We have come a long way from the days when adopted children might never even be told they were adopted. The huge majority of adopted children are not new born babies but much older children who may retain clear memories of their birth families. They will go to their adoptive families with the benefit of ‘Life Story’ work and photographs as we are now much more aware of the importance of knowing about and understanding our roots.
What kind of contact with birth families is either desirable or necessary after a child is adopted? The ‘default’ position appears to be ‘letter box’ contact a couple times a year but the issues raised by research and experience suggest that this default position needs re-examination.
The Children and Families Act 2014 came into force on 22nd April 2014 and introduced a new section 51A of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 which will allow applications to be made for contact after an adoption order has been made. Suesspicious minds has written a detailed post about this here.
In this post we shall look at some of the lessons from the research and direct experience of those who are trying to start or maintain contact in such difficult and emotional circumstances.
EDIT March 27th 2017 – new developments
There have been some important new developments. First, McFarlane LJ spoke of his disappointment that there had been no ‘sea change’ in attitudes towards post adoption contact after the 2002 Act. We now also have the Contact After Adoption site which supports practitioners working on making positive post-adoption contact plans and supporting birth relatives and adopters through contact planning for their child.
Why is it important?
When an adoption breaks down, this is extremely traumatic for both the child and the adoptive parents. Disruption rates for adoption are quite high, considering the amount of care and time that goes into the assessment process; some studies show the breakdown rates for adoptions can be as high as 25%. There is some interesting research here from the US about rates of adoption disruption and what causes them.
Research published on April 9th 2014 by the University of Bristol offers another perspective on adoption disruption rates, concluding that they are low but emphasising the importance of post adoption support, particularly for older and more challenging children.
Therefore, it is important to know about the possible or likely effects on the placement of post adoption contact.
There are a number of other factors to consider:
Positive factors for post adoption contact
- Answers children’s questions about their past and allows them to know the reality of their birth families, saving from possible disappointment later;
- May assist child’s self esteem and sense of identity to know that birth family cares and is interested;
- Supports older children to continue established relationships with birth family members – the ‘disappearance’ of such people may hinder the child’s ability to form attachments to his adoptive parents;
- Helps birth family members to resolve their grief and keep them informed about how their child is doing;
- Helps adoptive parents feel more secure as ‘parents’ as the issue of contact is being addressed in structured and planned way
Negative factors for post adoption contact
- Direct contact with birth family could have negative implications for a child’s ability to form attachments with adoptive family and stop them feeling a sense of ‘belonging’ and permanence;
- If the birth family can’t sustain contact or the contact experience is negative this could be harmful for the child who experiences another rejection;
- Adoptive parents may find it very difficult to sustain a positive relationship with birth families, depending on circumstances of the child’s removal from their care.
- There is a risk birth families could use direct contact to try to undermine the adoptive placement, either consciously or unwittingly.
- Even if positive, contact can cause emotional strain, particularly for older children.
What does research tell us about contact post adoption?
The numbers of children adopted each year have decreased significantly from about 21,000 in 1975 to 5,797 in 1995 and 3,980 in the year ending March 31st 2013; a reflection of the increased availability of abortion and the societal shift that no longer stigmatises illegitimacy.
The average age at adoption in the year ending 31st March 2013 was 3 years 8 months
- 2% (90) of children adopted during the year ending 31st March 2013 were under 1 year old
- 74% (2,960) were aged between 1 and 4 years old
- 21% (850) were aged between 5 and 9 years old
- 2% (70) were aged between 10 and 15 years old
- <1% (10) were aged 16 and over
Adopted children are therefore very unlikely to be brand new babies, given up by desperate teenage girls, but rather older children who may have already suffered significant trauma. It is not difficult to understand how adoptive parents may be very wary about the idea of continuing ties with the very people who might have hurt their child.
Research suggests that ‘communicative openness’ in adoptive families – how they think and talk about adoption – is positively linked to ‘structural openness’ – contact with birth family members – and can have a positive impact on the adoptive parents feeling more secure in their role of parents. However, it seems that children’s emotional and behavioural development was not related to either the type of contact they were having with their birth families or the communicative openness of their adoptive parents. See Post-Adoption contact and Openness in Adoptive Parents’ Minds; Consequences for Children’s Development Elsbeth Neil (2009).
