Looking after the family: a study of children looked after in kinship care in Scotland

Study commissioned by the Social Work Services Inspectorate, now the Social Work Inspection Agency.

5 Maintaining family links with parents and siblings

I want to stay with my mum more often. We miss her, we always miss her. We all want to see our mum.

Contact and looked after children

The maintenance of family links for looked after children has been a central issue in policy research and literature for several decades. Contact between looked after children and their parents has long held to be important for three reasons. First, it prevents the breakdown of placements (Triseliotis 1989; Berridge and Cleaver 1987). Secondly, it facilitates children's return to live with their families (see, for example, Aldgate 1980; Cleaver 2000). Thirdly, it is said to enhance children's intellectual, emotional and social development, although, as Quinton et al. (1997) point out, the evidence shows no systematic relationships between contact and emotional or behavioural development or intellectual attainment' (p. 402). Cleaver (2000) has suggested that there are circumstances when contact can be detrimental to children's well-being. However, Owusu-Bempah (2006) believes that socio-genealogical connections, that is to say, knowledge of one's roots and birth family, can positively affect children's sense of attachment and, consequently, well-being.

More recently, there has been a growing interest in relation to children maintaining contact with siblings (Hunt 2001). Kosenen, for example, argues that:

Siblings are potentially a resource to each other in terms of developing identity, maintaining knowledge of self and family and providing support in shared adversity (Kosenen, cited in Hunt 2001 p. 17).

The importance of contact with families is recognised in law. Guidance and regulations for looked after children describes how section 17 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 asserts that:

The local authority has a duty to promote direct contact between children looked after by them and their parents or people with parental responsibilities. There is a responsibility on a local authority not just to enable contact to happen but to actively encourage and facilitate it (Scottish Office, Social Work Services Group 1997 p. 8).

Guidance goes on to define the purpose of contact:

Contact has two primarily important purposes. Firstly to enhance the psychological and developmental progress and well-being of children who are away from their families, and secondly, to increase the likelihood, and smooth the way, for a child to return to live with his or her family where that is consistent with the child's welfare (Scottish Office, Social Work Services Group 1997, p. 9).

In general, the USA research reports that kinship care does encourage more frequent and regular contact (see Hunt 2001). In some studies, it is difficult to tell who the contact is with but there is a suggestion that fathers are 'invisible'. In her Northern Irish study, Lernihan reports a significant difference between the children in kinship care and children in foster care with nearly half the children in kinship care seeing their mother on a weekly basis compared with less than a tenth of children in foster care (Lernihan 2003 p. 160).

Research in England (for example, Rowe et al. 1984 and Cleaver 2000) suggests that it is more likely that children will only have contact with their mothers. Although Lernihan's Northern Irish study confirmed that children had less contact with their fathers, she also found that the contact that did take place was still more than the contact experienced by children in foster care. Hunt reports findings from a Swedish study that found that children maintained contact with fathers as well as mothers (Bergerhead 1995 in Hunt 2001 p. 19). UK research also suggests that kinship placements do encourage more frequent contact between parents and children. Rowe et al. (1984), for example, found that contact was three times more likely than in non-related placements. Tan (2000) found that regular contact with parents arranged informally was a feature of kinship care. Harwin (2001) found that, while kinship care helped to maintain family relationships, it also tended to decline over time. Several research studies have suggested that kinship carers have a high level of commitment to maintaining contact (see Hunt 2001).

Focus of contact in the study

It was outwith the remit of this study to evaluate the impact of contact on the return of children to their families. It can only be said, as shown in Chapter 3, that carers expected the majority of children would be staying with them for the duration of their childhood. Where carers hoped that children might return to their parents, there was a range of contact from weekly to less than once a month.

In Chapter 4, children identified seeing their parents as an important issue. This chapter looks at the frequency of contact between children and parents and the issues that the management of contact raises for children and carers.

Frequency of contact

Both children and carers were asked about contact between the children and their parents. Twenty-nine of the 30 children had at least one living parent and only five of these had contact with both birth mother and father.

Contact with mother

Chart 5.1 Children's contact with mother

Chart 5.1 Children's contact with mother image

As chart 5.1 shows, of the 26 children whose mothers were alive, seven saw their mothers once a week or more, four saw them once a month, 11 saw their mothers less than once a month and four children never saw their mother.

Of those who had contact, 16 wanted to see more of their mothers:

I want to stay with my mum more often. We miss her.

Six were happy with the arrangements. The four children who never saw their mothers did not express any wish to see them:

Mum couldn't look after us properly - she wasn't coping. It was never suitable for us to go back. Then we haven't wanted to go back - we don't want contact with mum.

These children had either been in the placement since they were babies or they had been severely neglected as small children. One child who did not see his mum described how upsetting it was to be left at strangers houses for days at a time:

I was crying every night.

He also spoke of 'a lot of injecting going on' at home and in other houses.

Contact with father

Chart 5.2 Children's contact with father

Chart 5.2 Children's contact with father image

Chart 5.2 shows that, of the 28 children whose birth fathers were alive, five saw them once a week or more, three saw them once a month and four saw them less than once a month. Well over half the children never saw their fathers.

