Maintaining contact between parents and children in care

Posted on 01 May 2017 by Nick Halfpenny

Toddler and dad holding hands on the beach

Maintaining positive relationships with families of origin can be a struggle for many children living in out-of-home care. But for the majority of children, contact with a parent, sibling or relative is not just possible – it is critical to healthy development and the ability to heal from trauma.

A new project is pioneering change in this complex area of care, by developing and trialling an enhanced model of contact between children and their parents. kContact is a joint initiative between the Australian Catholic University, the University of Melbourne, and a number of practice partners including MacKillop Family Services.

The study is based on the recognition that contact can help increase the chances of family reunification and can support children to understand what has happened to them. The enduring connection formed with parents, siblings and extended family is a key part of children being able to develop a positive sense of identity. However when poorly managed, it can be very disruptive and result in re-traumatisation, triggering negative past experiences.

kContact was conceived to help families manage this difficult issue, and to develop best-practice guidelines on how to manage family contact.

The three-year study followed children in care and their parents in Victoria and the ACT. The participants trialled the new model of contact, and considerations for practice were developed based on a study of their experiences. These considerations were a key topic of discussion at a recent workshop attended by the research team and practice partners.

The model of contact emphasises proper planning of visitations, from thinking about the purpose of the contact to managing expectations of children and relatives.

Dr Robyn Miller, CEO of MacKillop Family Services addressed the workshop, discussing the importance of contact in helping young people to heal from trauma and develop positive relationships with their families.

“How can you help children remain emotionally connected to their families despite a physical separation, and form some sort of coherent narrative about their experiences? If we’re thinking about healing from trauma, all the literature talks about the person being able to have a sense of understanding and meaning about what’s happened to them,” she said.

The importance of hope and meaning were key themes of Robyn’s presentation, encouraging participants to reflect on how we can hold on to hope for children as they work towards healthy futures.

“If we can support our case workers to hold all the complexity, then we are doing a real service to children and they will have a much greater chance of being able to build a sense of meaning and hope about their families and their lives.”

MacKillop is strengthening our focus on support around practice to achieve the best outcomes for children and young people in our care. Connection between children and their families is critical to these positive outcomes. As part of this we have expanded the number of Principal Practitioners in our Clinical Services team.

These roles support frontline practice with complex cases, assist with the continued integration of Sanctuary and lead professional development in areas such as group supervision and reflective practice.

Find out more about the kContact project here