Family connections for children in long-term care, guardianship or open adoption

Wright, Amy Conley and Judy Cashmore (2022-05-23)

New blogpost by Professor Amy Conley Wright & Professor Judy Cashmore, Research Centre for Children and Families, The University of Sydney.

In Australia there is developed a comprehensive set of tools to facilitate and ensure positive, safe and child-centred relationships for children in care and their birth family, that other countries may benefit from.

The state holds authority over children’s relationships with legal parents, with the presumptive right in most contexts that the child’s biological mother and father are the first legal parents (Dwyer, 2006). Through child protection intervention and court decisions, legal parenthood can be terminated, limited (through shared parental responsibility with government) or created (through adoption). Yet even when courts determine children will remain in long-term out-of-home care placements or alternative legal orders (i.e. adoption or guardianship), children have a recognised right to maintain connections with their birth family. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child endorses “the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child’s best interests” (Article 9, United Nations, 1989).

“In Australia, child protection state and territory legislation recognise the expectation for ongoing contact”

Wright & Cashmore

The right to contact

In Australia, child protection state and territory legislation recognise the expectation for ongoing contact, and the care plans that become part of court orders for children in out-of-home care typically specify the arrangements for children’s contact with family members. In New South Wales, for example, one of the principles in the Act (s. 9(f) is that children in out-of-home care are “entitled to a safe, nurturing, stable and secure environment”. Unless it is contrary to their best interests, and “taking into account the wishes of the child or young person, this will include the retention by the child or young person of relationships with people significant to the child or young person, including birth or adoptive parents, siblings, extended family, peers, family friends and community”. In New South Wales and other Australian jurisdictions, when children are placed on alternative legal orders of guardianship or open adoption, their permanent carer/s or adoptive parent/s assume responsibility to independently manage family contact.

“Caseworkers in the out-of-home care sector need a clear set of relationship-building practices to guide their work with children and families that promote children’s best interests.”

Wright & Cashmore

Although most children in out-of-home care or on alternative legal orders have family contact, there is limited evidence to guide their caseworkers on how to support children’s carers and birth families to have positive, safe and child-centred relationships so that contact is a positive experience that supports the child’s development and identity formation (Collings, Neil & Wright, 2018). Caseworkers in the out-of-home care sector need a clear set of relationship-building practices to guide their work with children and families that promote children’s best interests.

Practice evidence is necessary

This need for practice evidence inspired The Fostering Lifelong Connections for Children in Permanent Care (FLC) project, funded by the Australian Research Council (LP180101332). FLC is an action research study that aims to design, test and evaluate relationship-building practices to promote positive family contact and child-centre relationships between children’s two families (carers and birth families).  The project is guided by the principles of trauma-informed, culturally safe and reflective practice.

The project brings together researchers and caseworkers, guided by an expert reference group that includes experts-by-profession who have lived experience of family contact in out-of-home care and experts-by-profession with specialist expertise in trauma informed-practice. Using the Breakthrough Series Collaborative methodology pioneered in the field of child welfare by Casey Family Programs, teams of caseworkers’ trial and refine practices using plan-do-study-act cycles (Casey Family Programs, 2011). Over a two-year period, the action research teams have focused on seven practices including family contact using digital technology, debriefing family members and carers before and after visits, and strategies to support children’s co-regulation before, during and after visits.

A comprehensive practice toolbox

Collectively, the action research collaboration has produced a rich set of practice resources that draw on the emerging research findings as well as co-designed resources with experts-by-experience and experts-by-profession. These resources are described and linked below and can be accessed from the Research Centre for Children and Families website and the Fostering Lifelong Connections website.


References

Casey Family Programs (2011). Breakthrough series on timely permanency through reunification. Series 009. Seattle: Casey Family Programs.

Collings, S., Neil, E. & Wright, A.C. (2018). Practices to improve communication between birth parents and permanent families. Advances in Social Work and Welfare Education, 20(2), 144-150.

Collings, S. & Wright, AC (2020). Two families joined by a child: The role of direct contact in fostering relationships between birth and carer families in permanent care. Journal of Family Studies, 27(1), 1-17.

Dwyer, J. G. (2006). The relationship rights of children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) Treaty no.27531.


Resource name and link Description
Roar

 

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An illustrated storybook for young children in out-of-home care. It depicts a lion cub who has big emotions when he spends time with his father and how a gorilla carer and bear caseworker help him understand these emotions and find ways to regulate and enjoy the time he and his father have together.

Developed by Billy Black, Expert-by-Experience.