Some messages from recent research
The Centre for Research on Children and Families/UEA Contact after adoption: a follow up in late adolescence (Dec 2013)
- Every case is different, and contact planning should be individualised.
- Prospective adoptive parents and birth relatives should be prepared thoroughly for contact.
- The long term needs of the child should come first in contact decision making and children should be involved once they are old enough.
- Both adoptive parents and birth relatives need to be treated sensitively so that their questions and anxieties about contact can be addressed.
- Facilitated meetings between adoptive parents and birth relatives to plan post adoption contact could be considered.
- Information about background is essential in building a sense of identity, therefore it should be made available to young people either via contact and/or life-story work.
- Where contact has been agreed, adoptive parents and birth relatives should stick to their side of the arrangements. If contact needs to decrease or stop, the other parties need to know the reasons why.
- Social workers should review and support contact to ensure that it continues successfully.
- There should be more support offered to young people at age 18 about deciding on the future of their contact.
Challenge of finding answers in research
Elsbeth Neil recognises
finding empirical answers to questions about outcomes of contact after adoption is frustrated by significant methodological challenges …what is meant by contact after adoption? The type, frequency, duration and management of contact all need to be considered, as does the type of birth relative involved.
In addition (Neil and Young 2009):
We are left with no simple answer to the question of whether contact will be beneficial with any specific adoption placement. Each study reveals differences between children and families according to whether contact is appreciated and experienced in a positive way and also shows patterns and changes over time.
Each adoptive placement is unique and there cannot be one path for all or even one path for all time within a placement. The developmental stage, attachment and parenting history, personal qualities and personalities and context of the child and adults involved will no doubt have a part to play in how contact is experienced.
Elsbeth Neil urged social workers to remain open minded about the issue of direct post adoption contact, resisting blanket predictions of either help or harm. However, it seems that the prevailing attitude is to assume it shouldn’t happen. Different reasons are given for this and they are compelling; birth parents may try to undermine the placement, the children may have unpleasant memories of the birth family and become upset by contact. Many social workers worry that potential adoptive parents will be ‘put off’ adopting if they also have to manage direct contact with birth parents.
But in practice it is rare to find social work analysis that goes beyond those familiar shibboleths, to consider the particular circumstances of children and birth family currently under scrutiny. Those of us who represent birth parents in care proceedings will be sadly familiar with the ‘party line’ around post adoption contact. It seems that the best we can get is a vague expression of a ‘hope’ that an adoptive family can be found who would be ‘open’ to direct contact but in the majority of cases the industry standard is letter box contact once or twice a year. This is so even in cases involving parents who would not actively attempt to undermine the placement and who had not subjected their children to serious abuse, such as parents with a learning disability whose children were removed on the basis of risk of significant future harm.
Perhaps we are still left with a residue of those earlier desires to entirely absorb the adopted child into the new family and to protect a sense of entitlement for adoptive parents. After all, it is asking a lot of someone to undertake the arduous task of raising a child (who often is neither grateful for nor welcoming of the parents’ input) without clear recognition of the status of ‘parent’.
Problems with indirect ‘letter box’ contact
This should not be thought of ‘the easy option’.
- It is hard to write to people you don’t know;
- indirect contact may falter without initial support to help all involved provide quality information;
- there is a risk of what is written being misinterpreted or misunderstood, particularly when birth families already feel a lack of trust in the system;
- adoptive parents will often ‘give up’ when birth families don’t respond.
Photographs were seen by almost all as more ‘real’ and honest than brief written updates but letters could be successful when written in a ‘newsy’ and friendly style.
What’s happening in practice?
The current motivation appears to be to assume that adoptive families should be left in peace without any direct dealings with the birth family throughout the child’s minority. The child’s need for information can be met by Life Story books, some photographs and possibly a letter once or twice a year. An adopted child and birth families can now enter their details upon the Adoption Contact Register to apply for contact with one another. However the clearly stated purpose of the register is to permit contact only between adults if both want it.
Section 4 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 provides that adoptive parents, children and birth families all have the right to request an assessment of their needs for post adoption contact. A recent study investigated the levels and nature of such support (see Supporting post adoption contact in complex cases – briefing paper June 2010). It found that direct contact happens only in a minority of cases and support for such contact is likely to be organised on a case by case basis rather than via dedicated staff or formal systems. The prevailing attitude of social workers towards direct contact is to focus on controlling risk rather than pro active consideration of how to overcome problems that would affect contact.
