I've found myself wanting to raise the subject of Contact a lot here, but I'm a bit worried about banging on because I've talked about it two or three times. Then again it's a big bugbear for many in fostering.
If you don't know what Contact is, it's pretty simple.
Foster children are required by law to have 'contact' with their real family generally every week. They will tell you it can be a phone call or a letter or a fun session at MacDonalds. It's often a tough one-on-one in a Contact Centre. These Centres are privately run buildings with rooms where these crazily artificial meetings happen.
What this means for you as a foster parent is this; you have to prepare the child for their contact, transport them there and back if necessary, then deal with the child's feelings and behaviour afterwards. I've only once known it to be a good experience for all the parties involved, I've only once experienced Contact being of good use to the outcome. Once. And that was an eight week placement.
Here's the kicker; that placement was a child who had to be removed from his foster carer because an allegation had been made, and the Contact was between him and his long-term foster mum who he had come to love and respect deeply. It was a joy to see them re-united, and wallow in the promise they'd get back together soon, which happened.
Foster children need a break from their family, hence the fact they've been removed.
The foster carers and their supporting social workers need a clear month to do some work with the child. Then, if it's right, we could get round the kitchen table and talk about some form of contact. A phone call, or, in my view, a text chat, would be an ok start. There are exceptions, but generally in my view the first Contact should be delayed for about 4 weeks.
Fostered children aren't going to forget their parents. If they lived to be a thousand years old and never met their parents again, foster chidren will never ever forget them.
The idea behind morbid regular contact is that otherwise the child's relationship with their real parents will somehow evaporate or deteriorate, and this is clearly massively duff thinking, if you've ever fostered.
Foster chidren need a breather from their home life. They need to know their family is okay, and that they themselves are not in trouble for what's happened.
Contact is the law. It's not a social services policy that social workers have come up with, it's a law that Westminster politicians drew up and debated and passed. It kicks in the minute a child is taken into care.
My view is it's a wrong law. It's wrong because it doesn't make things bnetter, it makes things worse.
It doesn't help the child, it doesn't help the 'real' parents, it doesn't help the local authority or agency social workers who are trying to find solutions. It doesn't help foster carers.
These laws are run up in committees in backrooms off the corridors of the Houses of Parliament. A group of cross-party politicians discuss them and hear the thoughts of experts. The experts will not have included foster children or foster parents. Why? Children are considered unreliable witnesses, and apparently so are foster parents.
The law needs to be made more flexible, so that each child's case can be weighed up and a contact programme constructed to suit. Unfortunateley that would bring poor old social workers into the firing line again, because real parents often like to make a fight of everything as if it's the system and social workers at fault rather than the chaotic family life they've built.
So each week we foster parents find our homes pulled this way and that. Our child's progress and stability is thrown to the winds by the prospect of a confrontation which has them climbing the walls with a combination of unrealistic hope and realistic fear, followed by a climb-down of a whole range of disappointments.
And that's from week one.
Weeks two, three, four and so on are the same.
I'd write to someone at Westminster, but the way laws are made and updated I'm told you have to wait until a review of a law is put in the pipeline before it's worth putting your case, and nothing is planned on the Children's Act as far as I know.
Meantime all I can do is offer condolences and spiritual support for every foster parent who has to prepare and support and child before during and after Contact, because it's the most challengeing thing we do, across the board.
So well done you if you're doing it.
Talking often helps, and if you're a foster parent having a hard time with Contact, well at least you know that others are thinking of you.