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Improved contact visits helps foster kids

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ACU associate professor Stephanie Taplin. PHOTO: Supplied

Study finds support for birth parents benefits all involved

New research from the Australian Catholic University will improve supervised contact visits between children in foster care and their birth parents with payoffs in the wellbeing of the children and all involved.

Parental cancellations, no-shows and negative experiences during visits cause children living in out-of-home care unnecessary distress and can disrupt the relationship between the child and their new carers, says lead researcher Associate Professor Stephanie Taplin. 

“When they cancel their contact visit it’s often not because they don’t want to see their child” – Stephanie Taplin

The research, published in international journal Child Abuse & Neglect, led to the development and trial of a new model in which birth parents are supported before and after their supervised contact visits. 

It has led to parents cancelling fewer visits with their children who have been removed from their care by child protective services.
It has also resulted in out-of-home care caseworkers being more receptive to family contact and parents more satisfied with their visits. 

With almost 20,000 children aged 17 and under living in out-of-home care in NSW alone, the findings have the potential to unlock significant long-term social and economic benefits both in Australia and overseas. 

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Contact visits done well help children’s wellbeing and development

“A parent whose child has been removed from their care often lacks good parenting skills and role models, and they are given lots of hoops to jump through without any support,” said Associate Professor Taplin.
“When they cancel their contact visit it’s often not because they don’t want to see their child, but because they find the experience distressing and they can’t cope, and that’s when things start to go wrong.

“We decided to go down this track because we observed that contact visits would take place with key workers who act as the supervisors sitting and observing what happens without providing any support or feedback. It seemed like a wasted opportunity and a huge cost to the system without knowing if the visits made things better or worse.” 

The rewards of being foster carers

Research has shown the importance of contact visits in helping to maintain the child’s relationship with their birth family in order to develop a positive personal and cultural identity. Associate Professor Taplin said they are an important contributor to the wellbeing and development of children who have been removed from their birth parent. 

It is hoped that about 45,000 children in out-of-home care and their birth parents will benefit from the 
kContact Practice Model. Under the model key case workers contact the birth parents before and after each visit to provide them with support by clarifying concerns and expectations or providing practical and emotional support for the next visit. 

Workers said the 
kContact model improved their relationships with parents, with the benefits overflowing to children and their carers. 

The ACU study is the largest to date to test the effectiveness of contact intervention in the out-of-home care context and addressed a gap in available evidence about how best to manage contact visits.

ACU’s research was a joint initiative conducted with the University of Melbourne and 15 out-of-home-care agencies in Victoria, ACT and NSW with children aged up to 14 in long-term care who had regular supervised contact with at least one parent. 

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