SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTERThis chapter was developed/entirely revised in September 2012 and should be read in full.
1. Wishing Well Visits
These notes are intended as guidance when planning and enabling final contacts between children and their birth relatives.
2. Key Principles
It is assumed that following the making of the Care Order and obtaining of the S34(4) order, permitting termination of contact that a substantial reduction in contact has occurred and that Family Finding has identified a permanent substitute family.
It is important that this final contact occurs before any introductions to a new family and with sufficient time to elapse for the child / children to have some grieving time for the 'loss' of this relationship before they are asked to engage and make new relationships with a permanent family. Where birth parents show, by their inconsistent or non attendance, their disengagement from their children it is important for there to be a final contact (perhaps at an earlier time), rather than contact ending by default, and such contacts can be part of the process of both the birth parent and child moving on.
Adequate notice for such visits is essential for all parties - birth parents, birth relatives, the children themselves, foster carers and their link workers who support them.
3. Planning with Birth Parents
Discussion with the birth parents about the reduction and timing of the final contact should occur and plans confirmed in writing. With parents with a learning disability the use of a printed calendar may help.
If there is a discussion about the intended post adoption contact plans at this time - the post adoption agreements can be drawn up - birth parents can then be helped to understand the reality of this being a final face to face contact.
Parents should be consulted about how they might want to structure a wishing well contact - venue, content and length. An assessment of how far their wishes are possible should take place alongside an assessment of the children's needs. The usual contact venue provides a known, comfortable and secure space, but in some situations an outing to a venue especially requested by a parent may be possible and provide a more relaxed and in the parent's view, appropriate setting.
Discussion about who the birth parents want to support them before, during and after the final contact visit must also take place, as should travel arrangements to and from the contact.
Given the emotion generated by such final contacts all necessary support should be provided to ensure the visit does take place and that parents are supported before and afterwards. The worst thing that can happen is for a child to be prepared and the parents don't turn up. The offer of support from an adoption team social worker (independent to the care proceedings worker) or a known contact supervisor may be appropriate.
Where birth relatives are to have wishing well contacts it is important that these are timetabled prior to those with the birth parents and spaced. Remember for all the participants this is a grief process and in particular the children involved need time and space to manage the process.
4. Planning with the Child
The children themselves need adequate notice and preparation and such visits need to be understood by them as not just another contact session. It will depend on the child's age how much prior notice for the final contact is given them. The use of the phrase 'wishing well' as distinct from last / final is important given in later years contact may well be resumed by the children as adults or through altered post adoption contact plans.
For some children, helping them think about this contact is facilitated by them making a wishing well card for their parents; choosing a photograph to frame and take with them as a gift; giving them a disposable camera to take photographs for their life story book. Whenever possible discussions should take place with the foster carers who will be an essential support to the child both before and after the contact.
It is easy for adequate and clear explanations not to be given to the children because of the emotion surrounding such visits. Focusing on the 'moving on' that the children must do following the Court decision for them to be adopted can be part of the conversation as will be some understanding of the post adoption contact that will occur between their birth family and adoptive family. In this way the child will know that they and their birth parents will have information about each other in the future. Where parents are likely to be very distressed some prior warning and discussion about this with the child should occur together with a discussion about their own feelings and how expression of their sadness and upset is likely and okay.
5. Planning the Session
Structuring the contact session and explaining this to the child and birth parent enables the time to be managed and the ending process known e.g. if time is allocated at the beginning for play (as would normally be the case in the contact session) and for photographs to be taken during this time. As birth parents may forget their camera ensure contact supervisor and social worker have cameras where possible.
It has been found useful to consider the use of 'loving and caring candles' see Section 7, The Use of 'Loving and Caring' Candles as part of a 'Wishing Well' visit as a technique for helping both parents and children acknowledge that the feelings and care / love for each other does not go even when they no longer see one another. Again this technique may be explained prior to the contact session, but often just the fact that a 'special candle' activity will take place is enough preparation.
