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Contact Family: A preventive supporting intervention or a kind of placement for children and teenagers?


Goal. The contact family is a special Swedish intervention for supporting children in families in vulnerable life situations. The child receives an «extra family» with whom to spend one or two weekends every month, some weekday nights and some holiday weeks. The aim is to give the children an extra family, to extend the network, to give role-models and «extra important others». The concept is that sharing this «extra family's» everyday life helps the child to build up resiliency and become better able to handle everyday life in the biological family (Andersson et al. 2001). The members of the contact family can serve as role models and provide good examples of how to handle such situations as family and sibling conflicts (Berg Eklundh 2010). Sometimes the child finds «a significant other» in the contact family, i.e. an adult who understands the child's needs, listens to the child's thoughts and worries and assists in evaluating the child's cognitive abilities. This form of social support is decided on and paid for by the Social Welfare Service in the community where the child lives with the biological family.

Method. The study concerned 50 children living in four municipalities in Sweden who had received contact families in year 2000. It was a longitudinal study conducted over a period of seven years comprising both interviews and analysis of the social service offices' documentation on each of the 50 children in the study. The empirical material was collected on four occasions (2000, 2003, 2005 and 2007). Interviews were conducted with the social workers involved in all the cases, 15 of the children, their biological parents and contact parents.

The bioecological model of human development was a key to understanding the role of the contact family both as a support and a relief for the children and their biological families. This study has shown that within this framework the contact family can be considered as a «significant other» and could thereby have the possibility to influence the child's development, as part of a «Proximal Process» (Bronfenbrenner et. al. 1998).

The social workers' actions and decision-making were examined in relation to their scope of action in their role as «street-level bureaucrats». They are obliged to follow what the laws and legislation proscribe while, at the same time, obtaining the voluntary consent of the parents in an attempt to find the best solution for the child.

Another perspective applied in the study concerns to what extent the children were given an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. The analyses were based on the steps of «ladder of participation» described by Shier (2001). That children have the ability to act and participate is linked to the theories of the new paradigm of childhood and family life in late modern society. Furthermore, the Children's Perspective as formulated in the Convention of Right for the Child is a cornerstone in the Swedish legislation.

Findings. The results showed that the parents who applied for a contact family (often a single parent, usually the mother) did so in order to obtain some relief from their parental duties and/or because they lacked social network. The majority of the children had parents with social problems, such as substance addiction, mental disorder or other health problems. As many as 30 of the children had experienced domestic violence. Nearly 40% had also experienced being placed with a contact family that functioned as a short-term emergency care or foster home. Only two of the children had the possibility to participate in choosing whether or not to have a contact family. Some children participated in the ongoing process of arranging for the contact family and in making the decision to terminate the arrangement, or to move in with the contact family as foster care or a form of supported housing (see Berg Eklundh 2010).

The majority of the children in the study had a fairly straightforward form of contact family support with regular visits to the contact family during longer or shorter periods of time. But for 17 of the children, the contact family sometimes served other functions as well, such as providing short-term care, acting as a foster family or providing supported housing. British researchers such as Aldgate et al. (1999) and Sinclair (1999) have discussed the need for a range of care forms where children would be able to have some degree of continuity during periods when their parents' caring capacity was failing. This would, in turn, besides supporting the parents, also give them a feeling of security about their children's care when they themselves were unable to provide it. The description of these various interventions, i.e. short-term care, shared care and through care, represents the practical application of the contact family intervention for these 17 children. Also Andersson (2009) showed in her longitudinal research on children in foster family care in Sweden that alternative treatment, «shared relationships» or «midway positions» must be created to give children access to better continuity and security in their upbringing.

The results of this study are at the moment being used as the basis for a project of developing the social work with the Contact Family Intervention in the Stockholm area. It's including the engagement of the social workers in work-shops and focus studies. New interviews will be performed with some of the children in the former study; now about their experiences of being in a Contact Family during their upbringing.

The study indicates a need to discuss how this kind of intervention can be used as a part of social work with children in vulnerable life situations and if it can be used both as Respite Care, an extra family for the child, and with the possibility to develop into foster care in critical situations. It's also necessary to form international networks where different countries can contribute with examples of interventions used to fulfil the children's needs.

Key references

Aldgate, J. and Bradley, M. (1999). Supporting Families through Short-term Fostering. London: The Stationery Office.

Andersson, G. (2009). Foster children: a longitudinal study of placements and family relationships. Int J Soc Welfare, 18, 13-26.

Andersson, G. and Bangura Arvidsson, M. (2001). Vad vet vi om insatsen kontaktperson/familj? Rapport 2001:1. Lund: Socialhögskolan, Lunds universitet.

Berg Eklundh, L. (2010). Kontaktfamilj. En förebyggande stödinsats eller mellanvård? Stockholm: Licentiatsavhandling i socialt arbete vid Stockholms universitet. Rapport i socialt arbete nr. 135.

Bronfenbrenner, U. and Morris, P. A. (1998). The Ecology of Human Developmental Processes. R.M. Lerner (Ed.) W. Damon (Series Ed.) Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol 1 Theoretical Models of Human Development. New York: Wiley.

Shier, H. (2001). Pathways to Participation: openings, Opportunities and Obligations. Children and Society, 15, 105-117.

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