By Marc Gregory, Practice Development Facilitator, Mercy Community
Supporting contact between a child and their family is a key part of being a foster carer. However, when many people first learn about this requirement, their reaction is one of disbelief. ‘Isn’t foster care about protecting children from the very people who’ve hurt them in the first place?’ There are many reasons why contact between children and their families is vital. Let us walk you through a few key points.
Background: the primary goal of Child Safety
Child Safety is a Queensland government service that sits within the Department of Children, Youth Justice and Multicultural Affairs. Decisions regarding children and their families are based around the primary goal of Child Safety: to keep children safe in their parents’ care.
It’s important to remember that children are removed from ‘harm’, not ‘families’. A child may be removed from their parent’s care because their parent’s actions have harmed them, and/or their parents have been assessed by Child Safety as not able to keep them safe from harm. It’s more about the risk of harm, than the parents themselves.
Child Safety looks out for parents too
As part of its goal to keep children safe in their parents’ care, Child Safety support parents to address their own challenges. Many parents have faced adversity in their lives which directly impacts their ability to keep their children safe.
This can include intergenerational trauma, and being harmed as children themselves. These experiences can affect how parents feel about themselves, their ability to parent, their capacity to build safe relationships and their ability to cope with challenges in life. As a result, many parents struggle with mental health issues, the experience of disability, discrimination, marginalisation, poverty, and a general lack of access to resources such as education, secure housing, health services and employment.
Of course, these are not excuses and the safety of children always comes first. However, very often, parents who have harmed their children have their own stories of tragedy, suffering, loss and disadvantage which remain unresolved.
Understanding there’s more to the story
Sometimes despite a parent’s best efforts, the challenge of healing from their own trauma and dealing with adversity is too great, and they are unable to meet their children’s needs.
At this point, children will be placed in foster care so they can be kept safe. Meanwhile, Child Safety will continue to support their parents to be ready for their children to safely return home again.
In cases where children will never be able to return to their parent’s fulltime care, Child Safety’s goal then is to support children and their parents to maintain and strengthen meaningful relationships and family connections as much as possible.
Why maintaining connection is vital
Unlike children with no parents—such as children who’ve been orphaned—children in foster care have parents, their own families and communities. These connections are crucial to a child’s identity, sense of self and place in the world.
The deep nature of family bonds
Families share biological, cultural and social connections. These family connections shape our identities and our understanding of ourselves in the world. In fact, these bonds are so strong that the majority of children in care will actively seek to re-develop relationships with, and return to, their family of origin after their care experience. Likewise, being removed from family, regardless of the merits, is a traumatic experience in itself.
The love of parents for their children
While Child Safety may have determined that a parent is not able to consistently keep their child or children safe, this doesn’t mean that everything they’ve ever done is harmful, or that they do not love their children—or that their child does not love them. Some children may never wish to see their parents again, but no child ever chooses for their parents to not love or be able to care for them. This yearning will always be with them to some degree.
Preserving the opportunity and choice of children
Children knowing their families and having the opportunity to maintain and build relationships with their families is essential to the child’s healing and growth. Above all, it is their right.
As a foster carer, protecting a child also means protecting their right to make their own decisions about their own family when they are old enough to do so. Until that point, we need to ensure that the opportunity to maintain connections and enjoy safe relationships with their family is maintained.
Positively supporting family connections
Caring for family connections is a big part of protecting children. Positively supporting contact means that no matter your personal feelings towards parents, you are always able to engage with parents respectfully, and hold them with dignity. The ability to be non-judgemental is vital to a foster carer’s ability to positively support contact.
Ensuring sibling connections are nurtured and maintained
Unfortunately, sometimes siblings are separated when entering care. This can be for a range of reasons. Most of the time though, it is due to the limits on the numbers of children carers can provide care for. In such circumstances sibling groups will be split up over several foster homes. What we know is that children in care see contact with siblings differently to contact with parents. While there may be restrictions on contact with parents, children’s contact with their siblings is a different matter, and is often of the highest priority to them.
Maintaining and nurturing siblings’ relationships and connections supports the healing and overall wellbeing of the children. The shared family story of siblings enables them to be a deep source of strength and support for each other. By supporting sibling relationships, we are supporting the development of a safe family network that will provide each of the young people a foundation for life, long after their care experience had ended. When children see their foster carers actively advocating and facilitating sibling contact, building relationships with siblings’ carers, the child’s trust and regarding for their carer grows.
Nurturing sibling relationships is one of the greatest things carers can do to support the wellbeing, healing and growth of children in their care.
The experiences that foster carers have with family contact can vary widely. Sometimes carers will have limited to no contact with parents and family. Other times, foster carers play a pivotal role in parents developing the skills and ability to care for and keep their children safe.
A common theme for foster carers is that while parents may be in conflict with Child Safety, parents appreciate and are grateful for all that carers do in looking after their children. In fact, many carers develop strong safe relationships with parents. It is not uncommon for carers to maintain connections with children and families long after the child has left their care.
Most importantly, children seeing carers treating their parents with respect and dignity is a key part of enabling a child to feel safe and develop trust in their carers.
You’ll be supported by our experienced team
Mercy Community foster care practitioners have the skills, knowledge and ability to guide you in positively supporting contact. More than likely, you will have mixed feelings about this at first—and that’s entirely natural. Remember, it’s OK to feel what you feel and think what you think.
However, being a foster carer means at times you may need to step past your thoughts and feelings to fulfill your obligations for the wellbeing of the child. What you think and feel as the child’s carer is highly valued, however in making decisions about what is best for the child, we are guided by Child Safety.
If you ever disagree with a Child Safety decision regarding family contact, you certainly have options to put forward the matter for review. We all have our own views on what is in the child’s best interest, so it is important that as a foster carer, you feel comfortable to share your thoughts and feelings about issues. Equally, you need to be open to different ways of looking at issues and willing to work in partnership, in the best interests of the child.
Together, foster carers, Child Safety, communities and support services work hard to support children and their families to maintain connections and develop safe relationships. We hope that this blog has helped give you an insight into why positively supporting contact between children and their families is a key principle of the Child protection Act, and why it’s so important.