Tag Archives: adoptive parents

National Adoption Week – An adopter’s view

We are grateful for this post from an adoptive parent, who calls for an end to the distorting rhetoric about adoption; without honest and open discussion of what is gained and lost through adoption, we risk losing focus on what should be the fundamental core of all our endeavours here –  the children and what they need.

During National Adoption Week, as a society, will we be able to finally have the conversation we urgently need? Or will rhetoric and political agendas continue to stifle that debate?

I have come to understand that adoption is more about loss than gain

Today is the start of National Adoption Week (NAW) when Adoption Agencies (on behalf of the Government) want and need to inform the public about how their country needs them. Not to go to war but to parent children and young people through adoption when nothing else will do

I am an adopter. I have a few problems with National Adoption Week. I probably shouldn’t because I can recall seeing some daytime tv 16yrs ago and thinking – `yep, that is what we need to do.’ Hubby and I would make good parents and if children need a forever family, that can and should be us.

Over the years that followed that day, I have come to understand that modern adoption is more about loss than gain. I hope you will understand why I think that by the end of this week.

I am a member of a peer support group for the parents of traumatised adopted children and young people. Trauma is a term we think best describes the losses our children have lived with. It describes their loss of birth family, identity, childhoods where they had rights to be kept safe, physically and psychologically.

A few weeks ago a few of us attended the first Family Law Class open to all . It was a good class. We were well aware that ‘our’ children’s birth families could be sat next to us and that was ok. It was ok because we know about their loss, their difficulties with communicating and dealing with professionals at an immensely difficult time in their lives. We know because a minority of experienced adopters go through the same experience with social services as many struggling birth parents. I will talk about that later this week.

Today I want to talk about what I feel is often unsaid during NAW, about birth parents, adopters and ‘our’ children.

The elephant in the room – what will happen if my child’s birth parents didn’t harm them after all?

Those professionals and interested adopters will know that the answer to the question is – probably nothing. The circumstances under which any Judge will reverse a decision involving an Adoption Order (certainly after some time has elapsed) are very rare.

But experienced adopters are well aware of the miscarriages of justice that have happened in the UK. I speak for many adopters who feel that these miscarriages of justice are a travesty. A child and maybe their siblings will have lost their birth parents, each other and everything they hold dear. They may be moved from pillar to post within the care system, being sent to live with strangers and one day, will have to learn that none of that should have happened. Such a loss can never really be put into words can it?

Adopters feel for birth parents where miscarriages of justice have happened. We have genuine empathy for them and hope that agencies (& if necessary the courts) do everything in their power to ensure that those children, birth parents and adoptive families are enabled to build a mutually rewarding relationship in the future. It can be done, I am sure of it. Society needs it to be so.

But what of those children and young people that were rightly removed from their birth parents?

People approved for adoption will have been told and will have read reports written by social services about the children’s life with birth parents. We will have been told that the children need a new `forever` family because birth parents are not able to safeguard them. The birth parents are deemed by all in authority to not be `good enough parents’.  This is my first problem with NAW.

NAW will have you, the person wanting to be a parent, believing that that is absolutely the case. It may well be, but I have been concerned for a number of years that it isn’t that simple.
Prospective adopters need to believe that for `our` children to have been placed for adoption, their birth families must not have been ‘good enough’ to do the job. Parents need to keep the children safe, not to abuse or neglect them, to put the children’s needs above their own. Parenting isn’t just about loving them. Social services are meant to prove that to be the case. Family law courts are supposed to ensure that that is the case before they agree to a placement order and thereafter an adoption order. Adopters need to believe that social services have also ruled out that other forms of permanence would not be in their child’s best interest too.

We will be led to believe that some birth parents should either never have direct contact (I prefer to say `have a relationship with`), or should absolutely have a relationship. We need to know that all the decisions made in relation to `our` children are made with the best of intentions.

We adopters need to know these things because contrary to some rhetoric, adopters do not want to steal children, we are not a market of middle class do gooders or people that need to have a child as a fashion accessory. We are not the reason that children need to be removed from the otherwise loving caring homes any more than the government have `targets` for removing children to support some black market.

We are just people who know we can give love, nurture and care to traumatised children and young people. We can and do put our children’s needs above our own.

