Heather Yoeli

Family time experiences of care-experienced children and young people during the Covid-19 pandemic

Researcher Dr Heather Yoeli describes the first stage of a project to creatively explore how COVID-19 has impacted care-experienced children and young people’s experience of Family Time.

I Read It So You Didn’t Have To: the Time Together literature review

South Tyneside Council and Blue Cabin’s Time Together project is an artistic co-production and research study carried out in collaboration with local care-experienced children and young people. Funded by the Department for Education, it aims creatively to explore how COVID-19 has impacted their experience of Family Time (or supervised contact) with birth family members. Dr Heather Yoeli is one of the three associate researchers working with South Tyneside Council and Blue Cabin on Time Together. In this blogpost, she describes the first stage of the project – the literature review – and what we can already do to support care-experienced children, young people, and families during the pandemic.

What is a literature review?

An I Read It So You Didn’t Have To is my mother’s explanation. As a professional proof-reader and copyeditor, she dedicated her parenting to making my childhood novellas read more succinctly, and continues to this day to apply her literary nit-comb to all my academic endeavours. I like her explanation because a literature review is, essentially, a heavily-caffeinated attempted summary of everything that anyone has ever written about a topic. Academics such as myself like to begin their research projects by undertaking a literature review to ensure that they’ve understood and appraised what others have done already, and thereby to know the research findings and assertions they’ll be comparing theirs with.

What we found

Most UK care-experienced children and young people had their face-to-face Family Time stopped at the start of the March 2020 lockdown[i], as was also the case throughout the Global North[ii]. Concerns raised by self-advocacy groups representing care-experienced children and young people[iii] and birth families[iv] were largely ignored, even though children co-parented by parents living apart were still legally permitted to move between homes[v].

Generally, Family Time was moved to online platforms (Zoom, Teams, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Google Meets) and to smartphone exchanges of text, audio, and video messages. Despite the valid safeguarding concerns within social care systems, which had historically regarded online communication between children, young people, and birth families as unsafe and inappropriate[vi], COVID-19 demonstrated that, when thoughtfully facilitated, online Family Time was generally safe and meaningful[vii].

Sometimes, online Family Time worked even better than face-to-face Family Time. This was particularly the case for older children and young people more comfortable with online than face-to-face interactions, for those whose face-to-face Family Time had involved stressful and tiring journeys to contact centres, and for those who valued its opportunities for flexibility and spontaneity[viii].

For babies, young children and children and young people with disabilities, however, online Family Time proved problematic[ix]. Online platforms cannot convey the proximity, touch, or smell by which children and young people who communicate non-verbally interact and bond with their birth parents[x]. Some Local Authorities allowed some such families brief outdoor Family Time sessions with birth family members wearing PPE, or personal protective equipment[xi], but others did not. Local Authorities, contact supervisors, foster carers, and birth parents often worked creatively together to devise games and activities to promote online interaction[xii]. As the pandemic has continued, Local Authorities and local government organisations[xiii] have published guidelines and protocols for staff, carers, and birth families for how different forms of ‘COVID-secure’ Family Time should take place.

During the early months of COVID-19, social workers, foster carers, and birth parents agreed that online Family Time should not be used to assess parenting capacity or to inform legal proceedings[xiv]. As the pandemic has continued, however, many have come to believe that the child’s need for decisiveness and permanence is of such paramountcy that online decision should now be taken[xv].

The views of care-experienced children and young people

No Family Time study has yet sought the perspectives or opinions of care-experienced children and young people themselves. During COVID-19, care-experienced young people have nevertheless produced a number of surveys, reports and position statements[xvi]. Whilst affirming the importance of Family Time, these suggests that Family Time is not their paramount COVID-related worry; poverty, isolation, and mental health concern them more. Given the widespread financial, educational, and digital poverty known to have been caused by the pandemic[xvii], it is unclear whether or how the most vulnerable and marginalised families could engage with the technology or costs associated with ongoing online Family Time. Given the established susceptibility of care-experienced children and young people to mental ill-health and the known potential for Family Time to mitigate this[xviii] and given the mounting mental health effects of COVID-19 upon all vulnerable children and young people[xix], it is likely that care-experienced children and young people’s mental health concerns for the future of Family Time will be validated.

What I’ve learned from Time Together’s literature review

Sidelining the human rights and legal entitlements of care-experienced children, young people and families by de-prioritising their Family Time due to the COVID-19 pandemic is not OK, really not OK. We need to listen to, and to seek out, the experiences, views, and feelings of care-experienced children and young people more. As a researcher specialising in participatory methods yet seated mostly within the ivory tower of my COVID-secure spare-bedroom home office, I think I’ve made the mistake of believing that meaningful care-experienced children and young people’s participation is a thing when, well… it often hasn’t quite actually happened so straightforwardly like that. Sidelining the human rights and legal entitlements of care-experienced children, young people and families by de-prioritising their Family Time due to the COVID-19 pandemic is really, really not OK. We need to listen to, and to seek out, the experiences, views, and feelings of care-experienced children and young people more.

What next?

From its inception, Blue Cabin has always endeavoured specifically to listen to, and to seek out, the experiences, views, and feelings of care-experienced children and young people more, and our partners at South Tyneside Council are committed to exploring how Family Time can be delivered in a way that improves the lives of care-experienced children and young people.  As a researcher, expected by hallowed convention to be unemotively detached and academically dispassionate, I’ve oft had my work criticised for bouncing with rather awkward over-enthusiasm on various soapboxes… so yes, it’s lovely to have Blue Cabin’s soapbox to join, and their team alongside whom to bounce. As the Time Together project exploring Family Time during COVID-19 moves forward, we plan for our research team to interview birth families of children and young people in local authority care, and for our associate artists and facilitation team to work creatively with care-experienced children and young people themselves.

You can read Heather’s full Family Time literature review here. Find out more about the Time Together project here, and sign up for our e-newsletter, to receive updates on this and Blue Cabin’s other work.

[i] Baginsky & Manthorpe 2020a, 2020b; Neil et al 2020

[ii] Grupper & Shuman 2020; Jones et al, 2020; Wilke et al 2020

[iii] Become 2020a, 2020b; CELCIS 2020; Who Cares? Scotland 2020a, 2020b

[iv] Family Rights Group 2020a

[v] gov.uk 2020a

[vi] Alford et al 2019; Iyer et al 2020a; Simpson and Clapton 2020

[vii] Baginsky & Manthorpe 2020a, 2020b; Neil et al 2020; Singer and Brodzinsky 2020

[viii] Baginsky & Manthorpe 2020b; Neil et al 2020

[ix] Baginsky & Manthorpe 2020a, 2020b

[x] Iyer et al 2020a; Neil et al 2020; Singer and Brodzinsky 2020

[xi] Baginsky & Manthorpe 2020a, 2020b

[xii] Family Rights Group 2020b; McCormack 2020; Neil et al 2020

[xiii] ECC 2020; NWADCS 2020

[xiv] Neil et al 2020; Singer and Brodzinsky 2020

[xv] Baginsky et al 2020, Family Rights Group 2020c

[xvi] Become 2020a, 2020b; CELCIS 2020; Who Cares? Scotland 2020a, 2020b

[xvii] CPAG 2020; UNICEF 2021

[xviii] Herrenkohl 2020; Iyer 2020b

[xix] Singh 2020; Vallejo-Stocker 2020