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Family connection

Young people and their families

Young people in care have individual responses to their families. Some will have established ongoing relationships, others may want to reconnect and others may want no contact at all. Whatever the young person's relationship is with their family, don't make assumptions about what you think is best for them. Support the young person so they can:

  • recognise and experience healthy relationships
  • make decisions about what is best for them when planning family connection.

Parents who have experienced trauma themselves may exhibit behaviour that may prove to be an obstacle to a safe and positive relationship between them and the young person. Positive contact during the young person’s time in care can assist the young person to navigate these relationships during their transition to adulthood.

Many young people will go home to their parents at some point while in care or as adults. Equipping them to make safe decisions about visiting or living at home is an important part of preparing for adulthood. This may require safety planning and the involvement of safety and support networks.

Other important family members such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins may be useful in helping to maintain family connection.

Family is central to connection to culture and community for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. We need to take active steps to ensure connection to family, culture, community and country is maintained—and established where it does not exist.

Relational permanency into adulthood

The principles of relational, physical and legal permanency recognise that all young people need:

  • consistent, predictable and loving relationships
  • a sense of connection and belonging to families and communities
  • stable care arrangements.

Young people transitioning to adulthood also need to continue existing relationships and establish new, enduring relationships.

Existing relationships can be maintained through family contact, cultural and community connections and relationships at school, while new relationships can be formed with carers and their communities and networks.

For young people in care, continuity of a care arrangement on its own is unlikely to result in permanency. Care arrangements need to meet the young person’s social and emotional needs in order to have the best chance of achieving relational permanency.

Family finding

If the young person is unable to identify safe and positive relationships, we may need to undertake case work based on the Family Finding model. Developed by Kevin Campbell from the USA National Institute for Permanent Family Connectedness, this model offers methods for locating and engaging relatives and community connections for children who are involved in the child protection system.

Using the model allows staff to seek, build or maintain a ‘lifetime family support network’ for all young people. The process can assist Child Safety to identify relatives and other supportive adults, estranged from or unknown to the child, especially those who are willing to become permanent connections for them.

Application of this model can contribute to positive outcomes for young people which may include increased reunification rates, improved wellbeing and care arrangement stability, transition out of the child welfare system, decreased re-entry rates and a stronger sense of belonging for children (Campbell, 2019, National Institute for Permanent Family Connectedness).

Further reading

The Family Finding website has more information about the model. 

Sibling connections

Sibling relationships are a priority for a young person's current and future wellbeing (unless they are extremely harmful). Siblings provide a natural support network into adulthood and are often lifelong companions and supporters.

Unfortunately, the care system can make it hard to keep siblings together. This highlights the importance of always keeping family connection at the forefront of our practice.

With careful family connection/contact planning in collaboration with carers and parents, sibling relationships can be maintained and strengthened while in care.

My care journey started when I was 14 years of age. I had been the mother to my three beautiful young sisters since they were born as my mother wasn’t able to look after us. When we came into care my sisters and I were separated, I can recall the time, date and name of the worker but more so I can remember the sharp pain I felt in my heart when I was told to give my 12 month old sister to a stranger.

Bec, 20 years (Standing on Our Own Two Feet Booklet, CREATE)

The power of language

Be sensitive to the fact that young people may have very functional relationships with family or very complex and difficult relationships. Using labels to define family can be unhelpful and insensitive. A young person may describe a long-term carer as Mum or Dad, so use of these terms could be confusing.

Rather than using terms such as ‘birth’ or ‘natural’ family, let the young person lead and guide in their use of language and description of their family members.

Practitioners often use language like ‘self-placing’ or ‘unapproved placement’ when a young person identifies relationships that they are choosing to develop outside of the safety and support network. Use of these terms suggests a judgement of the young person’s decision making so it might be advisable to use other language. Be careful and sensitive about how we describe the living arrangements and relationships that young people develop and take the opportunity to teach them about safe and healthy relationships in these circumstances.

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