Attachment: Implications for Children’s Courts

Understanding Attachment

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Attachment Definitions

• Response to danger protecting infant and enabling social and emotional development

• Critical period in neurological/ emotional development (Schore/Perry)

• Caregiving affects development.

• Sense of belonging fundamental to being human (‘no such thing as a child’)

Young Children’s Motivational Systems

(Bowlby, Zeanah and Boris 2000)

• ‘Secure base’ reconciles safety with learning (Bowlby)

• Attachment: closeness and security

• Exploratory system: learning, mastery

• Affiliative system: sociability

• Fear/Wariness system: monitor/respond to danger

Attachment is Universal

• Cultures’ parenting styles differ in terms of independence, responsibility for parenting and community integration.

• Commonalities in terms of survival, protection, safety, learning.

• Cross-cultural sensitivity is essential if we are to understand and assess parenting

NSW Legislation: C&YP (Care and Protection Act 1998)

• Child’s needs as paramount (Care Act s.9)

• Need for expedition [ibid s.94(1)]

• Permanency planning and final orders v. ‘drift in care’

• Objectives: care and protection re safety, welfare and wellbeing, re capacity of parents or others responsible for them; assistance to them [s.8(a)] … to promote a safe and nurturing environment [s.8(c)]

Children’s Court Clinic Angle

• Language, social and physical development can be understood from attachment perspective

• Attachment as focus for assessment, and solution for infants and children’s problems

• Value of meaningful relationships, multiple attachments (Bronfenbrenner’s social-ecological model: see over)

Social Ecology: it takes a village...

Attachment Assessment

  • Relationships as focus for optimal development (Fonagy, Target)
  • Emotional relationships understood in context of caregiving and developmental history
  • Learn standard methods (e.g., Strange Situation, CARE-Index, Zeanah) but adapt for forensic setting
  • No perfect system for our cases, yet we need to be clinically and forensically valid
  • Triangulation (history, development, language, behaviour, mental and physical health, parent-child observations reflect on each other)
  • Child focused, not ‘natural justice’, or based on assumptions (e.g., that unexplained injuries = abuse, that sexual abuse is necessarily harmful)
  • Case history: inc. birth, health/vulnerabilities, traumas, RoSH reports, placements
  • Carers’ histories, strengths, needs
  • Development (milestones, physical, language, motor, cognitive)
  • Social development and observations
  • Parenting capacity assessment as systematic approach to understanding needs/resources

Assessment of Parenting Capacity

• Look for the meaning of relationships, from the child’s perspective, not attachment style (e.g., insecure attachments are normal; reactive attachment disorders are not)

• Distinguish affection, affiliation and social behaviour from attachment. What happens when the child needs comfort?

• Be aware of confounding variables affecting observations of children with parents (loss/reunion phenomena – Robertsons)

• Attachment observations are only part of the picture: a comprehensive assessment is necessary.


Parent/Child Interaction Observations

Assessment observation, not a contact visit

1. Preparation, how it starts:

• Who is there, what is the setting?

• How was the child? Tired, unwell, upset?

• How was the parent? Preparation, emotion.

• Reunions and Greetings

2. Parent

– Behavioural Quality of Interactions

• Physical style

• Limit-setting

• Amount of interaction

• Criticism/Encouragement

• Engagement level

• Child focus

– Affective tone/quality towards the child

• Attitude (implicit and expressed)

• Voice tone

• Eye contact

– Psychological involvement with the child

• Responsiveness to child’s emotions

• Is the child exposed to upsetting behaviours?

• Emotional tone

3. Child

– Activity level through the visit

– Alertness

– Eye contact

– Coerciveness (attention/aggressiveness)

– Resistance/compliance

– Caregiving to parent?

– Tolerance of closeness

– Management of distress

– General impression of attachment

4. Separation

– Child’s distress, protest behaviour?

– Does the parent help the child with the separation?

5. What did this visit mean for the parent?

– Parent’s impressions, understanding

6. What did this visit mean for the child?

– How did this visit compare to contact visits? Ask parent/ escort/ foster carer

– How was the child's behaviour afterwards?

So What?

• Fit attachment observations into comprehensive assessment formulation

Placement options: decision flowchart 

• Reasons:

• Attachments are hard to develop, easy to break

• OoH care children’s social networks are already deprived

• Maximising social connectedness increases resilience

• Good contact visits are good for foster placements

The big question:

Will the Child Benefit from Restoration?

(What is in the child’s best interests?)


• Immediate (unconditional)? or

• Conditional? – Relationship development, treatment, placement, contact: but how likely is this, and can the child wait?


• What environment will be safe, nurturing, stable and secure for this child?

• Contact visits (purpose, safety, with whom)

• Future prospects

Permanency Planning

• … is not the same as out-of-home care

• … it is to prevent “drift” in foster care from a succession of different placements or temporary care arrangements

• “Temporary care needs to keep alive a plan for permanency, and an opportunity for lifetime relationships” (Maluccio)

• Children's Guardian’s 3 Priorities:

1. Preventing separation of children from home through supports

2. In necessary separations, planning for reunification

3. If 1 and 2 are inappropriate, to plan for adoption or permanent foster care

• The goal is a timely, safe, nurturing, stable and secure permanent placement that meets the child’s needs [Care Act s.9 (2)(f)]

• PP is facilitated by concurrent planning:

– Birth (and extended) family casework, meaningful contact visits, frequent case reviews, saintly foster/adoptive families

– More than one option may be viable, allowing concurrent considerations and backup planning

Maintenance/ Development of Connection to Cultural Heritage

• It takes a village…

• Necessary for everyone [Care Act s. 78A (4)], and particularly for Aboriginal children (s. 13)

• Care circles, family group conferences as a way of mobilising the child’s social-ecological network

Meaningful Contact Visits:

• Require individual assessment and decision-making, careful thought and planning (e.g., ‘Helen’)

• Increase likelihood of reunification, and improve placement stability (multiple attachments are protective)

• Enhance psychological well-being of children in care

• Prevent idealisation of birth family

• Maintain links and cultural identity

• Allow ongoing assessment of child/birth family relationships

Summary points 

• Attachment evolved for infant protection and development

• NSW Care Act and orders reflect attachment theory

• Assessment needs to be careful, culture- sensitive, integrated.

Additional material:

• Relevance of attachment for courts

• Clinic Child/Parent Observation protocol

• Restoration decision tree