Contact with Parents, Family and Friends
This chapter should be read in conjunction with chapter Supervised Contact and the Hertfordshire Contact Service Procedure.
For arrangements for social visits and overnight stays away, see Overnight Stays Away from the Placement and Other Staying Contact or Care Arrangements Procedure.
Please see PGN entitled Weekend Contact Visits (April 2021) - The PGN provides guidance for staff in relation to conducting contact visits between parents and children in the community or at the Hertfordshire Contact Centre during the weekend (after 5pm on Friday until Sunday).
AMENDMENTSection 4, Philosophy and Principles was updated in March 2023 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. Introduction and Overview
Looked After children should be encouraged and supported to maintain contact with their parents, any person who holds Parental Responsibility, other significant family members and siblings in a manner consistent with the child's Care Plan; which, itself, must take account of any Child Protection Plan or Child Arrangements Order that may be in force. (S9 of the Fostering Minimum Standards 2011 (FNMS 2011) explicitly states that grandparents and half-siblings must be included within the definition significant family members and others). 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.
When placing children the Placing Authority and the Fostering Agency are required by S9 of the FNMS 2011 to work together to support contact.
Contact between children and their parents or siblings may only be permitted if previously agreed by the social worker and should be set out in the child's Placement Plan. Contact 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 contact should be individually considered and regularly assessed. The wishes and feelings of the child should be ascertained, wherever possible, using advocacy and communication services if necessary.
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 contact arrangements is made.
The purpose of the contact and how it will be evaluated must be made clear in the Plan.
Both direct and indirect contact arrangements should always be clearly detailed, setting out how contact will take place, the venue, the frequency and how the arrangements will be reviewed.
Where contact is extended as part of a plan to gradually return the child to the parents' care, the Placement with Parents or Person who has, or has held Parental Responsibility Immediately Prior to Making of a Care Order or Interim Care Order Procedure should be followed.
2. Statutory Framework
Contact arrangements for all Children Looked After are subject to the relevant sections of the Children Act 1989 and the Contact with Children Regulations 1991 and references are made to the relevant parts of the Act and the Regulations throughout this procedure.
Regulation 14 of the Fostering Services Regulations 2011 places a duty on fostering service providers to, subject to the provisions of the care plan and any Court Order relating to contact, promote contact between a child placed with a foster carer and her/his parents, relatives and friends unless such contact is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the child's welfare.
Standards 9.1 to 9.7 of the FNMS 2011 state how fostering service providers are expected to achieve this and references to the relevant standards are made throughout this procedure.
3. The Importance of Contact
The term contact refers to all links between a child and their families of origin and friends, regardless of the form and frequency of these links. It may include overnight stays, telephone calls, exchange of letters or photographs or indirect links through third parties.
These will range from frequent face to face contact to occasional exchanges of information.
For the majority of children their interests will be best served by efforts to sustain or create links with their birth families. Face to face meetings will generally be the most common and satisfactory way of maintaining such relationships.
Even when there is no minimal or no contact, Social Workers and carers need to address the need to keep a child connected with their family background and to help them develop a sense of identity.
Research shows that the earliest weeks of a looked after episode are crucial to the success of a placement, the relationship between the parents, carers and Social Workers, the level of future contact and the prognosis for an early return home.
Children's Services will therefore ensure that contact arrangements are in place before or at the point a child moves to a placement and that arrangements for contact are recorded on the Placement Information Record.
When considering contact arrangements, Social Workers must take into account the need to sustain links with all those in the child's network and not just their immediate family. This may include friends, neighbours, schools and out of school clubs and activities.
4. Philosophy and Principles
The fundamental principle on which all decisions relating to contact are based is that for most children who are looked after, it is in their best interests to have contact with their family of origin and friends.
Other key principles are:
- Contact plans must be an integral component of every Care Plan and Placement Information Record;
- Children's and parents' views must be sought and given weight in determining contact arrangements;
- Children have a right to be protected from harmful contact;
- Consideration must be given to the need for and benefits of appropriate contact when considering the suitability of placements;
- Financial support, may be available for children, birth parents and carers to ensure contact takes place at the desired frequency and in the most appropriate place (see Section 11, Practical Support for Facilitating Contact);
- 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 (Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman finding);
- Contact can only be prevented or curtailed by Court Order, or in emergencies, by the responsible local authority for a limited period.
5. Establishing Contact Arrangements
Many factors will have an impact on the content of contact arrangements, including the child's legal status, whether the placement is planned or unplanned, Court directions and the availability of suitable locations.
It is therefore neither possible nor desirable to be prescriptive in providing guidance. There are some general issues that need to be considered however:
- What are the immediate concerns and tasks in relation to contact?
- Who will have contact, with whom, when and where?
- Is anyone to be denied contact and if so what are the reasons for this?
- Are there to be any other restrictions on contact at this stage or in the future?
- Is contact to be observed or supervised, if so where and by whom? (see Supervised Contact and the Hertfordshire Contact Service Procedure);
- What are the views of the child, the parents and the carers?
- If the child is to be placed outside of their home area what special arrangements will be needed to support contact?
