Maintaining family/whānau relationships
Updated: 24 February 2017
What's Important To Us
When mokopuna cannot live at home it is important that they have meaningful contact with their whānau or family. Whānau or family will be part of their life forever, and they need to have safe and nurturing contact with whānau or family who can help them understand who they are and their place in the wider whānau or family system.
This key information discusses how contact can be utilised to support and maintain the relationship between a mokopuna and their whānau or family when the mokopuna is living away from home.
Purpose of contact
The purpose of mokopuna having contact with their birth parents, siblings and extended whānau or family varies depending on the care situation for the mokopuna. Contact contributes to security, stability and predictability in the life of the mokopuna. If it causes ongoing disruption or high stress, then we need to carefully assess this and see what can be done to resolve any negative impact. There are three main purposes of contact for mokopuna in care:
- reunification with parents
- supporting their permanent placement
- to understand their identity and to maintain relationships.
Contact arrangements are always made in the best interests of the mokopuna, not the adults around them.
Types of contact
Contact is not just limited to face-to-face visits but can also include sending letters, cards, emails, text messages, messages via social media, making telephone calls, swapping photographs or gifts, and attending special events (e.g. sports events, school prize-giving).
Starting, frequency and duration of contact
When and how often contact occurs depends on the needs of the specific situation, the age of the mokopuna, their maturity and developmental stage, their wishes, their relationship/attachment to their birth parents, and their birth parents' support of their placement.
If the placement is planned, contact arrangements are made prior to the placement. Early contact with family/whānau/friends/other significant people may help a mokopuna settle in a new placement.
Caregivers need to understand the importance of contact between the mokopuna and their birth parents, and support contact occurring. In fact, some of our best caregivers work alongside the birth parents, teaching and modelling the standard of care and protection the mokopuna needs and deserves.
Making the contact arrangements
Prior to beginning contact, the boundaries, expected standards of behavour for all parties and consequences of not adhering to these need to be decided, along with the purpose, frequency, type and length of contact.
The mokopuna, birth parents and caregivers should all participate in the development of contact arrangements. If the contact is to be supervised, the contact supervisor needs to be fully briefed about the arrangements, risks involved, and any other safety issues.
Contact arrangements need to be regularly reviewed to ensure they are meeting the needs and interests of the mokopuna.
Write the arrangements down and ensure all parties to it, including the mokopuna, have a copy.
Reactions to contact
It is normal for a mokopuna placed away from home because of neglect or abuse to have a physical and emotional reaction to visits with whānau or family. These reactions are not necessarily a sign that the visit did not go well or that there is something wrong with the care being provided to the mokopuna in their placement. It's just that feelings can resurface during access and it is not unusual for the mokopuna to express this in their behaviour.
Most mokopuna do not put these feelings into words; instead, their behaviours reflect their feelings and you might see regression (e.g. acting babyish, demanding, fearful, and/or whining), numbing or denying of feelings, depression, nightmares, irritability, bedwetting, aggression, over activity, inattention, and physical pains instead.
Mokopuna may express anger towards their caregivers and/or their birth family before, during and after contact. Some mokopuna cling to their caregivers or birth parents.
It is important for the social worker, parents, caregivers and other support people (e.g. counsellor, school teacher) to reassure mokopuna by helping them talk about their feelings. This provides an opportunity for you to help them understand what is happening for them and how to manage their feelings.
The reactions of mokopuna to contact visits typically include some or all of the following:
- happy and relieved to see whānau or family because they are missed
- confused, especially about why they cannot go home. The younger the mokopuna is, the more confused they will be about having two sets of 'parents'
- angry about the maltreatment and may be fearful of the parent
- sad and angry about being separated from whānau or family, feeling like they have lost everything familiar and cannot count on or control anything
- believing that being taken away from home is their fault
- worried about being disloyal to their parents or whānau or family by liking their caregivers
- worried about whether his or her siblings and parents are okay
- defensive when they sense criticism of their whānau or family.