Of the 12 children who had some contact with their fathers, eight wanted to see more of them. The remaining four were content with the arrangements. Of those who never saw their fathers, only two wanted to see him:

I just want to know his name.

One of these had never known his birth father but he held in his mind an image of a father figure whom he idolised and wished to meet. The rest did not want to see their fathers:

I don't like talking about my dad.

Dynamics of contact

The evidence from a range of research on contact in kinship care suggests that, while it may happen more than in stranger foster care, it is not without problems (see Hunt 2001). A UK study by Laws (2001) found that relationships between carers, children and parents can be problematic and challenge the cosy view of kinship care. O'Brien (1999) found the presence of conflictual families in her Irish study. A New Zealand study by Smith et al. (1999) reported that carers found the relationship with parents stressful.

In this study, carers talked about the pros and cons of children seeing their parents. There was a general view that children needed to see their parents and that it was important for them to keep in touch. Sometimes carers had to manage contact with two parents separately, which could be difficult.

We asked carers what they thought about the frequency of the children's contact with their mothers. There were three patterns.

In the first pattern, which represented five cases, carers felt that children saw their mothers too often. In four of these cases, children were seeing their mothers more than once a week. All the mothers had problems with substance misuse. In the second pattern, which included over half the cases, carers were content about the frequency of children's contact with their mothers. In the majority of these cases children saw their mothers once a month or less. Finally, there were also five cases where the children saw their mothers less than once a month and carers thought that this was not enough. Although carers had concerns about the nature of contact in all these cases, they were aware of the importance to the child of contact being maintained:

I told her I don't want to affect your relationship with your mum, so what goes on between you and your mum, it's between you and your mum. I'm no going to hate you for it.

They need to see their mum; their mum is everything.

They should see their mum more. The children tell me she was a good ma. They were her pride and joy. The children miss her.

In spite of carers feeling children should see their parents, this did not come without some reservations. These included:

  • risks to the children
  • letting the children down
  • emotional stress
  • being hurt by seeing a new family
  • coming to terms with the shortcomings of their parents

The carers' reservations in this research echo the findings of research by Barnard (2003) with parents who have children placed in kinship care. Barnard (2003) has described the tensions that can exist between carers and parents. Sometimes parents feel undermined by their family taking over the care of their children.

Risks to the children

Carers felt there was a risk factor if children saw mothers in their homes and sometimes found themselves in the role of parent, having to tell their son or daughter that they could not come and visit their child when they were under the influence of drugs. Two carers barred the door to parents whom they considered not to be in a fit state to see the children. These carers felt that children's behaviour was adversely affected by contact with parents:

It's very destructive.

Being let down

There was also concern that parents frequently let children down by not turning up when promised. This was mainly because the parents made no effort:

She keeps phoning and saying she'll come and take them out but she never appears. She keeps letting them down, so I've told her not to bother phoning if she is going to do that.

Mum promised to come at Christmas and didn't come.

She [mum] never gets in touch (or when she does) a lot of times she was half an hour late and she only gets an hour to see him.

Emotional stress

In addition there was an emotional stress as some children got upset when returning from contact visits:

It's the school that usually reports. I have communications with the school because they see quite a big difference, her concentration becomes way down.

Chloe has flaky skin which is bought on by seeing her mum, although she is dying to see her.

The main concern was that children were upset by the contact and this had an impact on their behaviour:

The school can always tell if Ian has seen his mum because his behaviour goes right down. But I think it's the fact that his mum promises him everything, awe you're going to come back and live with us, you're going to get this and you're going to get that. But he's not getting it.

Being hurt by seeing a new family

One important issue that emerged from the study was that some parents had established new households with new partners and children of the partnership. The kinship children found it upsetting to visit these new families and sometimes could not understand why they could not be part of the new family:

Ewan likes to see them [new family] but he gets sad as he cannot stay.

Callum's brother winds him up by boasting about the new family. Callum retaliates by fighting.

Coming to terms with the shortcomings of their parents

Several children were beginning to recognise the differences between the surroundings and behaviour within the kinship households and their parents' circumstances and behaviour. Visiting parents heightened the contrast between the homes. For example, one child described their parental house as:

It's a bit of a tip - quite depressing - bottles of drink, he chains-smokes and there is the mess of the cat.

Some children were irritated at what they perceived as the bizarre behaviour of their parents, induced by mental health problems or substance misuse. Children were especially embarrassed by the strange behaviour of the parents in public places:

I am happy to see mum but it annoys me 'cos I tell her something and she then asks me the same question.

I just lie on the bed as she's always not feeling well.

I sometimes feel embarrassed as she shouts and still drinks a lot.

Where does contact take place?

Generally contact was face to face but there was some telephone contact . Some children who saw their parents frequently also phoned them. Most households had a landline and some of the children had mobile phones.

Contact most frequently took place at the carer's home or at the home of one or both parents. In some cases the parent had kept the child's room:

At mum and dad's I watch videos, play Monopoly or go to my room. I like my room. It's pink and has Barbies.

