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In this section: Learn about the importance of the child maintaining a connection with their birth family and guidance on how to make this a positive experience, including managing before and after visits, interacting with birth parents and what to do if a child does not want to attend.


‘There is evidence that a carer’s presence can help a child to cope with any difficulties that may emerge during contact and ... carers can be crucial to making contact work effectively.’
- Sen and Broadhurst, 2011.


What is contact?

Children in care need to be able to maintain positive relationships with their birth families and other significant people in their lives – this is important for their ongoing wellbeing and identity, and is a key principle of the Children and Young People Act 2008. CYPS and ACT Together are committed to ensuring every effort is made to maintain these relationships in a safe way. As the carer of a child in care, your involvement is also crucial. Where possible, establishing positive relationships with birth families can help ensure contact goes smoothly.

Contact is the term used to describe the way these relationships are maintained. This can include:

  • face-to-face visits (these may be ‘supported’, which means supervised)
  • phone calls and letters
  • email, video calls (Facetime/Skype) and text messaging
  • exchanging gifts or photos.

Who may, or may not, have contact with the child you are caring for will be outlined in a Contact Plan as part of the child’s Care Plan, and may include family members such as parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents and other significant people close to the child, like a family friend.

The benefits of contact for the child include:

  • helps the child maintain and form relationships with those important to them, including their connection to culture and community (especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children)
  • reassures the child about their family’s wellbeing and to keep up to date with their lives
  • helps the child manage feelings of grief and loss
  • provides the child the opportunity to have their birth parents and siblings (if they are not living with them) to continue to be part of their life
  • facilitates the child’s return to their birth family’s care when restoration is possible.

Your role in contact is an important one. The child you are caring for may be excited about contact or they may be anxious. Your role is to help the child:

  • Prepare to see their family and friends – Talk with them and see how they are feeling. If they need or want to take certain things with them, help them get organised early so they don’t feel rushed or overwhelmed.
  • Travel safely to where contact will happen – It is your responsibility to take the child to and from contact visits, unless negotiated otherwise with your case manager.
  • Monitor their behaviour before and after contact – Are they acting differently? Are they happy and focused? Are they withdrawn, upset or angry? It can be normal for the child to show some of these emotions so consider what may be typical for them. Show an interest in the child’s contact visit, not just to see how they are and to support them, but to help build your own relationship with the child.

Your case manager can help you understand contact and give you advice for supporting the child.

Contact is an unusual word to describe seeing or staying in touch with family – it is not commonly used outside of the child protection context. For this reason, it can be an awkward word for the child in your care to use and may make them feel detached or different from other children.

As their carer, you may want to get in the habit of using language that is more commonly used in day-to-day life to describe being in contact with people we know. Language like, ‘I’m catching up with Mum’, ‘Seeing Dad’, ‘Visiting Dad’ or ‘Hanging out with Mum’. These may be more appropriate and less isolating for the child to use.

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How contact happens

When a child is on a Care and Protection Order (an interim or final order), it will include information about contact arrangements for the child. In making the order, the ACT Childrens Court will either stipulate the specifics of contact through a contact provision or state contact arrangements are to be determined by CYPS.

Contact arrangements will always be based on a professional assessment of what is in the child’s best interests, and take into account the child’s wishes. As their carer, you will be provided with this information as part of the child’s Care Plan.

Contact arrangements will outline who is able to have contact with the child and how that contact will happen, for example whether any contact is to be supervised, how often it will happen and where. Contact arrangements may also say who the child is unable to have contact with if the potential risk to them is too high.

Focus is given to ensuring siblings maintain contact if they are not living together. This is often incredibly important to all children involved. Sibling separation can be difficult for children. Your case manager will work with you in managing the various contact visits for the child in your care.

When the Care Plan goal is to work towards the child’s restoration to their birth family, the aim is for contact to become more frequent as the birth parents’ situation changes for the better. Your case manager and Care Team will review the contact arrangements at regular times to ensure what is in place continues to be in the child’s best interests (see ‘Changes to contact arrangements’). If you, the child or the birth family would like more frequent contact to occur, prior approval is required, so make sure to speak with your case manager first. You should also speak with them if you have any questions or concerns about the existing contact arrangements.