Some situations may require supervised contact, for example in cases of:
- severe physical or sexual abuse
- emotional harm where the mokopuna is put down or scape-goated
- any situation where the safety of the mokopuna is compromised.
It is important to assess each situation and the need for supervised contact. If supervised contact is required and the plan is for the mokopuna to return home, then we should expect to see a reduction in the need for supervised contact over time. It is important that this is carefully reviewed and that we take into consideration the timeframe of the mokopuna when managing a return home. The child/young person and family consult is a useful tool to assess any danger/harm in this situation and to work out what the next steps need to be.
Those people who can supervise contact include:
- whānau or family or family friends assessed by a social worker as being suitable and safe
- community organisations providing a specialised service approved by Oranga Tamariki
- a pool of selected and trained individuals approved by Oranga Tamariki
- Oranga Tamariki social workers.
The approval of individuals, whānau or family and friends will involve looking into the prospective contact supervisor's attitudes, knowledge, skills and personal attributes, and completing police, referee and medical checks. Approval can only be given by a supervisor.
When a mokopuna has been permanently placed, contact with the whānau or family can be supervised by the caregivers. This provides the mokopuna with the opportunity to experience their permanent caregivers in the parenting role as their supporter and protector, and also helps the parents and caregivers to develop a relationship with each other.
The decision to end contact between a mokopuna and their birth parents or other significant people should not be taken lightly and must involve weighing up the benefits of contact against the risks involved. However, delaying a decision to end contact may place a mokopuna in a potentially dangerous situation. Criteria for ending contact might include:
- a restraining order being in force
- abuse or neglect of the mokopuna during contact
- threatened violence towards the mokopuna
- ongoing negative adult behaviour that affects the wellbeing of the mokopuna and stability of care
- continued non or poor attendance by the parent/other significant people and the mokopuna being affected by this
- parents/other significant people repeatedly violating the agreed terms of the contact arrangements that causes harm to the mokopuna
- the mokopuna not wanting contact.
When face-to-face contact has been ended, there are other ways of providing the mokopuna with knowledge about their birth whānau or family. Making sure that the child or young person has a life events book that captures key information is important, and working on the book with the mokopuna can also provide openings to talk about the various transitions and changes that they have experienced.
When the plan is for the mokopuna to return home
The frequency and intensity of contact is the key to a successful return home.
The primary purpose of contact in this scenario is to maintain the parent-mokopuna relationship and other whānau or family attachments, and to reduce the sense of loss and/or abandonment which mokopuna often experience when placed away from their usual caregiving arrangement.
The younger the mokopuna is, the more frequent the contact needs to be. Infants and toddlers are unable to hold memories of the absent parent for more than a few days, and infrequent contact will affect attachment.
As a guide, wherever practical, mokopuna aged under seven years are best to have three contact visits per week, with the duration of each visit lasting from three to six hours. Wherever practicable, mokopuna aged seven years and older are best to have one to two visits per week.
Young mokopuna require well-defined contact arrangements as this helps them manage their fears and anxiety. Pre-teens and teenagers require regular contact but arrangements need to be more flexible as the focus for this age group is often on their friends, school and activities, rather than on their whānau or family. Talk to the mokopuna to work out the best option for them.
As the return home date approaches, contact between the mokopuna and their parents should increase in frequency and duration and include unsupervised day-long, overnight and weekend visits.
When the plan is for the mokopuna to be placed permanently with caregivers
Once it is decided that a mokopuna cannot return to the care of their birth parents, any contact between them needs to focus on supporting the permanent care arrangement.
Enduring arrangements for contact between the mokopuna and their birth parents are necessary, particularly for older mokopuna who may have stronger ties to their birth parents/extended whānau or family.
When the birth parents are supportive of the permanent placement, contact can occur as often as the mokopuna needs, and in ways that normalise contact (e.g. phone calls to talk about significant events, attending sports events, the two families having a meal together).