My message throughout NAW is that children and young people must always be at the core of everything that is done in their name.

`OUR’ kids must always be the priority.

Answering birth parents’ questions about adoption

Answering questions about adoption (by an adoptive parent)

A bit of background about me first – I’m a single mum, with three children, all of whom are adopted. Two of my children are now adults; the third is still in primary school. I spend a lot of time online nowadays, and I’ve been really privileged in the last few years to be able to talk with several birth mums about their experiences, and answer some of their questions about adoption and adoptive parents.

I could never truly know what it’s like to lose your child to adoption. But talking to mothers whose children have been adopted, has shown me that it’s often really confusing. They had a huge number of questions about adoption and adoptive parents, and no answers. They didn’t know any adoptive parents themselves, or at least none they felt comfortable asking their questions to.

I think these mothers were incredibly brave to ask me to answer their questions – they didn’t know me, I was just a random adoptive mum. They must have been worried that I would be judgemental or unkind. However it doesn’t matter to me whether someone is an adoptive parent or a birth parent or an adoptee. I hope I can find a way to support everyone who asks me to.

But I strongly feel that these mothers should have had an opportunity somewhere in the process to have all these questions answered, without having to reach out to a stranger on the internet. I am also sure that if these mums I talked to had questions, then there must be a lot more parents/grandparents (and other family) who also have the same questions about adoptive parents and adoption. So I’ve made a list of the questions I’ve been asked the most often by birth parents, and here are my answers. I’ve also included questions I’ve seen online which I haven’t been personally asked.

If you are a mother or father (or grandparent, sibling etc.) whose child (or grandchild, or sibling) is being adopted, then firstly I am sorry you are going through this. I hope you find these answers helpful. If you have any more questions you want to know about adoption that you think I could answer, please comment on this post, and I’ll try my best to answer for you.

And finally, from the bottom of my heart, thank you to the mums who asked me these questions first, who opened my eyes to how the process worked for them and who will remain in my thoughts always, as very courageous people who wanted the best for their children.

………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Why do adoptive parents want to adopt?

Adoptive parents have very different reasons for adopting. Many come to adoption following infertility, but quite a few of us don’t. For me, adoption was my first choice because above all, I wanted to become a mum and love a child with all my heart. I was a single lesbian woman and no other method of becoming a mother felt like the right thing for me to do. I felt that there were so many older children in care that I wasn’t comfortable creating a new life instead of becoming a mum to a child who was already here.

One thing all adoptive parents have in common is that we ALL adopt because we want to experience parenthood, in the same way that people who give birth to their children want to experience parenthood. I’ve seen a couple of people suggest that we want children as “accessories”, but nothing could be further from the truth. I want to reassure families of children in care, that with every adoptive family I’ve ever met, we love our children in exactly the same way as we would love a child born to us, and we would never treat a child any differently because they were adopted.

How does being approved as an adoptive parent work? Is it hard? Do they check up on you thoroughly?

It’s a long process, and it is definitely very thorough. It’s changed now from when I was approved to adopt, but the basics of it are the same. There are several key parts of it. Firstly, there are the basic checks – every adoptive parent will have a criminal records check (certain criminal offences bar you from ever adopting, including any offence against a child) and a medical check to make sure they are well enough to parent a child into adulthood. Social services will also check on prospective parent’s finances, inspect their home and make sure it’s safe for a child, and also get references from family, friends and others. For instance, my employer had to give a reference for me when I adopted the first time.

Secondly, there is a “preparation group”, which all prospective parents will attend at some point during the process. The point of this is to educate, and prospective parents will be taught about the legal process of adoption, why children are available for adoption, about parenting adopted children, and so on.

Thirdly, there are the homestudy visits. This is where a social worker visits the parent/s in their home and talks to them in huge depth about their life and about adoption. For instance, in my homestudies, we talked about my childhood, my family, what support I have around me, my beliefs, my previous relationships (including my sex life), how I would support and parent my adopted child, and about what kind of a child I would be adopting. We basically give social services our life story! A social worker even interviewed one of my ex-partners as part of my assessment.

The social worker who is assessing us will write all this information into a big report. Lastly, the report goes to an Adoption Panel, who review it all, and then recommend whether a parent should be approved to adopt or not.