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Supported contact

The ACT Childrens Court or CYPS may decide it is in the child’s best interests to have contact with their birth parents, or others, supported by another person. This person may be a family member, someone fromCYPS or ACT Together, or a representative of a community support service. This type of contact is called ‘supported contact’, also known as ‘supervised contact’.

When contact is supported, the supervising person will be present for the whole contact session. They will also record their observations about the interaction that takes place between the child and their birth parent or other family member or friend. This information is then provided to your case manager.

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Changes to contact arrangements

Changes to contact arrangements can only happen if it is believed the change is in the child’s best interests. Who has responsibility to make changes depends on who made the original arrangements – the ACT Childrens Court or CYPS where the Court has delegated responsibility to CYPS to determine contact arrangements.

If contact arrangements were determined by CYPS, then changes, if agreed by the birth parents, can be made without involvement of the Court. The identification of changes are first considered by the child’s Care Team in consultation with all relevant people. If the birth parents do not agree to the changes, an application to the Court is required and the Court would need to decide to agree or approve the proposed changes.

If contact arrangements were determined by the ACT Childrens Court through a contact provision, any proposal for changes must be applied for to the Court. The Court then decides to agree to or refuse the proposed changes.

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Getting to contact - transport

In most circumstances, it is in the child’s best interests for you to travel with them to and from contact visits. This can help the child feel safe and supported, and gives you the opportunity to meet their birth family and exchange information. Unless negotiated otherwise with your case manager, it is your responsibility as the carer to transport the child to and from contact. If you feel unsure or uncomfortable about this, speak to your case manager.

While you may not need to be involved in the visit itself, being present and engaged at the start and end of contact is an opportunity for the child to see you and those important to them interact. This can help the child become more accepting of being in care, decrease their worries and help them feel more comfortable about being a part of two families. It also provides the opportunity for you to understand the child’s experience and to help ‘debrief’ them if you notice a change in their behaviour following a contact visit.

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When a child does not want to attend contact

There may be times when the child in your care tells you they do not want to go to a contact visit. If this happens, it is important you make every effort to help the child feel comfortable to go. Any decision for the child not to attend contact cannot be made by you alone. This can only be decided by your case manager or the ACT Childrens Court.

There can be different reasons why a child does not want to attend contact, and they may tell you well before the visit is to happen, or it could be on the day.

If the child tells you early they do not want to go, it could be their way of testing if contact will be changed, or it could be a clear indication they are nervous and really do not want to go. In these situations, it is important you talk with the child about how they are feeling and why (remember to be sensitive and supportive when asking such questions). If after speaking with the child they still do not want to go, contact your case manager for help.

Sometimes the child may not verbalise their feelings early and at the time contact is to happen they may refuse to get in the car, disappear or create a distraction to prevent contact from occurring. If this happens, it is again important for you to talk with the child about how they are feeling and why – help them to focus on the positive aspects of contact, and if needed consult with your case manager. You can call the after hours service is this happens when contact occurs outside of business hours.

If at any point the child tells you they feel unsafe during contact or something happened to them during contact, immediately contact your case manager. If they are not available, contact their team leader or operations manager.

Whenever the child has been reluctant to go to a contact visit, and then attends the visit, it is important you check in with them when the visit is over. Ask the child how contact went and address the concerns they previously shared with you about not wanting to go. This can encourage them for future contact visits.

Remember, if the child’s contact arrangements have been set by the ACT Childrens Court through a contact provision, contact must occur unless an application is made to the Court to have their order changed. In extreme circumstances, a decision may be made by CYPS or ACT Together to cease all contact and immediately apply to the Court for a change of order.

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When a birth parent does not attend contact

Situations may arise when a birth parent unexpectedly does not show up to a contact visit. If this happens, it is important to support the child and not make any assumptions. Tell the child you are unaware of the reasons why their parent did not arrive, but you will contact your case manager to find out.

Watch for any emotional responses from the child and be available to provide support to them as needed.

During these times, you may feel frustrated about the situation, having helped the child prepare and make the effort to attend. For the child’s benefit, it is important not to express your frustrations in front of them or say anything negative about their birth parent.

Take the child home and encourage them to do something they find enjoyable. If you can, spend this time with them as they may feel upset being alone.