There was a minority of cases where contact took place either in a nursing home or a prison. In these cases, carers made a point of ensuring that regular contact took place:

I get the hospital bus to the nursing home on a Wednesday night. We've gone every week for 11 years.

There was also a small number of cases where contact took place in a neutral venue like a café or train station. In at least two of these cases, parents used to meet children at carers' homes but had been persuaded by carers to meet outside the home. In two cases, carers had negotiated with the social work department to stop parents meeting children at their homes because of parents' behaviour:

We sometimes pick [mum] up from the train station. She sometimes comes here and stays in the bed and breakfast up the road. We sometimes go to visit her at the train station. We don't go to where she stays.

There were three cases of supervised contact. In two cases, this took place in the social work department. In one case - where arrangements were in danger of breaking down because the parent often arrived late upsetting everyone - the social work department asked the carer to take responsibility for contact arrangements, which she happily agreed to do. In fact, the carer said that the arrangements worked much better when she was able to control them rather than having to fit in with the social work department. This was a good example of family-led services as the carers were empowered to control the arrangements and the child had more quality time with the parent. The child told us:

I see my mum at mum's house now for a good few hours at a time (6 till 10 o'clock) - with gran and granddad and not with the social worker anymore. I enjoy this a lot. Before, the visits were at the children and family centre but that wasn't good because there were other people around and it was only an hour at a time. It's much better now.

As well as carers taking control of contact, there were incidences where arrangements were improved by children feeling in control. There was an example where a child managed contact with a parent with substance misuse problems. The child had learnt to come back to the carer's home if she found her mother worse for wear. This seemed to be a good compromise for everyone concerned. The carer said:

I'll not stop her going to see her. She knows if her mum's been drinking too much or that, she just comes back home. So it's as simple as that.

This example also illustrates the reality of keeping contact going for some families. In another case, the carer left it to a very mature adolescent to write to her mother (and include a stamped address envelope) suggesting a date and time for them to meet each time she wanted to see her. The young person valued the responsibility.

Having fun with parents

Despite the tensions and disappointments, children generally valued the time they spent with parents and spoke about contact positively. Sometimes parents and children spent time together having fun and having treats. Six children told us that their parents took them swimming and ten told us that they went out to eat together. Fast food outlets were the most popular places. Shopping was one of the favourite activities, while others, which happened less frequently, were going to the cinema, cycling and bowling. Alongside these activities, over two thirds of the children who had contact specifically told us that they spent time simply talking to their parents. Just being with their parents and having this kind of communication was important, and enough for the children.

Contact with siblings

Along with keeping in touch with parents, one of the advantages claimed for kinship care is that children can be placed with their siblings more often than in foster care (Hunt 2001) and therefore maintain contact with them. For example, Hunt and McLeod (1999) found that, of 15 children in kinship care only two sets of children were separated. The research from the USA (see Hunt 2001) has suggested that relatives may be much more willing to take sibling groups than non-related foster carers, but there is some evidence contradicting this. In Lernihan's study, only two thirds of children had siblings placed with them or other members of the extended family.

The findings from this study did not support previous UK research about siblings being placed together, however. Out of the 24 children who had siblings, only three were placed with all their siblings. On the other hand, 20 of the 24 children who had siblings elsewhere were in contact with them. As Chapter 3 showed, many of the siblings were living with at least one birth parent or step parent. Most children made no distinction between siblings to whom they were related biologically and those who were step siblings. Both were equally as important to them as children talked about all of them as 'my brothers and sisters':

My baby brother's dead cute. We see him loads. He even gets to stay here sometimes. He's only got one kidney. He's not disabled or anything. He's got four teeth and some growing in. He's not allowed to have anything with sugar on it and no salt.

Only four of the 24 children who had siblings did not have any contact with them. In one case, the siblings were being placed for adoption, a situation the sibling in the kinship placement was clearly unhappy about:

I wasn't happy that my brother and sister weren't coming to stay here … I would like to see them once a week but I don't get to see them now.

In the other cases, the children did not know the whereabouts of their siblings and had no desire to find out.

One particular child showed the complexity of contact by distinguishing between wanting to see siblings but not wanting to see parents:

I like holding my wee brother but I hate going to my mum's.

The main points

  • twenty-six children had contact with their birth mothers. The majority wanted to see more of them and the rest were happy with the contact arrangements. A minority did not want to see their mothers
  • only 12 children had contact with their fathers. The majority of these children wanted more contact and the others were happy with the arrangements. Of the 16 who had no contact, two wanted to see their fathers
  • carers had mixed views on the frequency of contact. Most carers understood the need for contact
  • children and carers differed in their views on contact. Children wanted to see more of their families whereas carers were more content with arrangements
  • carers appreciated that it was important for children to see their parents even though the management of contact presented issues for them
  • there was a range of issues for carers about children's contact with parents, mainly deriving from carers' concerns about children being let down by parents
  • contact mainly took place at the home of either the parent or the carer. In a few cases, contact took place at a neutral venue and, in three cases, contact was supervised in the social work department
  • out of the 24 children who had siblings, only three children were placed with all their siblings
  • twenty of the 24 children who had siblings elsewhere were in contact with them
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