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Keywords:

  • child welfare (in Australia);
  • contact (with birth relatives);
  • kinship care;
  • looked after children;
  • social exclusion;
  • substance misuse (parental misuse and effects on children)

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research with Parents of Children in Care
  5. The Present Study
  6. Methodology
  7. Results
  8. Discussion
  9. Concluding Remarks
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

Contact between parents and children in care is a contested area. Parental contact is recognized to be important, yet may present protective issues; in the kinship care environment, it brings the particular challenges of complex family relationships. Seeking the parents' perspective in a child protection context is difficult and therefore under-researched. This paper describes a nested study within an Australian research project on family contact in kinship care in which the perspectives of 18 mothers and 2 fathers were sought via in-depth interviews. Mothers and fathers described strong feelings of disempowerment in the context both of their family and the child protection system. The relationship between parent and caregiver emerged as a significant issue. All of the parents wished to remain in contact with their children in a meaningful way, whether or not they were likely to resume their children's care; however, contact arrangements presented many difficulties for them. Mothers articulated the need for services that are more empowering and respectful, rather than oriented towards them as failed parents. In order to build appropriate models of support and intervention, we argue for a more inclusive conceptual frame for family life that gives greater recognition to the role of non-custodial parents in the lives of their children.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research with Parents of Children in Care
  5. The Present Study
  6. Methodology
  7. Results
  8. Discussion
  9. Concluding Remarks
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

I had good contact with Olly. I could go and live with Mum and be there every day. She made the rules, but I got to be Mum as well. He has two Mums sort of, but she's very supportive to me. (Rachel)

One worker spoke to me like I was a person. The other one spoke down to me. I'm a human, not a thing, treat me as one. (Stella)

The importance of parents to children whether or not living together is now well-recognized (UN General Assembly 1989). The above comments from mothers of children in kinship care speak to significant relationships that have helped them along the difficult road of recovery from substance dependency to resuming a positive role in the lives of their children.

Kinship care is on the rise in many countries (Cuddeback 2004; Farmer & Moyers 2008; Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2011). Its close nexus with parental substance abuse, together with the complexity of intergenerational family dynamics (Kroll 2007) makes it a particularly challenging area for public policy and intervention. Parental contact in kinship care is understood as a flashpoint for many families (McHugh 2009; Hunt et al. 2010). While there has been considerable research into family contact for children in out-of-home care (Minge et al. 2005), there has been little research on family contact in kinship care specifically (Roth et al. 2011). However, the many challenges of contact are mentioned incidentally in much of the general kinship care literature (e.g. Farmer 2010). This paper explores contact and its place within the kinship family system from the perspective of the parent, and makes suggestions for new directions in supportive intervention. In examining the previous literature, we focus specifically on publications that report the views of parents.

Research with Parents of Children in Care

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research with Parents of Children in Care
  5. The Present Study
  6. Methodology
  7. Results
  8. Discussion
  9. Concluding Remarks
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

The experiences of mothers and fathers subject to child protection intervention are a neglected aspect of child welfare research (Thomson & Thorpe 2003; Cashmore & Ainsworth 2004, p. 22; Alpert 2005). Engagement of parents by casework services is often a challenge, and engagement in research an even greater one. Nevertheless, repeated themes appear in the small number of studies on this topic. These include loss and grief; the importance of contact to both parents and children, but the many difficulties with this; feelings of powerlessness in the face of the child welfare system; and a lack of social or professional support (Thomson & Thorpe 2003; O'Neill 2005; Klease 2008; Malet et al. 2010; Taplin & Mattick 2011). Most research studies are of mothers' views, with fathers under-represented, reflecting their shadowy role in child welfare services (Ashley et al. 2006; Fleming 2007).

Within the kinship care research literature, eight research studies were identified that address the parents' perspective in kinship care as a major or minor focus. Most of these emanate from the USA (Table 1). Most studies (Hairston 1999; Harris 1999; Holtan & Eriksen 2006; Farmer & Moyers 2008; Gleeson & Seryak 2010) referred to a variety of difficulties in recruitment of parent subjects. No dedicated British or Australian studies of parents' views of kinship care were found. However, Taplin and Mattick's (2011) Australian study of mothers in substance abuse treatment with child protection involvement included a large subgroup of mothers (66) whose children were in kinship care.

