Contact Procedures and Guidance
AMENDMENTThis chapter was updated in March 2015 to reflect updated guidance on Looked Children and Contact with Siblings (see above). The following was added into Section 1, Approving and Planning Contact - 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. 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.
1. Approving and Planning Contact
The Children Act 1989 imposes a duty on Local Authorities to promote contact between a child who is looked after and those who are connected with him / her. This guidance is primarily concerned with contact arrangements between looked after children and their families. However, there are occasionally other circumstances where Children, Young People and Family Services become involved in supervising contact. For example, if Children, Young People and Family Services are already supporting a family, and contact that needs to be supervised is not able to be managed safely by family members.
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 child/young person's plan, which, itself, must take account of any Child Protection Plan or Contact Order that may be in force.
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.
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 Placement Plan.
The purpose of contact and how it will be evaluated must be made clear in the child/young person's 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.
Both direct and indirect contact arrangements should be detailed in the Placement Plan, setting out how contact will take place, the venue, the frequency and how the arrangements will be reviewed.
At the placement finding stage, consideration should be given to the child's need for contact along side the child's other needs. See Matching Children with Foster Carers Procedure, Section 4, Issues to be Considered in Matching.
Where contact is extended beyond 24 hours as part of a plan to gradually return the child to the parents' care the Placements with Parents Procedure should be followed.
2. Supervised Contact
In planning contact, the safety and welfare of the child will be the primary focus. Sometimes this means that the contact has to be supervised. The need to supervise contact should be considered as part of the assessment and planning process by the social worker and the Team Manager. It is important to be clear about the reasons why contact is to be supervised: is it to assess parenting; is it because there are established risks; is it as a result of a Court Order; is it a long term looked after child who needs to retain contact with birth family; or is it a sibling contact?
The person(s) supervising contact should be appropriately skilled and experienced to do so and should receive regular supervision. Contact may be supervised by a social worker, a contact officer, a family support officer, social work student, sessional worker or a foster carer. Family and friends may also have a role in facilitating contact.
Whoever is identified to supervise the contact, the child's social worker should communicate the following information to them:
- Who the contact is between;
- Frequency and length of contact sessions;
- Whether transport is required, for whom;
- Background information including reason why contact has to be supervised;
- Level of supervision required;
- Risk assessment and measures to minimise risks;
- Recording the contact.
The risk assessment should summarise risk factors, if there are any and should reflect the risk assessment of contact contained in the child's children's social care assessment and the child/young person's plan and court statements (if the case is in proceedings).
Risk assessment of contact must take account of all factors that could impact on the success of supervised contact and relevant safeguards including:
- Any history of abuse, harm or threats of abuse to the child, carers or staff;
- Previous incidents of disruption or threats to disrupt contact or failure to cooperate with conditions agreed for supervised contact;
- Previous incidents or threats of abduction;
- Previous incidents of coercion or inappropriate behaviour during contact;
- The child's behaviour and needs, including medical needs.
Where any of the above features in the risk assessment, the specific measures to be put in place to minimise risks should be stated.
The details (a - g above) should be included on the Supervised Contact Written Agreement that the parents are asked to sign, ensuring that parents fully understand the rationale for the supervised contact and how it will be conducted.
It is good practice for the social worker to hold a meeting, before the contact starts, between parents, the contact supervisor and the child's carers in order to discuss the details of the contact; agree the Supervised Contact Written Agreement, and to introduce the contact supervisor to the parents. Usually this will be possible as part of the Placement Planning Meeting. The contact supervisor and any other person involved in the supervision of the contact should have copies of the placement plan and the Written Agreement with the parents.
Significant changes to child/young person's plans, Court proceedings and/or decisions made about the frequency of future contact are all likely to be potential tension points so extra vigilance should apply at any contacts arranged around these times.
In the event of problems emerging, the contact supervisor must be clear who to contact and what details they will need to share.
The contact supervisor must immediately report to the social worker any concerns about the parents' conduct during the contact. The social worker in consultation with his/her manager should consider the need to review the risk assessment and/or the contact arrangements in light of the concerns expressed.
Once the case is allocated to the contact supervisor, s/he should complete the Contact Arrangements Form. This provides the most basic practical arrangements such as who the child is collected from, transport arrangements, telephone contact numbers of key people and can be used in case the contact supervisor is unable to undertake contact at short notice and another supervisor is needed. It should be retained on the child's file.