My Family Time is Mine

 

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A guide for young people in out-of-home care that explores their rights to be heard in matters that are important including around Family Time, understanding their emotions and how trauma affects the brain, and how they can learn to take charge of reactions. It is full of practical tips and suggested playlists for relaxation.

Developed by Bobby Hendry, Expert-by-Experience.

Wiradjuri Workbook 1:  NGUMBAYY – Sounds, Numbers, People & Family

Wiradjuri Workbook 2: BULA – Family Terms, Body Parts & Colours

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Workbooks designed to support children and their families learn Wiradjuri language together, including during family time. Offers a range of interactive activities and games to immerse children and families in Wiradjuri culture and language.

Developed by Diane Riley McNaboe and Associate Professor Lynette Riley.

Resource for parents – Shining your own light on family time Offers parents practical suggestions for how they can look after their own wellbeing and check in with their own feelings as family time approaches and ends in order to promote positive family time experiences.

Developed with mothers who are Experts-by-Experience, Tegan Whittaker and Chantelle Rozzi.

Resource for parents – Nourishing and strengthening sparks of connection Encourages parents to bring an awareness to what their child and other adult’s in the child’s life may be feeling and offers practical suggestions for how parents can help to improve family time for all involved.

Developed with mothers who are Experts-by-Experience, Tegan Whittaker and Chantelle Rozzi.

Carers as Custodians of Children’s Connections: Safe and meaningful connections with birth family Explores the custodianship role carer’s play in nurturing children’s connections to family and culture and includes information about why family time is important and how it can be challenging.

Developed with the Australian Childhood Foundation.

Linking lives for siblings living separately in out-of-home care: A practical tool for caseworkers to promote sibling connections

 

Offers suggested ways caseworkers can promote ‘linked lives’ for siblings so they can be part of their ‘social convoy’ over their lifespan.

Developed with the Australian Childhood Foundation.

Understanding and responding to trauma expressions to support family time Highlights how children can express their traumatic states via their behaviours when they do not have the words to express their stress. Offers strategies that safe adults can use to co-regulate with children to bring them back into their calm and connected state.
Words Matter: Trauma sensitive language with children Highlights negatively charged language that adults use to describe children experiencing trauma-related stress responses. Encourages adults to reflect on what might be happening for the child in that moment and suggests preferable words to use instead.

Developed with the Australian Childhood Foundation.

Taking the journey toward a trauma-informed approach to Family Time Provides information about the importance of bringing a trauma-aware approach to family time and offers casework practices and organisational approaches that promote emotional and relational safety for family time. Includes suggested body-based activities that can be used to regulate the emotional states of children.

Developed with the Australian Childhood Foundation.

Trauma Expression and Connection Assessment (TECA) Developed by the Australian Childhood Foundation and used as part of the Fostering Lifelong Connections practice trial on co-regulation, the Trauma Expression and Connection Assessment (TECA) can be used to better understand changes to the child’s nervous system in the lead up to and post family time.  The recommendations in the tool are to be undertaken dyadically with an attuned adult. They can support coregulation and relational strengthening so that the child may experiencing soothing and the ability to express themselves verbally to meet their need for connection.
The Bridge and Building Bridges. The Bridge’ & ‘Building Bridges’ films: A viewing guide for caseworkers and social work students ‘The Bridge’ shares the experiences of an Aboriginal young person in out-of-home care. It explores his yearning to know his family and how reconnecting with them in turn strengthened his sense of identity and belonging.

‘Building Bridges’ shares the perspectives of Aboriginal caseworkers about the vital role they play in fostering children’s connections to Kin, culture and Country. It explores their practice tips including the need to actively listen to the perspectives of children and young people and ask respectful, curious questions to build relationships with families.

Developed with Aboriginal caseworkers in Dubbo in partnership with Desert Pea Media, NSW Department of Communities and Justice and Uniting.

Keeping connected with video chats Offers tips for supporting children and adults to engage with one another during video calls and offers suggested activities that can be incorporated to make video chats fun.
Keeping kids connected by playing online games Offers tips and guidelines for protecting children’s safety online when gaming and offers 10 examples of child and family games that can be played.
10 simple child and family friendly online games Provides description of 10 child and family friendly online games that can be used for family time including the recommended age and technology needed to play.
Family Time – from a distance, without technology Explores how children and families can stay connected through sending letters, drawings and cards and offers tips for how adults can support children to engage in letterbox exchanges.
Conversation starters for children and families Offers tips for supporting children to lead conversations and provides conversation starters that adults can use to get to know children better, find out about their hopes for the future and tap into their imagination during Family Time visits.

Photo credits: Colourbox #4315790