A fundamental component of alternative care policy and practice throughout the western world is to ensure that foster children remain in contact with their birth families (see Chapter 1). This principle is enshrined in the departmental guidelines (Family and Youth Services 1999) which assert that ‘family contact is a process of maintaining meaningful links between children in care and their families and networks of origin’. Under the guidelines, family contact is deemed to be a right of every child in foster care. The South Australian Children’s Protection Act (1993) also expresses this view in Section 4 (2) (b) which states that: ‘Serious consideration must be given … to the desirability of … preserving and strengthening family relationships between the child, the child’s parents and other members of the child’s family, whether or not the child is to reside within his or her family’ (Osborn 2002). Although a variety of reasons have been advanced in the literature to justify the importance assigned to family contact, three arguments tend to predominate. Firstly, parental visiting helps to maintain long-term attachments between children and their families (Poulin 1992). Secondly, family contact increases the likelihood of children being reunified with their families (Fanshel 1975). Thirdly, parental visiting enhances the psychological well-being of children in care (Cantos, Gries and Slis 1997).
The role of contact as a means of strengthening the bonds between children and their birth families is usually couched in terms of attachment theory, which assumes that healthy development is facilitated throughout the lifespan by the formation of a stable emotional bond with at least one care giver (Barber 2003; Bowlby 1969). For children, the existence of a stable attachment figure provides security and a source of identity, and enhances the child’s future capacity for care giving through the mutual exchange of affection. Accordingly, the disruption and separation caused by foster placement is thought to generate feelings of anxiety, abandonment, rejection and fear (Grigsby 1994; Littner 1956). In this light, parental contact is seen as a way of mitigating adverse psychological consequences and of maintaining