The main type of support offered to both adoptive and birth parents was co-ordination and administration of contact, rather than providing emotional or therapeutic support such as work on relationship building. Unsurprisingly, for direct contact to work well it helped to have an element of emotional support together with facilitators who were organised and forward thinking, anticipating challenges and changes rather than simply responding to them. The ‘average’ family used contact support services 12 times over the course of a year and the cost was £999. Unsurprisingly, the cheapest model of support was administered contact averaging £395 per year whilst supervised and facilitated contact averaged at £1,371 per year, but these costs were probably an underestimate.
As Dr Claire Fenton-Glynn comments in her report to the European Parliament in June 2015:
… the jurisprudence of the English courts shows that it will be rare for direct contact to be awarded against the wishes of the adoptive parents. Although their wishes will not be determinative, as the decision will be determined by the child’s welfare, the courts have recognised that it will not usually be in the child’s best interests to impose an obligation on the adoptive parents that they are unwilling to agree upon. This is based on the premise that the welfare of the child depends on the stability and security of the adoptive parents, and a decision that undermines this will be damaging to the child.
This position fails to take into account the changing nature of the driving forces behind adoption. When it was first introduced in English law, it provided a mechanism for single mothers to place their infants with an adoptive family without anyone being the wiser. Birth outside wedlock was a social stigma for both the mother and the child, and as such, the adoption would cut all legal ties with her, and there would be a complete legal transplant from one family to the other, under the shroud of secrecy. However, in the current era, the majority of children that are adopted are older, and have an established relationship with their parents, siblings and wider relations. Even where circumstances dictate that they require alternative care, it does not necessarily require that there be no further contact with their birth family. As such, this is an area in which English law needs to evolve so that greater recognition is given to the child’s pre-existing ties with the birth family.
It would be interesting to develop existing research and to have greater consideration of the existing structure of post adoption contact support together with a more rigorous cost/benefit analysis of the different types available. Considering the detailed nature of the assessment and matching process in adoptions, some studies show the disruption rate is surprisingly high at about 25%. It is certainly worth investigating whether or not greater structural and communicative openness in adoptions is a protective factor against breakdown.
That investigation becomes even more urgent when considering the inexorable rise of the new social media and the impact this has had on the way information now flows and is disseminated. It seems unlikely that the current rather static and limited framework to post adoption contact, with emphasis on adult control and choice, can survive the challenge posed by Facebook or other similar social networking sites. See this review of the book ‘Bubble Wrapped Children‘ by Helen Oakwater, which examines the issue of adoptive children seeking out their birth families with the help of social networking sites.
Conclusions – what helps make post adoption contact work?
- The adopters are able to help the child understand a full and honest account of his background;
- This account is given at a pace which is sensitive to the child’s ability to take it in;
- The adopters are able to show empathy towards the birth family;
- The birth family accept the adoption and don’t try to use contact to undermine the placement;
- The child understands what is going on and is comfortable with contact;
- The purpose of the contact is clear and understood by all;
- The parties trust each other to make it work;
- Contact is supported.
Suggested further reading
Experience of those dealing with post adoption contact.
Here are the views of one grandmother, who is finding the experience very difficult. What could or should we be doing to improve this experience for all involved?
Loosing my grandchild through no fault of my own or my son and problems with the first letterbox to us has been chaos emotionally. I am not used to being written to with such ‘ill feeling’. I am just hoping it was first letter nerves. We are trying to write a reply without being sarcastic and make things worse next time. There was no support for me and her Grandad throughout the whole of the SS proceedings. We felt like ships adrift with no hope. The first letter was a like a bombshell which left us wondering what the adopters had been told about us. Did they think we were monsters too?