It is suggested that fifteen minutes before the end a five minute warning about an activity with candles is announced so that following this goodbyes take place and the contact ends. Supervision of such contacts would generally indicate two professionals - one as support for the child and one for the birth parent.
Birth parents often want to know if they can bring presents to the contact and or other family members. It can be very overwhelming for children and detract from the farewell from birth parents if other relatives join the contact and are another good reason for prior discussion when planning such visits. Where a birth parent's new partner or another family member is the parent's support it might be suggested they attend the contact venue and be present there for the birth parent after the contact but not actually attend the contact with the children.
6. Managing the Session
It is difficult to know how the emotions of the event will be expressed by the children and adults. It may be possible to support the parents / children in expressing their hopes / wishes for them in the future. Sometimes the children will ask questions of their parents which the latter will need support and help to respond to e.g. why can't I go back home with you, and sometimes the child's anger / upset is displayed in their play and needs appropriate boundaries with acknowledgement of the feelings being expressed.
Affirmation that the birth parents did their best, but weren't able to care well enough may be appropriate as may the fact that not being able to care doesn't mean that they are not very much loved.
Judgement should occur as to whether the agreed length of the contact can be managed by all parties and it may sometimes be appropriate to foreshorten the time to manage the emotion of the situation.
Ending the contact:- Psychologically it feels more appropriate for the child to leave the venue first rather than the parent and consideration should be given as to who supports the child at this time.
Often it is appropriate for the foster carer to come to the venue and be available immediately to comfort / support the child but it may be the known contact supervisor who transports the child to the foster home. In which case it is vital that the foster carer is given full information about the visit so she can support the child afterwards.
Support for the birth parent should be given and may include time for expression of feelings, transport home, ensuring they have appropriate support at home etc.
7. The Use of 'Loving and Caring' Candles as part of a 'Wishing Well' visit
- Sufficient candles for all significant family members and some extras (use night lights or if possible coloured scented candles);
- Matches - preferably long one or a taper;
- Sheet of card.
It is explained that candles are going to be lit for each of the family members. Allow children to choose coloured candle to represent themselves and adults similarly. Light candles which represent the birth parents first explaining that the flame represents the loving and caring that the individual has. Light the child's candle from the parents ones and any other siblings and present or otherwise explaining that this is to show the loving / caring (in certain situations it may not be appropriate to include the caring adjective) given to the child. Children may want to light candles for other family members / pets or it may be appropriate to suggest lighting candles for other individuals who have cared / been an important part of the child's life.
Place child's candle within those of birth family who have cared. Sometimes a relative has cared but has since deceased - move that candle away from child's / family's and judge whether it should remain alight - child often suggests they blow this out at this point - or you may ask them whether they want it to stay alight or not.
Ask child about who else gives them loving and caring - they may offer foster carers - if not prompt - and light candle to represent foster family.
Move child's candle to foster family candle representation.
Explain that even though the birth family is no longer caring the love they have for child does not cease. Explain that even though this is the final contact and that children will not be seeing parents again - emphasise this by placing sheet of card between foster family and birth family candles.
The love they have for each other continues and will always be there in their hearts. Remind children of Life Story Books and photos they have of birth family and of positive memories of time they have had together (as appropriate).
This can be quite an emotional activity and there needs to be sensitivity so as to allow adequate impact / expression of feeling, but not so as to prolong the endorsement of the fact that the parties will not be seeing one another again. Photos of candles lit may be taken for Life Story Book. Explain that we have used the candles to show loving and caring and whilst the feelings don't disappear the candles need to be blown out.
Suggest that each child blows own candle out and others as appropriate. Suggest child and parents take their candles home and that it may help them to light them in the future when thinking about each other (ensure child knows they will need adult to light and supervise).
Care must be taken throughout to prevent children leaning across table / blowing out candles too early etc.
Given the management of this activity it is useful to 'practice' with a colleague beforehand so the worker feels comfortable with the words that need to be used. If necessary write them on a prompt card.