Quality relationships form the backbone of social work with children and their families. They are particularly relevant in the close, intimate work with looked-after children who have identified how important it is to them that their relationship with their social worker is positive, warm and meaningful. It is accepted that in order to achieve and maintain successful and meaningful relationships, practitioners need to engage at an emotional as well as a professional level. All too often this requires a trade-off between organizational efficiency and the emotional work of caring for looked-after children. Therefore, it would appear the role of corporate parent is increasingly difficult, involving complex decisions about how practitioners might best spend their time, where their loyalties lie and the quality and direction of the final output. Using data from a series of interviews with practitioners, this paper explores the difficulties of maintaining active emotional engagement with children using the sociological concept of emotional labour.