Managing contact time with family

How to plan and organise contact time with family to reduce stress and make it a positive experience for the child.

The arranged time a child in kinship care spends with their family can have many benefits, but it works best when it is managed well. This contact time is important because it allows the child to maintain key family relationships and a sense of identity.

Our advice team speaks to kinship carers every day and they often say that managing contact with family can be one of the most stressful parts of the role. Every situation is different, but there are things you can do that work for most people.

What is contact time with family?

Build relationships

Contact time with family works best when everyone involved makes decisions that are in the child’s best interests. In most cases, contact time is with the child’s parents and hopefully, you will be able to work with them and have a good relationship.

However, that isn’t always easy. Though a parent may have at first been pleased that you were able to step in and care for their child, sometimes those feelings can change. They may start to feel sad and even angry about losing care of their child. You may also find that the child’s parents may continue to struggle with the behaviour that led to the child being in your care, or other issues.

One way to build these relationships with parents and other family members is to keep them informed. You can help them feel part of the child’s daily life by letting them know about important events or how they are growing, changing and developing.

Good examples include favourite colours, toys or clothes, as well as the food they like to eat and activities they enjoy. Having this information will help parents stay connected to their child and make it easier for them to share meaningful contact time together.

Set clear boundaries

The aim is always for the child to have positive contact time with family. However, the parent or family member may behave in a way that you think is unacceptable or harmful to the child’s welfare. Though this can be upsetting, try not to criticise them directly.

Instead, find a way to speak to them alone when they are calm and you are away from the child. Explain what you expect from them and how their behaviour is having a negative impact on the child. If you set clear boundaries and goals, they will have a better understanding of how contact time should work and their responsibility to make it work.

For example, if a parent is not reliable, you may ask them to confirm contact time meetings by phone to avoid taking the child and then being let down. If boundaries and goals do not improve the situation, you may be able to get a trusted and reliable family member to support you.

Keep the child safe

It is a child’s right to spend contact time with parents, but their welfare and safety is always the most important thing and you need to keep that in mind. Managing contact time when there is a risk or if the meeting becomes unsafe on the day is very challenging.

As a kinship carer, it is your responsibility to make sure the child is safe. You may feel guilty or worry a parent will be aggressive if you step in when you have a concern. But you do need to take action stop contact time if it is not safe.

For example, it may be the parent is not in a fit state because they have been drinking alcohol, taking drugs or because of their emotional health. If you need to stop contact, it is a good idea to write down the date and any details about why you made that decision.

The parent may later ask a court to review and make contact time arrangements if they feel they have been unfairly stopped from seeing their child, or if they want more contact sessions. The court will want to know why you stopped any contact time with family.

If a court or social worker is involved, it is important that you keep the social worker informed right away. If you think contact with a parent is not working, talk to your local council’s children’s services department, who may be able to offer a mediation service.

Choose a neutral setting

Contact time with family can take place at the family member’s home or you can arrange for them to spend time with the child in your own home. In some cases, you may prefer to organise a meeting or activity in a neutral setting.

From speaking to kinship carers, we know that contact time can bring up difficult feelings or memories for some children. It’s important that they always feel safe, so contact time spent in a communal space or dedicated contact centre may be a good idea.

If you arrange an activity for the child and the family member, it can take the pressure off and give them a shared experience. It can be a good way to make everyone feel more comfortable and help make contact time positive for the child.

Be flexible and supportive

Contact time will need to change as the child grows and gets older. You should review and update contact arrangements as the child’s own routines change and they are able to be clearer about what they want from that time with family.

Speak to the child’s parents and family as much as possible to try and make sure everyone is involved in making good decisions. If your contact arrangements are part of a support plan from children’s services, you contact them and ask them for a review.

As children grow older, you can more fully explain why they are not living with a parent, or why they can’t have more contact or overnight stays. Getting this right can be hard.

Let the child know they can ask you questions. Try and make sure you use words that match how they understand the world when you give your answers. Remember that children can become very worried about their parent’s welfare.

Contact time with family can be a good way for you to support the child as they establish a sense of identity. You can work with them to add life story material, such as photos, items from activities together and paintings.

Get support

Here at Kinship, we offer a range of free support for all kinship carers, including workshops, online advice and information, and peer-support groups.

Contact our advice service to speak to an adviser or book an appointment.