Contact your case manager and advise them of the missed contact and discuss options for a make-up visit to be organised or another contact method as appropriate.

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Tips for making contact as positive as possible

Your case manager will talk to you about the contact arrangements in place for the child in your care, including the type of contact they will have, how often it will occur and if visits need to be supervised or not.

While contact can be an emotional time, and if you are a new carer you may feel a little uncomfortable at first, there are a number of things you can do to make contact a positive experience for both you and the child. To help support the child, it is a good idea for you to put in place simple strategies or routines before and after contact visits. Some tips include:

  • Show an interest in the visits and the child’s family more broadly. Always speak about the child’s family and culture in a positive way.
  • Start talking about upcoming contact visits early so the child has time to prepare. Use a calm voice and explain who will be there, where it will be held and what is likely to happen.
  • Be positive when helping the child prepare. Ask them if there is anything they would like to tell or show their family, such as drawings, school work, photos or even something they have helped cook, like healthy muffins. They may want to pick out an outfit or wear a certain piece of clothing. The child may also want to take a favourite toy or another item to help comfort them if they are anxious or worried.
  • Be mindful the child might ask some difficult questions about why they are in care, when they can go home and so on. It is a good idea to think about how you might respond to these questions before the visit happens. Your case manager or another support person can help you prepare for these times.
  • Arrive to the visit on time or call if you are going to be late. If the child is unable to make a planned visit (for example if they are sick) contact your case manager as soon as possible to reschedule. The child is entitled to have a catch-up visit at another time.
  • When you arrive, be open and friendly towards the family and in engage in a light conversation with them.
  • Reassure the child you will be there to pick them up. Let them know what time that will be and if you are going to be late, call to let them know.
  • Allow the child to express their feelings before and after contact. Ask open-ended questions like, ‘Tell me about your visit with Mum today?’ Remember to listen to the child and observe their behaviour. If they ‘clam up’ and do not want to talk, let them know that is okay and you are there for them whenever they would like to talk. It is good for you to reflect on the child’s behaviour and record your reflections for future insight.
  • After contact, be available to the child as you may need to help them calm down and make sense of things – it is best to have that evening free. A lot of children benefit from free time outside after contact. Other activities like a warm bath, reading or enjoying a favourite meal are also good options. It is important though to realise just because the child may be upset or angry after contact, it does not mean it was a bad experience. Help them make sense of their emotions and reflect whether they relate to something specific that happened or their situation more broadly.

Remember contact can happen in many ways, not just through face-to-face visits. Here are some tips specific to other forms of contact:

  • Provide opportunities for the child to stay connected to their family, including by phone, email or letters as agreed in their Care Plan.
  • Help the child send special messages such as for birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and other important events. They can be cards, letters, text messages or phone and video calls.
  • If appropriate, help the child observe days of religious or cultural significance through planned contact visits with their family on these days. These can be built into the child’s Cultural Plan so discuss it with your case manager.

Important

For everyone involved in contact there are often mixed emotions before, during and after – this can include anger, fear, sadness, loss, confusion and for children, sometimes they can appear a little lost. This can at times be worrying but is often a normal reaction to the situation. It is important you stay calm for the child and be available should they wish to talk to you or just be close to you as a source of comfort.

If you are concerned about the child’s response to contact or are struggling yourself with emotions, please speak with your case manager. It is better to be open about these so you can learn how to manage them and be a positive support for the child.

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Interacting with birth parents

For many birth parents, having a child removed from their care can make them feel ashamed and that they have failed at parenting. Because of this, they may begrudge you as you are looking after their child and they wish they could be doing it themselves.

While this may not be the case for every birth parent, it is important to make an effort to not pass judgement. Role modelling being respectful and not passing judgment will also strengthen your relationship with the child in your care and will help them feel accepted by you.

It is important when you interact with the child’s birth parents you:

  • speak positively about their child
  • be open about what is happening in the child’s life, including interests or achievements
  • share events in their child’s life – for example, school sports day
  • share drawings, letters, school and sport information
  • take photos to give to the family
  • support the parents’ efforts to change by accepting them and treating them with respect – this will help build their confidence to care for their child
  • model healthy parent-child interaction.

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