Beyond contact: work with families of children placed away from home

05 December 2013

We have published findings from an analysis of how four different European countries work with the families of looked-after children after they have been taken into care. The analysis was led by Dr Janet Boddy at the University of Sussex, and examined both theory and practice in this area of children's services in England, Denmark, the Netherlands and France. 

There are 65,520 looked-after children in England, many of whom will return to their families, either permanently or temporarily. But even those children who don’t return will remain in contact with their families in some capacity. 'Contact’ is a deceptively simple term for the complex process of negotiating ongoing relationships, not only with a child’s parents, but also siblings and extended networks, whether that is to support a return home or not.

The research team found both similarities and differences in their analysis. Practitioners in all four counties described working with families of children in care as both a challenging and neglected area of practice. And the research team identified a fundamental ambivalence about working with parents, usually resulting from the potential risk to the child of family involvement.

An important difference is our expectation of the role of social workers, which is different in England to the other three countries included in the study. Children’s services in France, the Netherlands and Denmark tend to be more multi-disciplinary than those in England - routinely including specialist professions, such as psychologists and family therapists, which are exceptional for English social care teams.

The research team also identify some interesting conceptual differences, such as the Danish framing of child-family contact as ‘being together’ (samvær), which emphasises parents’ involvement in children’s everyday lives and worlds. One of their recommendations is that the English notion of ‘contact’ should expand to include discussion of how and why parents and other family members are involved in children’s lives at different times. For example, if a return home is planned, then working with families might focus on maintaining relationships as well as addressing the problems that led to placement. For children who will not return home, the appropriate focus might be on how to support their connections with their extended birth family.

Download the briefing paper: Beyond contact: Work with families of children placed away from home in four European countries (PDF) by Janet Boddy, June Statham, Inge Danielsen, Esther Geurts, Hélène Join-Lambert and Sévèrine Euillet