Table 1. Research studies involving parents of children in kinship care
AuthorsCountryTarget group/care arrangementsNumber of parents interviewed who had children in kinship care
Dedicated studies of parent's views
Gleeson and Seryak, 2010USAInformal kinship care, 80% African-American27 mothers and 3 fathers
Smith et al, 2004USAKinship care for parents in prison engaged in a substance abuse program20 mothers and 5 fathers
Harris, 1999USAFormal kinship care of African-American children20 mothers
Reports of parents' views within a wider kinship care study
Taplin & Mattick 2011Australia (NSW)Protective care for women with substance abuse issues66 mothers
Farmer & Moyers 2008UKFormal (mostly) and informal kinship care3 mothers and 3 fathers
Holtan & Eriksen 2006NorwayParents with children in kinship foster care12 mothers (also 2 fathers)
Dunbar et al. 2006USAAdoptive kinship care30 mothers
O'Brien 1997IrelandKinship care4 mothers and 3 fathers
Hairston 1991USAKinship care for women in prisonApproximately 25 mothers

In these studies, parents expressed much affection towards their children, and stated intentions to resume their care, or at least to play a significant support role in their lives. Varying levels of parental insight towards personal and family issues were reported. Some parents expressed remorse about the impact of their substance abuse on their families. Relationships with caregivers were frequently problematic. Parent's feelings of disempowerment featured frequently (O'Brien 1997; Dunbar et al. 2006; Holtan & Eriksen 2006). Holtan & Eriksen (2006) saw women with children in kinship care as constructing their mothering on the basis of prevailing cultural norms associated with a concept of innate maternal love, burdening them with unrealistic expectations.

Contact with children was a prominent topic in each study. Where legal circumstances allowed, parents often reported that they were engaged in day-to-day activities in their children's lives. Taplin & Mattick (2011) observed that more contact occurred in kinship care and with more informality than in foster care. In her prison study, Hairston (1991) reported many barriers to contact, including a lack of support to women as mothers and uncongenial arrangements for visiting. In the adoptive kinship study, Dunbar et al. (2006) found that miscommunications had often led to mothers' contact dropping off and ensuing disappointment for young people.

The Present Study

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research with Parents of Children in Care
  5. The Present Study
  6. Methodology
  7. Results
  8. Discussion
  9. Concluding Remarks
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

The data reported here are drawn from the Family Links: Kinship Care and Family Contact research project that was conducted at the University of Melbourne in Australia over 2010–2012. The aim of the study was to explore the nature of family contact in kinship care and support arrangements that may be conducive to better experiences for children. The project utilized mixed methods. It included a survey of kinship caregivers; and focus groups and interviews with children and young people, parents, kinship carers and kinship support workers. This paper focuses on the nested study of interviews with 20 parents in which we set out to explore how well these parents felt that family contact arrangements had worked for them, and how such arrangements might be improved.

Methodology

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research with Parents of Children in Care
  5. The Present Study
  6. Methodology
  7. Results
  8. Discussion
  9. Concluding Remarks
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

Ethics approval was obtained from the University of Melbourne Human Research Ethics Committee and ratified by the Victorian Department of Human Services (DHS) and participating community service organizations.

Parents of children in kinship care have characteristics of a ‘hidden’ or hard-to-reach population; therefore, recruitment was via natural networks of family and friendship connections (Higgins 1998) as well as through community services. There was a low ‘hit’ rate, and much persistence was required. Seven parents were recruited via a drug rehabilitation service. Despite much effort in recruitment, two marginalized groups are once again under-represented in this study: fathers and Aboriginal parents. Therefore, the major focus of this study is on the experiences and perspectives of Australian non-Aboriginal mothers.

A naturalistic approach was adopted in which the researcher was an active participant (Quinn Patton 2002). The power imbalance in research with vulnerable groups was recognized (Daly 2009), and efforts to reduce this were made. Interviews were semi-structured and took place in environments of the participants' choosing, often their own homes. Without being previously advised, each participant was given a gift voucher after their interview. With their permission, the interviewer advocated on behalf of the drug rehabilitation programme residents regarding concerns about limited telephone access for contact with their children. Participants were sent a progress report and the final research report (Kiraly & Humphreys 2011). The parents expressed appreciation of the rare opportunity to have their say in an area of deep personal interest to them.