So it is definitely a thorough process, and whoever adopts your child, will have been checked, questioned and scrutinised as far as possible to make sure they are up to the task.

Do you pay social services to adopt a child?

If we are adopting a child in the UK care system, no we don’t, absolutely not. Not even one pence! You might see people at some point claiming that we pay social services for a child, but this is not true at all. I think some of this confusion is because people see American adoption sites online, and over there, they also have a private adoption system for babies where money is paid by adoptive parents to the adoption agencies. This just doesn’t exist in the UK, so don’t let those sites worry you.

Do you pay any money to anyone else to adopt?

All adoptive parents have to have a (thorough) medical check. Doctor’s surgeries will usually charge for this, in the same way as they might charge for holiday vaccinations or some medical letters.

At the final part of the process, when you apply to the court to legally adopt your child, the court charges a fee. Some adoptive parents have to pay the fee themselves, but sometimes social services pay it for them. I have never paid for the court application for instance; the council have always paid it for me.

There is no other money paid to anyone in the adoption process.

Do you get paid to adopt?

No. Adoption is very different from foster care. Foster carers get paid a weekly allowance to foster. But when you adopt a child, they become your child (legally the same as if you gave birth to them) and so you are entitled to the same as birth parents get for their children (child benefit for instance).

What information do you get given about a child by social services, and what makes you “make your mind up” to adopt that child?

We get a lot of information. The very first thing we see is usually a short profile with just a little bit about the child, and if we are interested, we would get a lot more, in a report which is now called a CPR (Child Permanence Report). The information would include – about the child’s background, their birth family, why the child is in care and being adopted, the child’s personality, interests, behaviours, their health and medical information, their development, if they have any ongoing difficulties or need to be parented a bit differently to other children, about school and friends. It will also say what the plan is for contact after adoption with birth family.

After that, if you are still interested in adopting that child, the child’s social worker reviews your homestudy report and interviews you. Then they (and other members of their adoption team) come to a decision about whether they want to take things further. So it’s not just about you, as a parent, picking out a child. We adoptive parents do not just select a child to adopt like how it was decades ago. Social services have to choose you, based on whether they think you are the best possible parent for this child, and whether you can give this child everything they need.

If social services choose you, you then get even more information. You will meet the foster carer/s, and a medical advisor/paediatrician to get as much information as possible about the child and get all your questions answered. Finally after this, another ‘panel’ approve the match. This whole process of ‘matching’ lasts several months.

Making up your mind that you would like social services to choose you for a certain child, is really different for different people. Some parents ‘just know’ as soon as they read the CPR report, but others don’t and need more time.

When I read my eldest daughter’s information, I felt a strong connection to her, and I felt once I’d read her reports that she was most likely my daughter. I can’t tell you why I felt such a strong connection, it just happened! But we always use the huge amount of information we have to make up our minds as well. We have to be certain we can be the parent this child needs, and that we are comfortable with the child’s behaviour and their needs.

Whoever your child/relatives adoptive parents are, they will have put a huge amount of thought into whether or not to adopt your child/relative, and considered really carefully whether they are the right parents for this child.

Does eye and hair colour come into it?

No! I’ve seen birth parents being told that adoptive parents want children with blonde hair and blue eyes. Actually, we generally couldn’t care less what our child will look like! I’ve certainly never met any adoptive parent who cared whether their child was a blonde, or a brunette, or whatever. We view our children the same as we would a birth child. We wouldn’t care what our birth child looked like, and we don’t care what our adoptive child looks like. We just love them for who they are on the inside.

Personally, I thought it might be helpful for my children, if they looked like I could have given birth to them, because then my children could have privacy – they’d never have nosy strangers thinking ‘ooh, she/he must be adopted!’ based on their appearance. So for me, it was all about the child, and what I thought would be good for my child. It was not about me. As it happens, all my children look quite different, even the two who are birth half siblings!

Do you meet the child before you’ve decided 100% [if you want to adopt them]?

