
The Contact Team will not prioritise the following circumstances:
- Children placed in long term foster arrangements;
- Sibling only contacts;
- Contact in private law proceedings;
- Where contacts have been lost due to Court hearings, child/parent illness, Looked After Reviews, holidays or bank holidays, severe weather.
4. Practice Standards for Contact
Contact arrangements should be part of the overall care planning for the child and should be discussed with the Contact Team at the earliest opportunity to ensure contact is well managed. This means that, wherever possible, arrangements should be made by the social worker before the Court hearing.
In principle, children should not be taken to contact sessions by people they do not know, leaving them to deal with difficult and confusing feelings on their own (see Section 5, Role of Local Authority Foster Carers in Contact).
Managers, supervisors, workers and carers involved in the contact should understand the reasons for the arrangements and the desired outcomes.
For each child, a contact plan should be agreed and recorded on the Child's Electronic Record. The plan should be agreed prior to the child being placed, wherever possible, since contact arrangements may influence placement decisions. The plan should be clear about the purpose and benefits of contact for the individual child and include the child's view of the plan.
Where the plan is to remove a child at birth, contact arrangements must be discussed and agreed with the parent prior to the birth of the child and a referral made to the Contact Team at the earliest opportunity.
At all times the frequency and duration of contact should promote the welfare of the child, whose needs are paramount. Research shows that very young children, in particular, can be adversely affected by the duration and frequency of contact sessions.
Referrals to the Contact Team must be made on the appropriate form (here) and contain full details of the child and family.
Referrals must be accompanied by a risk assessment, signed by the social work Team Manager, which incorporates:
- The likelihood of the child having any behaviour/medical problems during contact which might pose a risk to the child, staff or others involved in contact;
- The likelihood of those involved in contact posing a threat to the child or staff. This is particularly relevant where parents/carers may attend contact sessions under the influence of substances or suffering from mental ill health;
- Details of any verbal or physical violence/threats of violence to the child, carers or staff from those involved in contact;
- Details of any previous disruption/threats of disruption to contact sessions from those involved in contact;
- Details of any incidents/threats of abduction from those involved in contact;
- Details of any incidents of coercion or inappropriate behaviour during contact by those involved;
- Details of actions to be undertaken to minimise risks.
A contact agreement should be signed by the parents/carers, contact worker and social worker prior to the first contact session and the parents/carers should be given a copy of the Contact Team leaflet. The agreement should be specific regarding:
- Where and when contact session will take place;
- Who will be allowed to attend the session;
- Whether the contact session can be moved to an alternative location (e.g. an adjoining public park) and, if so, under what circumstances;
- Whether those having contact are allowed to give the child food, drinks, gifts, money or take photographs;
- Arrangements for any reimbursement of travel expenses for parents/carers;
- How the contact session will end - for example, the parents to say goodbye in the room and leave the vicinity of the building before the children are returned to their placement;
- Circumstances which would trigger termination of the contact session (Note: the contact session will normally be cancelled if those having contact are more than 15 minutes late);
- Arrangements for booking any taxis to and from contact with Calderdale Transport Services (note: these would normally be arranged by the social worker);
- Information about any learning disability so that reasonable adjustments can be made;
- Arrangements for booking interpreters, if required (Note: this would normally be arranged by the social worker);
- The contact agreement should reflect changes in arrangements. For example, should any additional people be introduced to contact then the Contact Team will require a risk assessment on those people in order to safeguard the children.
Risk assessments and contact agreements should be reviewed every 3 months at a minimum by the social worker and members of the Contact Team and immediately reviewed if there are any significant developments or incidents in the case. Any changes in arrangements should be discussed and agreed with the Contact Team prior to notifying parents/carers.
Contact arrangements must be considered as part of the child's Looked After Review. Members of the Contact Team can attend Looked After Reviews if required.
Referrals should be clear about the task for the Contact Team - for example whether the requirement is just to supervise the contact or if there is a need to produce a report assessing parent/child interactions.
The Contact Team member will produce notes from the contact session which will be available to the social worker within 2 days. Any concerns about the conduct of those attending contact will be communicated to the social worker immediately after the contact session. This will include where the contact worker has concerns about arrangements impacting negatively on the child.
Where a member of the social work team makes a decision to cancel a contact, or is informed by the parent/carer that they cannot attend, or contact clashes with a Looked After Review or medical appointment, they must inform the Contact Team immediately.
Where there is a need for other professionals to attend contact, (e.g. the Children's Guardian or psychologist), the Contact Team need to be informed before the relevant contact.
Decisions to suspend or terminate contact arrangements must be made by the social work Team Manager in consultation with Legal Services. In these circumstances, the child, parents/carers, foster carers and Contact Team must be informed as soon as possible, and in writing, of the decision and reasons for it. Where necessary, the Contact Team can assist in drawing up a behaviour agreement, or attend a meeting with the parents before contact is re-instated.
Where there is an immediate risk to the safety of the child or staff in the contact session, the Contact Team key worker can make the decision to terminate the session. In these circumstances, the contact worker must inform the social work team as soon as possible and, in writing, of the decision and reasons for it.
Where family members do not attend, or only attend part of the contact session, for a period of two weeks or more, the social worker should normally suspend contact on the grounds that it is not in the best interests of the child. In these circumstances, contact would only be re-instated once the parent had met with the social worker and reviewed the contact agreement. The Contact Team will alert the social worker about poor attendance and provide legal evidence to back up any decision to suspend.
It is good practice for social workers to facilitate some contact sessions, especially where they are writing a parenting assessment. This should involve transporting the child, supervising the contact and writing observations. The Contact Team can advise on this, if required.
5. Role of Local Authority Foster Carers in Contact
Foster carers can play an invaluable part in establishing and promoting contact for children and as such are an important resource for contact arrangements. They will usually know the child better than members of the Contact Team and are better placed to help the child deal with their feelings both before and after contact has taken place.
Because of the above, it is good practice for foster carers to transport children placed with them to and from contact sessions, wherever possible.
As part of this role, foster carers should be consulted on, involved in and informed about arrangements for contact and any associated risks.
Foster carers should discuss the child's view of contact arrangements in general and specific contact sessions with the social worker and, if appropriate the Contact Team key worker. Use of a contact book (passed from the foster carer to the Contact Team key worker and then back at the end of the contact session) to record observations and information regarding contact arrangements, should be encouraged.