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New evidence review: the implications of contact for the well-being of children and young people

A new evidence review examines what is known about the implications of contact for the well-being of children and young people who have been separated from their birth parents in public law contexts.

‘Contact following placement in care, adoption, or special guardianship: implications for children and young people’s well-being’ brings together findings from 49 studies published in the UK and internationally between 2000 and 2020. It was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and the University of Sussex, and published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (Nuffield FJO) as part of its Modernising Contact initiative. 

Findings and recommendations

While none of the reviewed studies attempted to establish a causal impact of contact on children’s well-being, the evidence shows that well-facilitated contact is associated with positive well-being outcomes for children and young people in both the short and long term. Conversely, poorly managed contact is associated with risks to children and young people’s well-being.

The review’s recommendations include: adopting a child-centred approach which takes account of children’s perspectives, understanding the purpose of contact as enabling the safe and meaningful involvement of the birth family, providing skilled professional support for everyone involved – including children, birth relatives, and carers, special guardians or adoptive parents – and having a broad understanding of family that acknowledges the fluidity and complexity of family relationships. 

Lisa Harker, director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, said:

“By synthesising existing evidence from across the world, we can clearly see the importance of supporting ongoing relationships between children and their birth families for the child’s well-being. In addition to providing robust recommendations on how to ensure meaningful contact, this review has also enabled us to identify specific gaps in research that need to be filled to give us a clearer understanding of the role that contact plays for children and young people in all contexts.”

Dr Padmini Iyer, Senior Researcher at the National Centre for Social Research, said:

“Our review demonstrates the importance of a well-facilitated and child-centred approach to contact; in other words, positive outcomes rely on quality, not quantity. Realising the potential short and long-term benefits of good quality contact requires active management and support for everyone involved. This includes understanding and responding to children’s complex emotional responses to contact, and supporting carers, adoptive parents and birth family members.”

Janet Boddy, Professor in the Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth at the University of Sussex, said:

“Our review reveals the importance of a differentiated and child-centred approach to planning and supporting contact, taking account of children’s complex feelings and their diverse and dynamic relationships with the people that matter in their lives. The review also shows why it is important to consider both short and long term needs, including preparing children and young people to manage complex family connections beyond childhood and into their adult lives.”