3. Written Agreements
The child's social worker is responsible for writing up the Supervised Contact Written Agreement using the template as a guide. It should be shared and agreed with parents and other parties having supervised contact who should be asked to sign. The Supervised Contact Written Agreement sets out the general expectations placed on parents in supervised contact. It should also include specific information relevant to the contact for that particular child in those particular circumstances:
- Brief background including clear reason for contact and why contact is supervised (which should reflect the child's child/young person's plan);
- Frequency, length and usual location of contact;
- Whether there is flexibility allowed for activity or movements within or away from the location;
- Risks and measures to minimise risks;
- Level of supervision;
- In what circumstances will contact be terminated;
- Is the person (s) having contact permitted to give the child food, drinks, gifts or money during contact?
- The adults who will be allowed to attend for supervised contact;
- Other issues.
The child's social worker, the contact supervisor and the parent(s) should all agree to and sign the Written Agreement. A copy should be given to parent(s) and another kept on the child's file. The detail on the Written Agreement may be reviewed and amended at Contact Review Meetings (though any significant variations to the contact itself need wider consideration. See Section 10, Suspension / Termination of Contact.
4. Location of Contact
Social workers must make sure that locations chosen for contact can accommodate any restrictions set down. In more risky situations, those organising and supervising contact might want to choose locations such as contact rooms within locality teams where early and easy contact can be made with other parties or agencies such as the Police. Where there are minimal or no risks, it may be decided that supervised contact takes place in public places.
5. Contact Review Meetings
Contact review meetings provide the opportunity for the parents and those facilitating the contact to meet and discuss how well the arrangements are working. The use of contact review meetings is aimed to prevent discussions, including disagreements about the contact arrangements from taking place within contact sessions or being rushed at the end of sessions. Contact Review Meetings usually include the contact supervisor(s); the parent(s) and either the contact supervisor's manager or the child's social worker to chair the meeting. Contact Review Meetings are most productively used when they focus entirely on the issue of contact (rather than getting sidetracked on to wider issues in the case which can be dealt with in other forums).
Before the meeting, parent's views about contact should be ascertained using the Contact Review Consultation Form. The meeting should cover:
- The views of all parties on how the contact arrangements are working;
- Are the contact arrangements still meeting the child's contact needs;
- The detail of the 'ground rules' of contact. For example: Are parents expected to encourage children to help clear up toys at the end of the session? How are visits ended? etc;
- Any changes to contact arrangements as a result of changes to the child/young person's plan;
- Whether the Supervised Contact Written Agreement needs to be updated.
The frequency of Contact Review Meetings should be decided on a case by case basis and is likely to vary depending on the circumstances, particularly on whether contact is a contentious issue. However, if parents reasonably request a meeting about contact, one should be arranged. Contact Review Meetings should be minuted and copies given to all attendees, with a copy kept on the child's file.
6. Recording Contact
The observation of the interactions between parents and children provides valuable information about the child's needs and parenting capacity. The recording of these observations is therefore important. Contact recordings may be needed in court proceedings or as part of the general child's record. They contribute to the social worker's assessment of the purpose of contact and the role of contact in the overall child/young person's plan. It should be explained to parents at the planning stage that it is necessary to record the contact and the reasons why as well as how it will be recorded. The recording of contact must be approached with sensitivity which acknowledges the apprehension that many parents will feel about being observed and having observations recorded. It is often possible to make notes discretely and write up shorthand notes as soon as possible after the contact.
Please see the detailed Appendix 1: Guidance Notes for Supervised Contact Recording. They provide a guide to the key issues to look out for in the observation and recording of contact.
The contact recordings should be typed up after each contact using the Supervised Contact Recording Form. If the contact supervisor is a Liquidlogic user, they may input the information directly. If the contact supervisor does not have access to Liquidlogic, (which is likely to be the case for sessional workers or foster carers) they should complete the form and send to the social worker for inputting on to Liquidlogic. If there are any significant events to report then the contact supervisor should contact the social worker directly.
7. Sharing Contact Recordings with Parents
Parents should be informed that they have a right to see contact recordings. Contact notes should not be sent to the parent(s) automatically. Instead, parents should be invited to an appointment with the contact supervisor, at a time/date separate from the contact sessions. The contact recordings may then be shared with the parents by the contact supervisor. The parents should have the opportunity to discuss the contact recordings with the contact supervisor. Parent's comments or areas of disagreement should be logged on the contact recording and the parent asked to sign the recording to acknowledge that they have seen it. The contact recordings form part of the child's record. During legal proceedings parents may receive copies of contact recordings via their solicitors.