The interviews were recorded and transcribed. A grounded theory approach to data analysis (Strauss & Corbin 1997) was chosen, allowing meaning to emerge rather than be imposed. The data was coded using the NVivo software package (QSR International 2010), with categories added as unanticipated themes emerged. Codes were attached to lengthy paragraphs rather than to specific words or phrases (Miles & Huberman 1994) in order to privilege the voices of the participants. Related codes were grouped into categories, which suggested several overarching themes that appeared to explain much of the data. Results were de-identified. Where quotes are presented here, names have been substituted.

The participants

We assume there was some self-selection bias in those parents who felt able to participate in this research. Eighteen of the 20 participants were mothers. Most (17) were between 25 and 40 years. Approximately, equal numbers of parents were single (11) and partnered (9); all were Caucasian. For most (at least 17), substance abuse was an issue either past or present. Family violence was mentioned by over half (11). Parents had a range of health and mental health issues and learning difficulties. None were engaged in employment. Both the men and at least one of the women had spent time in prison.

Most (15) of the participants had had child protection involvement leading to placement of their children. For most (14), the children were in the care of maternal relatives, usually grandparents (10). Four had one or more children with family friends (kith). Most of the children appeared to be in long-term care arrangements.

Results

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research with Parents of Children in Care
  5. The Present Study
  6. Methodology
  7. Results
  8. Discussion
  9. Concluding Remarks
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

Analysis of the predominant themes of parents' narratives revealed several interlocking preoccupations. Issues ranged over the way parents saw themselves and their role in family life; experiences of contact with their children as related to these; and their perceptions of helpful and unhelpful intervention in their lives.

Understandings of family and kin

A number of parents indicated a perception of their diverse family structures as ‘normal’ and identified relationships flexibly. A father might become ‘Dad’ to more than his own children, a ‘half-sibling’ might be seen as a sister or brother; cousins sometimes included children not biologically related. A small number of parents indicated that they did not see the children as being in ‘out-of-home care’, and a few expressed bemusement at the emergent concept of ‘kinship care’. One interestingly confused comment reflects this:

I get a bit confused between kinship care because I just thought that was normal, but if you're talking about other kinship … Tara didn't know she was in kinship support. She said ‘What's that?’ I said ‘Apparently it's something that we don't know about.’ (Judy)

Most mothers described the low involvement of the children's fathers in their lives. Only seven described a strong connection between their children and the children's fathers; several fathers had died. There were many comments from mothers indicating that ‘the other side of the family’ had disappeared with the father. However, with few exceptions, parents spoke of the significance of their children's connections to each other. A small number said they were pleased that kinship care had resulted in more of the siblings staying together or having regular contact with each other than would be possible in foster care. Many parents also placed a strong emphasis on the value to their children of connections to the wider family, frequently mentioning contact with cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.

The experience of parenthood and the impact of substance abuse

The impact of having children living elsewhere appeared to have taken its toll on the self-image of mothers in particular, as epitomized in the comment:

Well I don't feel like I'm a mother because I don't have my kids. (Desley)

Remorse was expressed by a number of mothers about the suffering caused to the children and their family by their substance abuse.

I broke their hearts many times, promising them I'd come and then just not showing up because I got too off my head … I think the times I didn't turn up outweighs any time that I did. (Liz)

Consistent with previous research, mothers expressed considerable grief about the loss of their children. Several used the phrase ‘I went downhill’ when describing the time when the children were taken. This appeared to be a critical point associated with heightened risk of escalating substance abuse.

I really do want my kids around me. That's the main reason to get off the heroin. Because when I first handed them over, that killed me – and I went on heroin even worse. I really went downhill. I guess it was like a stepping stone for me to learn. I know [with] most parents, once you've had heroin there's not many good chances that you're going to get off it and stay off it. (Liz)

While rehabilitation was always described as difficult, a small number indicated that this crisis was a turning point, as described by one mother:

I lost two kids because I couldn't get off the drugs. I wasn't going to let it happen again. It's the hardest thing I've done in my life to get clean, but it had to be done. You have to hit rock bottom, but I had Olly to do it for. I had Olly's photo with me in detox … I did detox only once. (Rachel)

The two fathers appeared to be more at ease with their roles as parents separated from their children. They wanted to see their children in congenial circumstances, but appeared to be relatively comfortable with the idea that others would raise them. Small numbers however prevent conclusions being drawn from these views.

