See procedure Placing a child in out-of-home care for tasks that must be undertaken.
An out-of-home care placement can happen in a planned manner or in an emergency. In all cases, children need age appropriate information about what is happening to them, where they are going and how long it will be before they can see their parents or siblings again.
Preparing for placement
Out-of-home care placements can often follow a crisis, which may leave little time for the child to adjust to being placed away from home. Children will feel more secure if they can take important possessions with them to the placement. This could include a favourite toy, blanket, memento, photos of their parents, siblings or relatives. Wherever possible, the child protection practitioner should ask the parents or the child to identify these items and take them with the child to the placement.
Wherever possible and following an assessment, placement of a child should occur within their extended family or known social network as a first option. See procedure Kinship care for tasks that must be undertaken.
Impact of Placement
Each child will react differently to being placed in out-of-home care. Practitioners should be aware of the impact of separation and placement by age and stage of development. Practitioners should be able to assess the impact of being placed out-of-home on the child and respond appropriately.
Considerations for good practice
The following critical factors should be considered throughout the planning process and discussed with the child before they arrive at the placement:
- What is the child's understanding of why they are being placed in out-of-home care?
- How do they feel about being separated from their parents, siblings or other family members and what are their views on how this can be made easier for them.
- Contact – how will contact occur between the child, family and/or non-relatives?
- Connectedness – who makes up the child's social network? What do they need to maintain these connections (photos, life books, phone numbers?)
- Education and leisure – the practicalities of maintaining existing arrangements.
- Culture – what are the cultural needs of the child?
- Grief and loss – the emotional impact and effects of traumatic separation for the child.
Planned placements may lessen the effect of separation on children. Where possible, allow the placement process to occur incrementally. This may involve an initial short visit to the home-based or residential placement by the child with their parent, followed by a longer period with the child's parent safely nearby, perhaps followed by an overnight visit and so on. The object of these visits is in part for the child to develop a relationship of trust with the new caregiver.
Vera Fahlberg a psychotherapist (USA) suggests that although immediate placement may be less than optimum, there are two essential aspects that the care team needs to bear in mind in lessening the stress of out-of-home care placements for children:
- it is vital children and have an opportunity to express their feelings about the placement
- it is essential direct carers and case managers explain to children what is happening and why.
The degree to which children are able to express how they feel will however be determined by a range of factors, including:
- their age and stage of development
- the degree of trauma they may have suffered as a result of abuse and neglect or previous placements.
Some children will be able and prepared to discuss their feelings in response to gentle prompts. Others will simply be too young to talk about their feelings, or may demonstrate their distress via crying and stronger actions, including angry or aggressive outbursts or, in more extreme situations, by self-harm or harming others. Members of the care team should understand that strong reactions are often an indication of the degree of attachment to parents and need to provide a safe environment where these angry outbursts can be managed.
Fahlberg suggests that photographs of parents, siblings and home and cherished toys and belongings, can do a great deal to ease the anxiety of separation. They can also be a point of discussion and engagement between members of the care team and the child: 'Tell me about…'.
She also suggests photographs of carers, staff, homes and residential units can be useful for practitioners to show to children at court or on the way to the placement if there is a need to place children quickly without preparation. Visual images of the placement and the environment can assist the child and parent to prepare themselves for placement by removing some of the unknowns.
For many children the move to placement will involve the loss of all things familiar and secure. The manner in which they will respond to loss will to some extent depend upon their personality and previous experience. However, panic, heightened anxiety, self-blame, anger, total or partial withdrawal, feelings of abandonment, distress, bewilderment and despair are all common feelings children experience at this time.
Whilst the aim of all members of the care team is to lessen negative impacts of placement and trauma for the child, practitioners should be aware of displays of anti-social behaviour and try to handle it with sensitivity. In many cases the behaviours may be the normal responses by a particular child experiences when under great stress.
Children will perceive separation in different ways depending on their age and ability to verbalise their feelings and their capacity to understand and rationalise the reasons why they are in placement.
These are often not easy situations to manage. Planning, consultation and seeking guidance and support from colleagues, supervisors and community service organisation (CSO) staff particularly in the early days of placements will be essential.
Child’s concern for sibling or parent’s welfare
Some children may have been living with a parent who has suffered years of family violence or who may have a severe drug addiction, where the child has developed a pattern of 'looking out for' and protecting their parent or siblings. These children are often called 'parentified', in that their behaviour indicates a caring role for their parent or siblings inappropriate for their age and stage of development.
For these children, placement may exacerbate their anxiety in that they may perceive they are responsible for their parent's care and are fearful their parent is at substantial risk without them.
These children will need substantial reassurance that their parents and families are safe. Where possible, the practitioner should arrange contact as soon as possible after the placement to ease the child's fears and commence a pattern of positively maintaining family connections while in placement, providing this is consistent with the case plan. See Contact for tasks that must be undertaken.