8. Foster Carer's Role in Contact
The child's need for contact should be taken onto account along with all other needs when finding a suitable placement. Arrangements for contact between children, birth parents, siblings who are looked after and other relatives and friends must be clarified and discussed with carers. The child's carers need to know the provisions of any Contact Orders and they also need to be aware of any person with whom contact is discouraged and the reasons for this. This detail, along with the Supervised Contact Written Agreement should be discussed and agreed at the Placement Planning Meeting and included in the placement plan.
Subject to the child's child/young person's plan, foster carers and fostering service staff must help to promote, support and encourage children to maintain positive and constructive contact with their parents and wider family, friends and others who are important to them. Foster carers must be clear from the placement plan what delegated authority they have to make day to day decisions about contact arrangements.
Although there is an expectation that the child's foster carers will facilitate reasonable contact, social workers need to be sensitive to potential difficulties that can arise when birth parents (and other relatives) have extensive contact with children in the foster carer's home. Contact arrangements should be sensitive to the needs of carers and their families (including other children in placement) as well as those of parents and any risks fully assessed and addressed.
Foster carers may facilitate contact in the foster home or elsewhere. If the foster carer is to supervise contact, the child's social worker should provide clear information about the following:
- Background information;
- Reasons why the contact has to be supervised;
- The level of supervision required;
- Frequency and length of supervision sessions;
- Recording of contact;
- Risk assessment of contact.
If the supervised contact is to be recorded, the same process applies with foster carers supervising contact as it does to contact supervisors (See Section 6, Recording contact). Any difficulties should be reported to the child's social worker and the fostering social worker. Support for foster carers facilitating or supervising contact is provided by the fostering social worker in supervision.
9. Cancellation of Contact
There may be occasions such as bank holidays where contact is not possible to arrange, in which case parents should be informed in advance. Contact should never be cancelled unless there is a very good reason, for example it is deemed that it would not be safe for it to take place or the child is too unwell for it to take place. Contact should take place in accordance with the child's placement plan, Court Order and any Court Directions. If a child refuses to attend contact despite encouragement from contact staff and carers, the child can not be forced to attend against their wishes.
Wherever possible, the contact supervisor/carer should consult the child's social worker in advance if they consider there is a good reason to cancel the contact.
If contact is cancelled, the social worker or, if the social worker is not available, the staff/carer must ensure that the child and, as far as practicable, the parent is informed in advance and that the reason for the decision is explained. The social worker or staff/carer should arrange an alternative contact.
If contact does not take place and consultation has not been possible with the social worker, the staff/carer must inform the child's social worker as soon as possible.
N.B. Contact arrangements must not be withdrawn as a sanction imposed on a child.
10. Suspension, variation or termination of contact
Where it is considered that the child's contact with the parents should be suspended or terminated, the social worker must be consulted and legal advice should be obtained.
Any proposal to suspend or terminate the contact should be considered as part of the child's Looked After Child Review unless the circumstances require an urgent decision to be made. Any such proposal should be made in the context of the overall aims and objectives of the child/young person's plan.
Even where it is not possible to hold a Looked After Child Review because of the urgency of the situation, the reasons for the proposal must be explained to the parents and to the child, and their agreement obtained if possible.
Where the proposal is to suspend the contact, the length and purpose of the suspension together with the basis upon which contact will be reinstated must be made clear.
The approval of the Team Manager should be obtained prior to any decision to suspend or terminate contact. The Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) should be consulted prior to any decision to suspend, terminate or vary contact arrangements on a long term basis.
Where the child is the subject of an Emergency Protection Order, Interim Care Order or full Care Order, an application to the Court for authority to terminate the contact will always be necessary if contact is to be suspended for more than 7 days. As soon as such a decision is made, Legal Services should be contacted as a matter of urgency so that the necessary Court action can be initiated.
Written confirmation of the decision made and, where relevant, the intended Court application, together with the reasons, must be sent to the parents, child (depending on age) and any other relevant person (for example the child's advocate, an Independent Visitor or Children's Guardian. Staff/carers and other agencies involved with the child's care must also be informed.