Research Watch

Foster Care Visits: Findings from observations of children, parents and social workers during contact visits.

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Rachel Gouin

Salas, M. D., Bernedo, I. M., García-Martín, M. A., & Fuentes, M. J. (2021). Behavioral Observation and Analysis of Participants in Foster Care Visits. Family Relations, 70(2), 540–556. Social Services Abstracts.


Contact visits between foster children and their biological parents help children adapt to their placement and increase the likelihood of reunification. Existing research pertaining to contact visits is primarily descriptive (frequency, location, supervision) rather than on the interactions and behaviours of children and their birth parents. In this qualitative study, the researchers sought to assess the quality of the parent-child interaction, communication, parental responsiveness, demonstration of affection, and degree of involvement.  The study aimed to improve the quality of visits by identifying situations and behaviours that have a demonstrated positive impact on child well-being.

Researchers analyzed the contact visits of 20 children (11 boys, 9 girls) in longer-term foster care. Seven social workers from four fostering agencies located in Spain’s Andalusia region also took part. Originating from sixteen birth families, all children were between the age of 5 and 17 and had experienced some form of maltreatment before coming into care. To be included in the study, the visit had to take place in the official contact venue used by the fostering agency.

Visits were observed during a three-month period (Jan-April 2017). Prior to viewing, researchers agreed on categories of observed behaviours based on four kinds of needs identified in childhood needs theory and attachment theory: physical/biological, cognitive/cultural, emotional/affective, and social participation needs. Researchers established criteria for what would be considered a positive or a negative interaction before coding. Social workers’ supervision of the visits was classified as appropriate, interference, inappropriate or absence of intervention. Researchers analyzed 45 minutes from each visit: the first 15 minutes of interaction, 15 minutes during an assigned task (a puzzle), and the last 15 minutes of the interaction. Analysis was inductive and conducted by four researchers, using a coding process based on content analysis. Verbal and nonverbal behaviours were considered and only behaviours pertaining to identified categories of interaction were coded.

Most interactions between biological parents and child, including during the assigned task, were deemed generally positive in that they helped initiate or maintain a beneficial interaction. Researchers observed that parents lacked emotional management and communications skills and lacked the parenting strategies needed to strengthen the parent-child attachment. As for the contributions of social workers, four out of five interventions were deemed negative, in that they interfered with or interrupted the parent-child relationship even when it was positive or failed to intervene when needed.

Finally, researchers found three of the four venues used by fostering agencies not conducive to positive parent-child encounters (e.g., shared or flowthrough space, no toys, etc.).

Methodological Notes

While the study uses a very small sample, the in-depth observational analysis provides insight into what occurs during parent-child visits. Findings offer practical implications. Social workers, for instance, should receive training to help them strengthen the parent-child relationship during access visits. In addition, parents should be assisted in developing specific parenting skills required to ensure positive contact visits, parent-child communication, and a focus on rebuilding attachments. Researchers also encourage fostering agencies to hold visits outside or in spaces more conducive to positive parent-child interactions.

Findings may not be generalizable due to small sample size and unique cultural context – study participants are all from four fostering agencies in one region of Spain.