Most of the mothers made references to their wish for reunification; a number had a goal of reunification with one or more children. Several mothers spoke of working towards a greater involvement with their children as their recovery consolidated, including shared care. Three mothers had resumed long-term care of a child, and one was anticipating a reunification following rehabilitation.

My heart just wants to be with him, I want to put the brakes on and just say look Finn, I'm here for you now, come back and we'll try and start again. (Amber)

Mum said if I can get a new house, maybe we could have shared custody … I do hope for this. I'm determined to get at least shared custody. (Stella)

However, echoing other research (Hairston 1991) and given the struggle most were experiencing with drug rehabilitation, for many these wishes appeared to be unrealistic; most of the children had been in care for a number of years.

The parent–caregiver relationship

The most frequently mentioned issue was the complex and often ambivalent relationship between parents and the children's caregivers. In half the cases (10), this was a mother–daughter relationship. Constant reference was made to the control that parents felt the caregiver had in relation to the children's care, and their own associated feelings of powerlessness. Conflict was exacerbated by child protection proceedings in which caregivers had reported maltreatment and testified in court.

When I handed the kids over [to my sisters], I was turning on [the sisters]. I knew it was going to destroy me, but on the other hand, I knew if I didn't and the kids were taken off me by the Department, that I could lose them for good. (Liz)

With the final court hearing that happened around Tom's custody, I actually got to tell her how furious I was and how hurt, and how manipulative and deceitful she is. How badly she's broken my trust, and that I don't trust her, and just the damage that she's done. So now I talk to her very shallow, very shallow conversation. (Jess)

In a small number of cases, parents expressed resentment that their parenting difficulties were related to a difficult childhood with their mother, now the caregiver of their children.

I know that my absence [means] he's uncertain, he's sad, he's hurt, he's really angry … It's just hard to have my mother say it to me, I guess. That's got to do with my childhood and ‘I think the way you raised me has got a lot to do with my inability to manage anything and all the stuff that happened. Now you have my son, and you're telling me how I need to be’. (Jess)

Central to parents' sense of powerlessness was the feeling that they were locked out of meaningful participation in their children's lives. They wanted to be seen as the parent even while not the caregiver, and to be involved in decision-making.

So I think some focus needs to be on how the parent feels when the child is taken away. Do you still feel like you can be a parent and have your say, in what school they go to, etc … It's as if the day-to-day care has been removed, [so] also your say in their upbringing gets removed at the same time … The carer needs to know that just because you've got custody, doesn't mean you've got the right to have 100 percent say in making the decisions. (Sam).

You can often feel like you have no control … So I think, just to be part of it, just to be informed. It's huge. (Rosa)

Several mothers articulated that help was needed with these fraught relationships:

When Rosie was with my mother I needed support, definitely, because there was a lot of aggro, a lot of hostility between Mum and I. (Sue)

I'd think family-based counselling and some individual. With Tom there'd be some stuff that I wouldn't want him to be involved with, stuff around me and my Mum … I think it would be continual. There's been a lot of damage in this relationship with Mum over so many years that I think we'll continually come up against these conflicts. (Jess)

Despite some resentment, and echoing other research (O'Brien 1997), a number of parents stated that they preferred their children to remain in the family than to be placed in foster care. In a small number of cases it was clear that support from grandmothers had made a difference to the mother's recovery.

Mum stepped back when I moved in. We knew I was moving forward and would get him back … She and I tried to get ‘me and him’ time together. My Mum's been amazing. (Rachel)

Parents' experience of contact arrangements

Whether or not family reunification was anticipated, all the parents wanted to see their children regularly. However, problematic issues of power and control were exacerbated where caregivers had to supervise parents' contact with their children.

I felt like she was watching over me, and I guess there were times where in the heat of the moment I would say things like I was going to take the kids and she would never see them again. So that's why she put those stipulations on things. (Desley)

For some [visits] Mum was able to be a supervisor, which became very difficult, because I just felt like I was always watching my Ps and Qs around Mum. She was this supervisor-type role which added to the tension obviously. (Sue)

While unusual, an example of where this worked was given.