We have no faith in the SS and we has hoped for some sort of comfort from the adopters. We thought they may understand or have had some training in how to help extended family who get letterbox. Is there anything anyone could suggest we try to break the ice, or do we just have to put up with what we get. I have no faith in the system that has treated us so badly and we had hoped for better from the people who will be looking after our grand child for the next 16 years. We are still waiting permission for getting photographs, so we can put them with our family ones in our new house. A house we had to move to during the guardianship fiasco which was doomed to fail we found out too late. Also is it allowed to write one to the adoptive parent and one to my Grandchild for when they get older? How will I know if they are shown them? I have huge trust issues at the moment. I just need reassurances from people who are doing it. I cannot and never will be able to trust what the SS tell me.
..I have seen a poem and have a few photographs to add from the first birthday party we were allowed. Songs which remind us of our time together. There are so many of us on our side of the family. Each year they will be eager to hear how things are going. Her birthday is the same day as her Dads cousin and it will remain a double celebration regardless. Her great grandparents will never forget either and it is a shame that they did not all get to meet her in person.
I really do hope that her new parents realise how much we love her and want her to know this while being loved by them too. We do not want to steal their thunder, a glimpse of the rainbow is all we ask.
Prospective Adoptive Parent
My thinking on the topic starts from the belief that unless contraindicated, e.g. known to be detrimental for the child in question, contact has got to be a good thing.
Good for the child: I can imagine many circumstances where the downsides of a mother basically just disappearing from a child’s life, heavily outweighs any benefits in terms of the child being able to settle and bond with their new family better. I can imagine that this idea that a child needs their birth mum to be completely out of the picture, in order to be able to form secure attachments with the new family, to be mainly fuelled by the new parents’ insecurities. However I would be very interested to know if any research has been undertaken on this, or if this strategy is just based on assumptions.
I think that nowadays the reality will be that average resumed contact with birth family will come at a much earlier age than previously, simply due to the social media. Whereas cutting off contact and then leaving the adoptee to reinstate contact in their twenties or thirties or even later – point is, when THEY feel the desire and the maturity for it; seemed ok; when we’re talking about cutting off contact as a toddler and reinstating it at age 13 as a vulnerable teenager, through social media, perhaps sought out on a whim by the teenager, but perhaps sought out by the birth family, it’s a different story. Here I think it may be better for the child, for contact never to have been cut off in the first place. Supervised, carefully managed contact throughout the childhood years has got to be better (in many cases) than BM totally disappearing, then reappearing by Facebook message at teenager age. And I fear the latter is going to be more and more of a reality.
Better for the birth parents: Removing a child from a parent, and placing it for adoption, with no contact until age 18, seems like a very harsh ‘punishment’ for what in some cases may not have been big ‘crimes’. Even when it is totally right that a child is removed from their BM, it doesn’t have to mean that they have done anything deserving of such punishment. An adoptive placement with ongoing contact would mean providing for the child’s needs whilst at the same time not ‘punishing’ the BM more than necessary.
Better for the adopters: If adoptive parents can get over their own insecurities, then regular meetings with their children’s birth parents may in many circumstances enable them to have better understanding of their children’s past, and thus may enable them to be better parents to them. Also they won’t have to deal with issues such as the child idolising the birth parents, or seeking out unsupervised contact by Facebook etc. at a young age.
Of course there are equally many circumstances where direct, and sometimes even indirect contact, are totally contraindicated. This obviously needs to be taken into account. From fostering experiences it is known that some children absolutely hate having to go to contact sessions, and stop going as soon as they have any say in it. I can imagine that these children feel repercussions in other areas, such as never growing to feel that their foster carers really keep them safe, since after all the FC keep sending them to the contact sessions. Etc.
Over all, I get the impression that direct contact is one of the key issues which distinguish long-term fostering from adoption. (Of course there are many others, particularly legally). From my own, somewhat rambling thinking, I think this should not be the case. Adoption should become more like fostering, in that (circumstances permitting) direct contact remains in place. Fostering should become more like adoption, in that contact should not be unquestionable, should be something which is decided from case to case and the decision should be able to be revisited. Or in other words, in fostering as well as in adoption, direct contact should be sought if possible but stopped/not started at all, if not appropriate/detrimental to the child.
So the key question becomes, is it good or bad for the child. Since on paper, the child’s wellbeing is paramount anyway, I get the impression that people believe that direct contact is good for a (long term) foster child (where it is the default) but bad for an adoptive child (where it is exceedingly rare). I am willing to accept that this MAY be so, but I would be very interested in the reasoning behind it, and the scientific evidence for this reasoning.