Attachment and child protection

Understanding Attachment

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Neglectful and abusive parenting can have a direct impact on a child’s brain development. Child abuse and maltreatment are predictors of disorganised attachment which can create long-term problems such as aggression and externalising behaviours. Understanding the application and limitations of attachment theory is crucial for a range of child protection decisions.

Can poor attachments be overcome?

  • During development the brain has sensitive periods when it can be modified.
  • Severe neglect during the first three years of life can impede brain growth.
  • However, children vary in their vulnerability to psychological stress and adversity. If they get help early enough, the impact of poor attachments can be partially reversed by corrective or positive attachment experiences.

Frontline services for children with attachment problems should be founded on the core principles suggested by attachment theory including:

  • caregiver and environmental stability
  • child safety
  • patience
  • sensitivity
  • consistency
  • nurturance.

Any treatment for children needs to  involve parents and caregivers, including biological parents if reunification is an option.

Attachment and out-of-home care

  • The development of positive attachment relationships with a foster parent may partially correct the effects of early trauma and neglect.
  • Long-term foster carers can become attachment figures. However, emergency or short-term or respite foster carers may not provide the relationship continuity necessary for forming an attachment.
  • It is important and possible to maintain contact with birth parents without compromising the development of new attachments in foster care.
  • The social networks of children in out-of-home care are already deprived.

Maximising social connectedness can increase children’s and young people’s resilience to adversity.


  • Contact with birth parents may help prepare a child to accept a new caregiver and may help alleviate divided loyalty in children if parents show acceptance of fostering arrangements.
  • Meaningful contact may also prevent idealisation of the birth family and help children maintain links and cultural identity.
  • For children less than three years, longer and more frequent visits with parents are recommended.
  • Keeping ties with birth parents is usually positive for the parent–child relationship. However, there may be some circumstances where contact with birth families is undesirable. Be aware of atypical responses by children such as severe apprehension to birth parents. These behaviours need to be investigated and may require contact visits to be restricted or supervised.
  • Be aware that contact visits are not ideal environments in which to examine parent–child relationships. Parents’ and children’s behaviours are likely to reflect the stress of living apart and being in a strange situation. Consider the multiple possible reasons behind behaviours such as crying and angry outbursts. Don’t assume they demonstrate a problem with attachment relationships.

Placement changes and stability

  • Placement stability is important for children to develop healthy secure relationships.
  • Breaking an attachment is distressing and can potentially place a child at risk.
  • Transient effects are expected when change in placement occurs before 6–9 months. Distress associated with placement changes increases as a child grows older. If loss occurs after 3–5 years of age there is likely to be persistent insecurity in new relationships. Careful and timely decisions about placement changes within the first 12 months of an infant’s life will increase the likelihood of the child forming a secure attachment.
  • When making placement decisions, consider the impacts of separation of siblings, and from friends, school and community if there is a geographical move.
  • Multiple placements can lead to mental health, behavioural and relationship problems throughout the life span. Some children who experience multiple separations may never develop a sense of self and see relationships as secure. They come to expect rejection and separation at each new placement. They may learn not to form attachments to avoid the pain of losing them.
  • However, some children who have experienced multiple attachments still have the capacity to form new attachments.
  • Consider how the placement and support options you are thinking about may maximise the child’s or young person’s attachment needs.

Some strategies to help decrease instability of placements include:

  • helping foster carers to handle and understand difficult behaviours
  • implementing concurrent permanency planning
  • providing placement specific services (e.g. respite care, transport assistance)
  • providing child specific services (e.g. mental health, recreational)
  • reducing the number of caseworkers involved in a case
  • continuing contact with a child’s school, health or social services.

Although placement stability is desirable and children may have the opportunity to form attachments, placement changes are sometimes necessary and in the child’s best interests. The number of moves is not the only way to judge or think about stability.

When making placement decisions some issues to consider include:

  • experiences and the amount of time spent in care of a parent or other carer
  • number and length of placements
  • age of the child
  • the quality of relationships with parents compared with other carers
  • the possibility of restoration: how likely is it.

Parenting capacity

  • Parental functioning has a significant impact on attachment.
  • Contextual risk factors such as low socio-economic status, inadequate food, homelessness, marital stress or family illness may decrease parents’ availability and sensitivity to their infants and young children.
  • The effect of having five socioeconomic risk factors is comparable to the effect of child abuse and neglect on attachment.
  • Despite maternal sensitivity children in these situations may adopt insecure attachment behaviours. These behaviours may actually be adaptive in the sense of maximising the child’s vigilance and safety beyond the parent–child relationship.

Attachment and domestic violence

  • Domestic violence can negatively impact the mother–infant relationship. A mother experiencing violence may have difficulty empathising with or delighting in her infant or be unable to provide a secure base or safe haven for her child.
  • The fear experienced by women living with domestic violence may be transmitted to their infants resulting in disorganised or insecure attachment patterns.
  • There is a danger that mothers will see themselves as being responsible for not being able to form secure attachments with their child.
  • Help the mother to think about the impact domestic violence has on her parenting capacity. It may be the violence and resulting distress levels that affect attachment rather than her parenting behaviours.

Interventions to develop secure attachments

  • Early intervention programs focus on helping attachment figures (usually parents) develop sensitive parent–child relationships.
  • Good interventions are goal-directed and focused on increasing parents’ sensitivity. This involves helping them to understand their children’s physical and mental health needs.
  • Children growing up in the presence of domestic violence or who live with parents who have a mental illness, learning difficulty or use drugs, may require special assistance. This may involve developing protective factors such as strengthening connections with extended families, or strengthening the role and impact of the non-abusive partner, and helping parents to understand their problems and seek assistance.