CONTACT - A MUSEUM PIECE?
When they used to send Apollo rockets to the moon the countdown would go “…three, two, one, zero…Contact!” and on the word “Contact” all hell would break loose. You can see where I’m going here.
Nowadays “Contact” is the term for when children in care meet up with their real family. Usually weekly, sometimes more. It’s an absolute. You can’t avoid it. The Carer has to escort the child into Contact, and therefore meet the parents. Then you leave them to it. “Contact” usually takes place at a Contact Centre, with a professional supervisor in the room. Sometimes it happens at an informal location, such as McDonalds.
WHO DECIDES THERE HAS TO BE CONTACT?
A court, of some sort, mostly. And they don’t want to be accused of splitting up a family. Before I became a Carer I would have argued strongly that staying in touch with their real family was essential for a looked after child’s wellbeing.
I now have different views, expressed below, which are mine and not those of Blue Sky.
Contact is a real powder keg, and should be very, very carefully tailored to the child’s needs. By tailored, I mainly mean reduced to bare necessity. This would benefit the child, the Carers, and social workers. Maybe even parents too - although I had to deal with a mother of six who wanted Contact because she thought her child benefit (for all six, even though they were all in care) depended on it.
THE CHILD’S EXPERIENCE
They want to go home, be back with their real family, almost always. No matter how chaotic their life was at home, it’s what they know, and being in care means so many new things to deal with.
If they look forward to Contact it’s because they hope that this time their mummy and daddy with scoop them up in their arms, shower them with affection, food and gifts, apologise for what’s happened and tell them they love them. It doesn’t happen, in my experience.
The child comes away disappointed, frightened and angry, and dumps it on the Carer.
THE PARENT’S EXPERIENCE
They are often embarrassed and defensive about their situation. This comes out as a frostiness towards the Carer, which the child picks up, and complicates the work you’re trying to do. The parents hope your care falls short, which will in some way exonerate their parenting. Aware that they are under scrutiny they affect “good parenting” by asking the child if he’s being good, and commenting that their shoes need a clean. To be fair, it’s hard to deliver loving affection (even if you know how), in a neutral environment, with strangers looking on, at exactly 4.00pm for exactly an hour every Wednesday.
THE CARER’S EXPERIENCE
A foster carer works 24/7 with a child. You’re on the clock for 167 hours a week. You strain every ounce of brain matter, heart and sinew to build up the child. Then Contact comes along and down goes the house of cards.
I know there are exceptions, but it's broadly true.
- Make a proper assessment of each child’s individual profile. If family members behaviour has been unacceptable, why stick the child in front of those people every week?
- The child’s family should be helped as to how to behave at Contact, rather than allowed to continue with their dysfunctional parenting. Which must seem even worse to the child; being unloved while a supervising expert looks on and says nothing.
- The Courts need a wake-up call on how Contact fails. The public need their awareness raised. I have a fancy dress Superhero suit, anyone want to be Catwoman and climb Big Ben with me? Worked for that Fathers 4 Justice mob.
The Secret Foster Carer
ps For those who like to extend metaphors: Those Apollo missions that started with Contact did manage to get somewhere. Somewhere cold, dark and uninhabitable.