The arrangements weren't flexible at first, but it is now. The first six months I had no contact at all, Mum wouldn't allow it. I was still taking drugs. It was her way of trying to make me wake up. It worked, six months without contact with them. I resented it then, but now I thank her, it's the best thing she could have done. I've been clean for two years. (Stella)

Parents wanted to relate to their children as naturally as possible. Key factors that made contact visits more positive were a workable carer–parent relationship, informality, flexibility, opportunities for activities and low-key unobtrusive supervision if needed. Preferred environments were the home of the child or parent, and outings.

Where family relationships were poor, the parents generally seemed to understand why controlled visits had been deemed necessary. However, they objected to what they felt were intrusive forms of supervision and unreasonable constraints, such as visiting in a small departmental office room under close supervision. While they often found supervision by the caregiver difficult, they experienced such visits as worse. There were no positive reports of these.

But I really didn't like [it] … Because you go to a room, about a quarter of a size of this room, with f*** all toys, there's nothing to do … There's not a lot of options and it's the most dreariest looking room you could possibly be in. (Sam)

Where contact was supervised by departmental staff, parents always preferred outdoor settings.

We used to go down to the beach or to the park, or McDonalds. That was a lot easier to interact with the kids; it was more of a normal kind of situation. One of the Departmental workers would sit at the tables and read the paper … it was completely [unobtrusive] … taking it out of the office was just far better. I had to build up to that though. (Sue)

A new contact centre set up by the DHS was given a vote of confidence by one mother.

[The contact centre] is good because they've got a bigger yard. Ben waters the plants sometimes, we play poison ball and stuff like that. I take the kids their dinner and snacks. We still have an access worker; it's alright. (Teresa)

The two fathers' contact with their children was at the more limited end of the spectrum. However, both stressed the importance to them of this contact.

Regulation and support

There were few positive comments about child protection or the Children's Court. In many parents' eyes, the adversarial court system in which child protection staff and parents found themselves pitted against each other made support from child protection staff very difficult. Parents spoke of their lack of understanding of the legal process and their rights within it; they felt out of their depth in the face of complex, repeated proceedings.

Departmental workers say, ‘We're here to support you’ … but then I'd go to them and say ‘Look, I'm struggling with this, I need a bit of help’. They would put it in their report to the judge, ‘Mother admits cannot do the work. I'm like, ‘How does that sound like you're trying to help me?’ So I don't see that child protection really has support for the parent whatsoever. (Sam)

With a small number of exceptions, parents felt there was little interest from child protection staff in understanding their needs or helping them.

Once the children were taken, they didn't bother with me, but they should have I think. I thought that was very strange. How did they know if I was doing things OK? (Stella)

One young mother had a very different experience with her child protection worker.

Tim was like a friend, he was very understanding. He was always crediting me; he said you've done a top job. When I was having difficulties, I would ring him and he would say ‘I'm going to ring your Mum to come and get you’ … [But] when the Departmental worker's out of my life, what happens then? It worries me. (Rachel)

Two mothers could see no future for parental support within the child protection service.

It's got to be separate to child protection. They can say as much as they want that they're there to support me, but I don't believe that and I never will. (Sam)

Running through the comments about what support parents felt they needed were two overwhelming themes: respect and empowerment. A good relationship with a worker was a central concern. Parents wanted workers to be understanding, non-judgmental and to provide continuity. Some wanted more help with family relationships and parenting skills. Whether or not full reunification was anticipated, they wanted help to build better relationships with their children. Many felt that they were missing out on this.

I guess that's all I want to offer, is that it's very important for the parents to have support as well. (Rosa)

If they put you down you want to go back [to the drugs]. You could lose it if they're on your case … You've got to have a worker you get along with, that you can open up with. (Rachel)

You need to get confidence. It would be good if [they] could just help out with day to day things, show me that I can do it. (Tara)

My son and I, we're doing family therapy together and he's got his space to [talk]; it's made me look back and see that I did need help with parenting as well … When you're an addict you get really lost in your own little world. (Rosa)

A small number suggested that within supportive therapeutic relationships, they needed to be challenged in relation to the impact of substance abuse on their parenting.

