If you're reading this and not yet a foster carer, "Contact" is the term for a meeting between a looked-after child and their "significant others". You, the foster carer, are usually responsible for getting the child to the appointed place - there are Contact Centres all over the country nowadays - and then responsible for helping the child deal with the emotion of it all.
The fact is we foster carers ferry our looked-after children to meet up with the very people who have usually given those children many of their problems.
It's stipulated that Contact is best with "Well motivated parents who are willing to change".
Any foster carer want to tell me they meet many parents like that? Most parents motivation and attitude is poor, but does that change anything?
Parents of looked-after children have probably had to endure their own neglect and abuse as children, probably at the hands of parents who had to endure neglect and abuse as children, and so on and so on. They have my every sympathy. But the rot has to stop.
Do looked-after children need to be sure their significant others are safe? Yes.
Do they want to go home, most of them, regardless of the chaos? Yes.
Do they benefit from the one-size-fits-all Contact of weekly meetings starting immediately they come into care, taking place in a strange building with an invigilator taking notes while parents and children feign happy families over boxes of used toys and old books? No. Sorry, big No.
Doesn't matter where Contact happens, it could be better in almost all cases.
I remember taking a lad aged 10 to his Contact. Every time we went he was heartbreakingly hopeful that this time his mummy would light up on seeing him, would sweep him up in her arms, celebrate him.
I remember the first time; she pulled up in a four wheel drive and scuttled over to caress, not him, but the babe-in-arms of her 5 children, who was brought by another foster carer. She cooed and fussed over the sleeping baby, and told the lad to stop being a nuisance and to go over to her car and get the baby stuff from the boot. He sat on the tailgate crying.
In this case, the Local Authority Social Workers told us that the mother's agenda was that the lad was the reason why the family had problems. He was the eldest, and she reckoned her problems began when he was born, so obviously everything is his fault. On top of that the mother made sure he distrusted his foster carers as much as she resented us.
That mindset is bad, very bad.
However the same Social Worker, as stipulated by a court, was ensuring the child was put in front of this woman once a week where the poor child's feelings of guilt and worthlessness were topped up to the brim.
Here is my own view (and my view alone - I am not speaking for anyone else here); Contact happens as it does, frequently to the detriment of the looked-after child and the child's foster home, in order to follow official procedures which are automatically set to "Return Child Home As Quick As Possible".
And this means, the Law thinks, "They Have To Meet Up All The Time Or They'll Forget Each Other".
Dammit the country's elite were deliberately separated from their birth families for a whole term at a time. Wasn't David Cameron sent away to some boarding school or another aged 7, then Eton, and did it do him any harm?
Actually, don't answer that. But you see my point.
Each child is different, each family even more different. Surely each Contact schedule should be tailored accordingly.
Plenty of good professionals have deep reservations about Contact, but fear the system. Plenty of judges care about children, but have to enforce a Law skewed towards rushing these dysfunctional families back together. The Secretary of State for Education is on record slating the courts for getting this wrong.
Foster carers have a duty to the child to help their Social Worker help their agency or authority improve Contact.
The thing nobody but us foster carers experience is when the child's emotional progress is set back and the essential peace and quiet of the foster carer's home upset in the aftermath of Contact.
- If the idea is to cultivate well motivated parents who are willing to change, we need to teach the parents what to do.
- The Contact supervisor has to be therapeutic, not merely an invigilator.
- Each Contact for each child has to be a separate stage of a planned programme of development for the child and the family, something that is agreed by all concerned including the foster carers and monitored and measured.
One child who came to us needed to have Contact straight away - the next day; it happened. The child had daily phone calls, and Contact roughly three times a week, and it worked because it was right for him.
Most other children who've come to us need a cooling off period, during which they can get their head a bit straight and the parents can be assessed and advised. And the foster carers can asses the child and their needs.
When foster carers volunteer to do Parent and Child care, you get an interesting promotion. Parent and Child fostering involves having a mother (or sometimes father, sometimes both) in your home for 12 weeks with their infant (usually a baby). The foster carer's role is primarily to draw up an assessment on the parents ability to look after the infant independently.
Surely this is an ideal template for the responsibilities all foster carers can be trusted with in relation to all types of placement?
- Foster Carers should be consulted by all parties, especially the courts, on the way to construct Contact for the benefit of their looked-after child.
The Secret Foster Carer