- What resources are needed to facilitate the required level of contact?
6. Matching with Carers
The needs for and benefits of appropriate contact must be considered when identifying a suitable placement.
This will be one of a range of issues that are considered during the matching process alongside the child's other needs including the promotion of their health and education, needs arising from the child's race, culture, religion and disability and the need to place siblings together.
Where it is not possible to meet all of a child's needs, meeting the most important will be the Department's priority. This will be different for each child and will often be determined by the overall Care Plan. For example the need to identify carers who will facilitate face to face contact may be less significant where the child needs the stability of permanent foster placement than where the plan is rehabilitation.
For children in need of a permanent placement, arrangements for contact must be considered when potential matches are being explored. Matching reports should record whether the placement meets the child's assessed needs, including those relating to contact.
Where there are shortfalls in meeting the child's assessed needs, the matching report should make it clear why the placement has still been chosen and what steps are to be taken to address these shortfalls.
For children in need of an immediate placement, the child's Social Worker will need to consider the proposed contact arrangements against the available resources. Wherever possible, a placement that enables the contact plan to be fully implemented should be chosen.
The child's other needs may however outweigh this consideration, for example where an independent provider placement is the only one available where siblings can be kept together.
The reasons for choosing a particular placement must be recorded on the child's case record and Placement Planning meetings and reviews used to identify ways to address any shortfalls in the desired contact plan.
7. The Views of the Child
The views of children must always be sought when determining and reviewing contact arrangements.
Children of sufficient age and understanding must be asked to contribute to their own Care Plan and their views must be given due weight when drawing up and reviewing Placement Plan.
Throughout the placement, Social Workers and carers should monitor the effect of contact on the child and seek their views as to how contact plans are working.
The child must be supported in making their views in respect of contact known at their statutory reviews.
Where children's wishes cannot be met, the reasons for this must be explained to them and recorded on their case record.
8. Risk Assessments
Children Specialist and Safeguarding Services expects that a risk assessment will be completed and arrangements for appropriate supervision be put in place in all cases, but the extent of this risk assessment will vary from child to child.
Where the child is accommodated the parents will be expected to agree to co-operate with arrangements made for contact before agreement is reached to accommodate the child. In such cases the risk assessment may be restricted to consideration of the information gathered during planning for the proposed accommodation, discussion with the birth parents and carers and ascertaining the wishes of the child.
Where the child is in care, the arrangements for contact will have been considered and agreed by a Court.
All risk assessments and any arrangements for supervision must be recorded on the child's case record.
9. Children Making Their Own Contact Arrangements
There will be some children who establish their own contact arrangements with parents or others against the advice or wishes of Children Specialist and Safeguarding Services.
The child's Social Worker must, in such circumstances, remind the child of the contact plan that has been agreed as part of their Care Plan. It should be made clear to the child that the Care Plan, including arrangements for contact, can only be changed at a statutory review.
The child must be reminded of their right to request a review of the Care Plan and if necessary the IRO must be contacted to arrange a review.
Where the child refuses to comply with the contact plan then the child's Social Worker must carry out a risk assessment which must be recorded on the child's case record.
Within this risk assessment, the Social Worker must seek to interview the person with whom the child has established contact with in breach of the contact plan. The Social Worker should explain what the agreed contact plan is and seek their cooperation with this.
On completion of the risk assessment the child's Social Worker must convene a meeting of relevant staff and carers to draw up a plan for managing any identified risk. This meeting must be chaired by the relevant Services/Team Manager.
10. Emergency Refusal of Contact
Emergency Refusal of Contact for Children in Care.
For a child in care, a local authority can refuse to allow the usual reasonable contact or that which has been directed by a Court if:
- They are satisfied that it is necessary to protect the child from significant risk to their safety or welfare;
- The refusal is urgent and does not last more than seven days.
Refusal or restriction will only be considered in Hertfordshire if the responsible Services Manager is satisfied that such action is in the best interests of the child and only after legal advice has been sought.
The Services Manager must ensure that the evidence and reasons for reaching this decision are clearly recorded on the child's case record and notified as below.
Where contact has been refused in this way, the following must be provided within 24 hours with written notification:
- The child (if of sufficient age and understanding);
- The child's parents or guardian;
- Anyone who immediately before the Care Order was made held a Residence Order/Child Arrangements Order or who had care by virtue of an order made under the High Court's inherent jurisdiction;
- Anyone else whose wishes and feelings the local authority consider relevant;
- The Child's Social Worker (as required by S9 of the FNMS 2011).
The notification must contain as much of the following information as the local authority believes these persons need to know:
- The decision and the date of the decision;
- The reasons for the decision;
- How long the restriction will last;
- How to challenge the decision.
Reasons for considering the restriction of contact will include:
- That the child is at physical risk from the person with whom contact is proposed to be restricted and there is no way of providing adequate protection for the child if contact takes place;
- The child is at risk of emotional harm;
- The child consistently refuses to see the parent, although the reasons for this should wherever possible be established before the restriction of contact;
- Contact is seriously undermining the placement.