I had a counsellor who totally understood everything that I was going through … and he could see through you if you were bullshitting. People on hard drugs need to learn the hard truth of it. They need to learn that you're going to lose your kids if you don't pull up and become part of their life. They need to learn about the damage that it does to the children. (Liz)

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research with Parents of Children in Care
  5. The Present Study
  6. Methodology
  7. Results
  8. Discussion
  9. Concluding Remarks
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

The findings of this study have much in common with previous kinship care research in highlighting acute problems in parental contact, the parent–carer relationship and contact supervision by caregivers. In addition, the results suggest that current conceptualizations of kinship care may limit the capacity for effective intervention. Two enduring concepts – ‘maternal love’ and ‘nuclear family’ – appear to influence the construction of kinship care support, and to create ramifications for family relationships and parental contact experiences that are not always helpful.

The mother's role is constantly portrayed in modern society as ‘at the heart of the family’ (Humphreys 1994); the construct of ‘nuclear family’ privileges mothering (and sometimes fathering) as a natural state of being. As in foster care, substitute parent-figures are seen as building a new kinship nuclear family with its own boundaries around the child (Brown et al. 2002). This feeds a sense of powerlessness in the ‘failed’ parent (O'Brien 1997; O'Neill 2005) and may militate against the parent's chance of retaining a positive role in their child's life (Holtan & Eriksen 2006). It contributes to a volatile relationship between parent and caregiver, which when combined with parental substance abuse may become extreme. These dynamics were overwhelmingly evident in this study, as in other research in this area (Farmer & Moyers 2008; McHugh 2009); mothers in particular described feeling shut out of decision-making about their children. Resentment was sometimes compounded where court orders gave the caregiver (often the mother's mother) regulatory supervision of contact visits.

This approach to care may also lead to programs overlooking the impact on the mother of separation from her children. Several of these mothers spoke powerfully about this crisis and their subsequent downward spiral into further substance abuse. If these life issues go unaddressed, child and caregiver may also be abandoned to ongoing traumatic parental contact experiences. Elsewhere we report the profound impact of unsatisfactory parental contact as described by children in kinship care (Kiraly & Humphreys 2012). Nevertheless, research (Sen & Broadhurst 2011) indicates that, with some qualifications, most children do want to retain some form of contact with mother and/or father. With greater support, the crisis of separation might more often be a turning point for the better for parents and children whether living together or not, as it was for a small number of mothers in this study.

The limited ‘nuclear family’ model further contributes to the marginalization of troublesome parental contact as an encapsulated experience separated off from the ‘recreated family’. This rarely works well. Parents in this study overwhelmingly expressed strong dislike of child protection supervision of their visits, particularly when in the confines of Departmental office buildings, just as did the children in our study (Kiraly & Humphreys 2012). From this kinship research and our previous research on infants in care (Humphreys & Kiraly 2009), it appears that such contact is often a negative experience for all, and wasteful of scarce resources. It also generates a proliferation of legal appeals about contact arrangements that compound conflict and distress for children, caregivers and the parents themselves. Overwhelmingly, parents prefer to visit with their children more naturally, if possible with unobtrusive supervision. Despite tensions and conflict, most appear to prefer supervision by a family member. With ongoing support to all parties, this may be possible in more cases. Nevertheless, parental contact will remain difficult for many families. External supervision and support will be necessary for some; this is likely to be better performed by community services independent of adversarial legal processes. Where possible, supervision should entail non-intrusive watchfulness, closely tied to ongoing support of children, parents and caregivers. This is difficult work, requiring specialized training (Gleeson & Philbin 1996; Farmer & Moyers 2008). Contact centres are a good alternative for some young families. Young people may at times need assistance to find their own emotionally safe options, or be permitted to cease contact until they decide otherwise. For a small number where contact is highly distressing to children and problems are intractable, no contact may be indicated at least for some time.

