Dr Susan Collings

Biography

Susan Collings is Research Fellow at the University of Sydney’s Institute of Open Adoption Studies. Her professional background in casework management and practice informs her approach to applied research. She uses collaborative and participatory methods informed by practice-based wisdom and lived experience. Her current research aims to build consensus on the casework skills and practices need to support children and families affected by child protection and out-of-home-care, including support for birth family contact.

Abstract

Learning from children and families about practices to support birth family connections in permanent care (Poster Presentation)

Out-of-home-care reforms emphasise the importance of contact for permanency. Contact can help children build lifelong birth family connections and assist parents and children adjust to permanent removal. Families are likely to benefit from professional support to establish relationships. A study was undertaken to understand the contact experiences of families involved in permanent care in New South Wales.

Qualitative, arts-based methods were used to understand the perspectives of children, birth parents and permanent carers on what helps make contact work. Fifty-seven participants from four parts of NSW took part in the study including 12 birth parents, 19 children and young people, and 26 carers. Inductive thematic analysis and visual analysis were used to identify family resources, and caseworker attributes and practices.

Adult participants reported that timely, skilful and compassionate casework helped them to move from uncertainty and fear to viewing each other as extended family whose lives were forever connected by the child. Practices included modelling respectful communication before, during and after contact visits; helping carers understand birth parent behaviour in the context of grief, loss and trauma; and working with both parties to agree on a process for exchanging information. Children were happy when they spent time regularly with birth relatives, including parents, and involved in meaningful and age-appropriate activities.

Implications: Caseworker training is needed to develop core skills to help build engagement between children’s families. Carer training to foster empathy and trauma-informed skills, including active listening, is needed. Ground rules help address problems before they become insurmountable.

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