In all cases consideration must be given to other ways of overcoming the difficulties being presented before restricting contact. For example, could supervising contact, changing the venue for contact or changing the form of contact achieve the same result?
Restriction of contact with one person should not lead to an assumption that this will also be the case for others. The child may still benefit from safe contact with one parent even where contact has been restricted for the other parent.
If it appears that contact needs to be stopped for more than seven days, consideration must be given to an application for Permission to Refuse Contact under s34(4) of the Children Act 1989 and further legal advice sought. In this case authority to proceed also needs to be obtained from the Services Manager.
Emergency Refusal of Contact for Accommodated Children under s20
There is no power to restrict contact between a child and holders of parental responsibility where the child has been accommodated under s20 of the Children Act 1989.
Children Schools and Families acknowledge the right of holders of parental responsibility to unrestricted contact and to remove a child from accommodation at any time (subject to the right of 16 and 17 year olds to remain accommodated).
Nevertheless, Children Specialist and Safeguarding Services will expect holders of parental responsibility to adhere to any agreement reached in respect of contact and to participate in the required risk assessment before contact takes place.
If the professional opinion is that such contact is detrimental to the child, then legal advice must be sought with a view to applying to a Court for a suitable order to secure the child's welfare including any necessary restriction of contact.
11. Practical Support for Facilitating Contact
Paragraph 16 of Schedule 2 of the 1989 Children Act gives local authorities the power to make payments in respect of travelling, subsistence or other expenses incurred by anyone visiting the child. Similar payments can also be made to the child or any person on behalf of the child to facilitate the child visiting relatives or friends.
Children Schools and Families will make such payments were it appears that the visit in question could not otherwise take place without undue financial hardship and the circumstances warrant the making of the payments.
The authority will normally give assistance on the basis of part funding arrangements, rather than meeting all the costs.
Where appropriate, payment may be made in kind, for example by the provision of transport or travel warrants.
The details of such arrangement should be recorded in the Placement Plan and the Review Record.
Financial support will also be made available to carers where necessary in accordance with Hertfordshire's payment scheme for foster carers.
12. Supporting Carers
Children Schools and Families will provide help and support to carers in managing contact and any difficulties that may arise.
The role of the carer in supporting contact arrangements, including any arrangements for supervised contact, must be clearly recorded in the Placement Information Record.
The child's Social Worker, the Supervising Social Worker and the carers will also need to consider the following:
- What support do the carers need in accepting the plan for contact?
- What practical help do they need in order to manage contact?
- Is there adequate support outside of office hours?
- What support do they need in order to cope with their feelings about contact?
- Who will provide this support?
- Is any additional support required and how will this be provided?
13. Recording the Outcomes of Contact Arrangements
While the child's Social Worker will be responsible for monitoring the contact plans, foster carers also have a significant role to play.
Even when contact takes place away from the foster home the carer will be the person best placed to judge the impact on the child. Children Specialist and Safeguarding Services therefore expect that carers record the outcome of contact arrangements and their perceived impact on the child. In accordance with S9 of the FNMS 2011 any significant reaction that the child has to contact must be communicated to the child's social worker.
When directly involved in contact carers should record as a minimum:
- How the child was before contact - were there any noticeable behavioural changes, concerns or feelings?
- Whether the contact went as planned, who was involved, timing, place and activities;
- What happened during contact - greetings, farewells, physical contact, behaviours, tasks, conversations, nonverbal communication, feelings, surprises;
- What happened after contact - child's behaviours and feelings;
- Areas of progress and areas of concern.
When not directly involved in contact carers should record:
- How the child was before contact - were there any noticeable behavioural changes, concerns or feelings?
- What happened after contact - child's behaviours and feelings;
- Areas of progress and areas of concern.
Carers may be asked to undertake and record specific tasks during contact and such expectations must be recorded in the Placement Plan.
Carers must ensure that they feed back the information they record to the child's Social Worker.
14. Reviewing Contact
Arrangements for contact must be kept under review and not just as part of statutory child care reviews. Each contact episode must be routinely evaluated to check whether arrangements are working and continue to serve the best interests of the child.
Difficulties should be raised immediately by any of the parties involved and discussed openly as far as possible with all of the other interested parties.
If difficulties cannot be resolved and there is a need to significantly alter contact arrangements, a CLA review must be held and a new Care Plan and Placement Plan drawn up.
As a minimum, contact arrangements must be formally reviewed during each statutory review and if necessary a new Care Plan and Placement Plan must be drawn up.
15. Contact Arrangements for Children Looked After in Permanent Placements
- Contact plans will be agreed and reviewed on an annual basis;
- Contact will be available 4 times a year and sessions will last 1.5 hours if taking place in the Community, subject to a risk assessment. Any requests for contact outside these guidelines will need to be approved by a Services Manager;
- Details of siblings and relatives attending contact need to be provided to the contact service in advance of the contact;
- Costs for activities for children whose contact takes place outside a contact centre will need to be funded by parents/family;
- The need for the child/young person to have a stable placement takes precedence over the need for contact. The social work team's assessment must conclude that this level of contact is in the child/young person's best interests and is not likely to disrupt his or her placement.