Finally, concepts of maternal love and nuclear family may lead to a limited and often unrealistic notion of ‘family reunification’. As in other research cited (Hairston 1991; Smith et al. 2004; Holtan & Eriksen 2006; Gleeson & Seryak 2010), many of these parents expressed aspirations to resume care of their children but there were indications that most were unlikely to do so. Nevertheless, all the parents in this sample were interested in their children, and keen to maintain contact. A preoccupation with ‘full reunification’ (Clare 2002) appears to have led to a dearth of support services for parents where such reunification appears unlikely. Holtan & Eriksen (2006, p. 190) suggest that a ritual of contact aimed at realizing the ideal of maternal love under meagre practical circumstances hits strongly at the mothers' self-esteem. ‘This hinders them in negotiating relations with their child in keeping with the actual situation they are in’. These authors suggest that, unlike for fathers, mothers labour under a cultural taboo against admitting any preference to remain child-free. This may impede the development of ways to help mothers adjust to a different role in their children's lives, to build relationships with their children and the children's carers, and to manage social pressures on them as women whose children do not live with them. Harris (1999, p. 162) suggests that ‘focusing on the mother's relationship with her children and their extended family is likely to have benefits for children whether they return to the mother's care or remain with kin’. Significant energy needs to be invested in the difficult work of building alliances between parents and carers. Greater attention is also needed to engaging fathers and encouraging their participation in children's lives.

A redefinition of family reunification by Pecora et al. (2000, p. 330) suggests a more creative orientation to helping parents establish a positive role in their children's lives:

Family reunification is the planned process of safely reconnecting children in out-of-home care with their families … It aims to help each child and family to achieve and maintain, at any given time, their optimal level of reconnection – from full re-entry of the child into the family system to other forms of contact, such as visiting, calling, or corresponding, that affirm the child's membership in the family, and to contact with the family even following termination of parental rights and responsibilities.

Bengston (2001, p. 4) draws attention to the changing form and meaning of family, ‘expanding beyond the nuclear family structure to involve a variety of kin and non-kin relationships’ that provide a latent network of support including, when needed, the full-time care of children. The experiences of the parents and children who participated in the Family Links research reinforce the view that tired concepts of ‘nuclear family’ and ‘extended family’ are due for replacement. We need an inclusive definition of family if we are to influence the policy agenda to improve children's life chances (Edwards & Gillies 2012; Ridge & Featherstone 2012). We thus suggest a contemporary definition that includes kinship families:

A family is a group of people who see themselves as such due to relationship by blood, cohabitation, legal orders or significant personal connection.

Research by Dill (2010) has also highlighted the unique qualities of kinship care, and the need for intervention that is separate and discrete from the current foster care paradigm. A broader understanding of family might allow those intervening with children to work on a larger canvas, and to hear the views of parents and children who tell us that siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents are also of great importance to children's well-being (Brown et al. 2002; Kiraly & Humphreys 2012). A family systems approach (O'Brien 2009) is needed, together with an empowerment model of intervention that recognizes the changing roles of individuals within the family system and helps with necessary adjustments. Such an approach may also enable the mother to focus on her issues as a person and as a figure of continuing importance in her child's life rather than on a role as primary caregiver, and the father to stay in the picture more often. Given the complexity of the protective kinship family environment, this work will, however, remain challenging.

Concluding Remarks

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research with Parents of Children in Care
  5. The Present Study
  6. Methodology
  7. Results
  8. Discussion
  9. Concluding Remarks
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

Our findings support a growing body of research indicating that more attention is needed to parental contact in kinship care. A tangled web of family dynamics is at play, especially where substance abuse is a factor. Both parents and children need a greater say in whether, when and under what circumstances they have contact. Effective support for parents includes an understanding of mothers and fathers as individuals with particular needs, and of the complex issues that mothers grapple with when they can no longer raise their children. Such an approach might help families to live with and manage their problems more effectively, rather than grappling with unhelpful cultural stereotypes and intrusive, but often unsuccessful attempts to fit into a wrong mould.

In order to create better interventions in this most difficult area, the work of involving vulnerable parents in research needs to continue. Some mothers and fathers can be accessed through rehabilitation and corrective services; with persistence, others can be reached through community networks. They have much to tell us.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Research with Parents of Children in Care
  5. The Present Study
  6. Methodology
  7. Results
  8. Discussion
  9. Concluding Remarks
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

The authors thank the parents who participated despite difficult circumstances, and the kinship carers and staff of participating agencies who assisted with recruitment. We also acknowledge with gratitude the Victorian DHS, the Office of the Child Safety Commissioner, the R.E.Ross Trust and the Creswick Foundation who all assisted financially and/or in-kind.

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  4. Research with Parents of Children in Care
  5. The Present Study
  6. Methodology
  7. Results
  8. Discussion
  9. Concluding Remarks
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
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