If the birth parents are unable to support the permanent placement, then contact with them may sabotage the placement and may not be in the best interests of the mokopuna.
If face-to-face contact with a birth parent is not appropriate or safe, mokopuna can obtain information about their identity through photographs, stories, family tree information, and contact with siblings and extended whānau or family.
Supporting birth parents and significant whānau or family when mokopuna do not live near by
There will sometimes be situations where a birth parent or significant whānau or family member (e.g. siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins) lives in a different part of the country to the mokopuna. This might be because the birth parent or whānau or family member has moved to a new town or city since the mokopuna came into care, or perhaps the mokopuna was placed with a caregiver who lives in a different part of the country. The social worker for the mokopuna has a responsibility to keep in touch with the parent and whānau or family members, make sure they know what is happening for the mokopuna, and facilitate any contact that needs to happen.
The parents and whānau or family members also need to have a key contact person at the Oranga Tamariki office nearest to where they live for the times they are not able to get hold of the social worker for the mokopuna.
Although not ideal, there will be situations where siblings are removed from their parents' care but are not able to be placed together. Contact between siblings should be encouraged as long as these visits are not detrimental to the wellbeing of the mokopuna.
Sibling contact can assist mokopuna with:
- building a foundation for a lifelong relationship
- developing better models for peer relationships
- maintaining knowledge of self and of their immediate and extended whānau or family
- helping make sense of their situation
- developing a personal identity.
Sibling contact may be difficult to sustain if siblings live far apart from each other, if the respective caregivers have a poor relationship with each other, or if the sibling contact is right for one sibling but not for the other. These matters need to be carefully worked through and resolved. Make sure that siblings understand why they were placed separately and provide opportunities for the mokopuna to meet their sibling's caregivers to reassure themselves that they are safe caregivers for their sibling. Giving siblings factual information about each other's home, school, friends and extracurricular activities can also help ease possible anxiety. When contact does happen, games and activity-based contact may encourage relationship building.
In situations when siblings are located in different towns and cities, the social worker support provided to them needs to be consistent with the overall plan for the sibling group.
Contact in residential facilities
All efforts need to ensure contact with birth parents and whānau or family occurs according to the agreed arrangements when a mokopuna has been placed in a residential facility. If there are geographical barriers to this happening, think about how to promote other types of contact, in addition to face-to-face visits. Being placed in a residential facility can be an extremely stressful, frightening and isolating experience, and contact can help settle and 'normalise' the situation for the mokopuna.
Contact with whānau or family in prison
People who are in prison can make requests for mokopuna to visit them. The Prison Director will make the final decision about who is allowed to visit a prison.
For mokopuna who are in the custody of Oranga Tamariki, it will be the responsibility of the allocated social worker to provide consent for the visit.
The frequency and timing of contact visits will depend on the needs of the specific situation – the age of mokopuna; their maturity and developmental stage; their wishes; and their relationship/attachment to the whānau or family member who is in prison.
While it is up to the social worker to provide consent, there is an expectation that the views of the parents and/or guardians of the mokopuna will be sought and taken into account.
When considering whether a mokopuna should visit their whānau or family in prison, the focus must be on what is in their best interests.
Part of any contact plan will require consideration about who will accompany the mokopuna during the visit. Prisons will only allow mokopuna to visit the prison with an approved adult. An approved adult may be a caregiver, whānau member or a social worker and will require visitor approval from the prison.
The prison is responsible for making sure that everyone is kept safe during contact visits. If the allocated social worker has any conditions that they want put in place during a contact visit, these need to be discussed with the prison in advance of the visit.
Conditions may include having the visit take place in a family room (where available) or in a non-contact booth. Alternatively the social worker may specify that only contact via video-link should occur.
If the social worker is of the view that it is not in the best interests of a mokopuna to visit their whānau or family at the prison, there are a number of other ways to maintain contact. These include sending letters or cards, or making telephone calls. The social worker will be able to discuss these options with the prison.