Foster care plays a significant role in child protection services worldwide and so too in the South African social services context. Foster care involves four role players, namely the child, the foster parent/s, social worker/s and birth parent/s. From relevant literature, it is evident that the birth parent’s perspective of foster care is currently an understudied component.
Parents who have children in care often experience stigmatization, lead complex lives, face a multitude of social issues and have few opportunities to practice parenting skills. These issues add to their poor engagement with child welfare services and reduced likelihood of contact and visitation with their children. Birth parents are generally encouraged by child welfare services to maintain contact with their children in care, as it is seen to maintain the child’s psychological identity and wellbeing, as well as maintain the attachment between the parent and the child. However, contact is often a strenuous and highly emotive experience for both children and their parents. The strain experienced by both birth parents and their children during contact sessions often lead to lessened contact, making the possibility of reunification or quality contact sessions slimmer.
In trying to gain insight into birth parents’ experiences of contact sessions with their children in foster care, the researcher conducted a qualitative, applied study using a collective case study design. A review of foster care literature forms the knowledge base of the study. In-depth, one-to-one interviews were conducted with ten birth parents who currently have or have had, children in foster care and have had numerous contact sessions with them. This empirical study adds to the foster care knowledge base by offering insight into birth parents’ experiences not only of contact sessions with their children, but also of their experiences of child protection agencies, social workers and the presence of the foster parents during contact sessions.
From this empirical study, it was concluded that birth parents find contact sessions highly emotive and stressful and that they are not adequately prepared for and supported during contact sessions. In addition to the above, it was concluded that in general birth parents have a need for more communication from social workers and that they experience that they do not have a voice within the foster care system.
The study was concluded with recommendations by the participants to improve the quality of contact sessions. This was followed by recommendations by the researcher to child protection agencies, social workers and foster parents in terms of improving contact sessions, as well as service delivery to birth parents in general. This included a checklist for social workers of aspects to be worked through with birth parents once contact commences. Finally, recommendations were made for future research.