No. Being introduced to the child you are adopting is the very last stage. It’s called “introductions” and it’s where you and the child get to know each other before the child moves in. Before that happens, you’ve had all the information, made up your mind 100%, and been to the panel that’ve approve the match (and of course you’ve bought furniture and decorated etc.!) At this stage, everything is set. Once you’ve read the CPR and been to panel etc., you can’t meet the child and then decide if you want to adopt them. That would be very unfair and wrong for the child. As far as I was concerned, as soon as my children were told about me for the first time (by their foster carers and social worker) then I was absolutely 100% committed to them.

Do you “have” to tell the child that they are adopted? Could it happen that an adoptive family wouldn’t tell the child?

You don’t “have” to tell, because there is no law about it. We have the same freedom as birth parents to tell or not to tell our children about their early lives.

However, it is very rare nowadays for a child not be told they are adopted. Right from day one, we are told how important it is for children to know their story. Social workers and other adoptive parents, we are all very clear to prospective parents about how important it is for children to know about their adoption in an age appropriate way. Parents can access a lot of advice and tips about how best to do this. So whilst it could be that a child wouldn’t be told, it’s very unlikely. I’ve only come across a couple of people in about 18 years who haven’t told their children (and this includes online as well), as opposed to hundreds and hundreds who have.

At what age do you ‘tell’? And how?

Obviously with an older child, they know what’s happening. With a baby or toddler who is too young to understand, the way most adoptive parents try and ‘tell’, is in a way which means the child ‘always knows’. When they are older, they shouldn’t be able to remember a time when they didn’t know they were adopted. This means that for most children adopted as babies, they’ll be having little conversations about adoption by the age of 4 at the latest, but most usually a bit younger than that.

I told my youngest child the story of “the day we met” from when he was 2 years old (and he was 23 months old when we met), and I was also mentioning the word ‘adoption’ from that age. I didn’t bombard him with information; I just dropped in little things here and there. For instance, I remember when at age 3, a neighbour of ours was pregnant, and he pointed at her because she was getting so big. I said that yes, babies grow in the womb which is down in your tummy area, and you grew in X’s womb before you came to live with me. And he repeated that back to me.

All children who are adopted now are supposed to have life story books. These books, which as the name suggests, tell the child’s life story, might help parents to explain to the child the basics.

What are the options for any contact with birth mum? What’s the “norm”?

The norm in my experience is letterbox contact, which means letters going between you and the adoptive parents. This is normally either once or twice a year. It isn’t so common for there to be visits, but if there are, it will most likely be either once or twice a year. I’ve personally done both letters and visits.

For other adult family members, there might also be letterbox or, less commonly, visits.

The plan for contact should be mostly decided on before the child moves into their adoptive home, although it isn’t always. There may be a letterbox agreement which you sign and the adoptive parents sign. This agreement would say when the letters are being sent, to whom, how they are signed, and so on.

As the child gets older, they can have their own say in contact. For instance, my youngest child has asked for all letters to be stopped, so I stopped them. On the other hand, if my child had wanted the opposite and wanted more letters, I would have tried my best to add in another couple of letters a year. For adoptive parents, it’s about supporting our kids and helping them process everything.

What are the options for any contact with siblings? What’s the “norm”?

It definitely depends on where the siblings are living, whether they’ve lived together before and how close their bond is. But in my experience, visits with siblings are much more common than visits with any other members of the child’s birth family, especially if the siblings are also adopted or in long term foster care. I’ve supported my kids through a whole lot of sibling visits over the years. However, if there are no visits, letterbox contact is very often in place for the siblings, usually 1-3 times a year.

Will my child be told that I love them?

I realise how desperately you want your child to know that you love them. Every adoptive parent speaks to their children differently about their past, but most parents, when talking about their (young) child’s birth family, choose to say something along the lines of “your birth mum loves you very much, but can’t look after you”. As our children get older, we add in more about the ‘why’. I certainly have told my children that they are loved, and all the other adoptive parents I’ve met, tell their children the same. I want my children to know that they are loveable people, were the most loveable babies in the world, and that nothing that happened is their fault. I certainly want them to feel loved, and that’s something that all adoptive parents want for their children.

Will my child’s name be changed?

This is something I can’t give an answer to, because every situation is different. I can only say that in nearly all situations, the surname will be changed. Some children have their first names changed, but others don’t. Some of the things that may go into the decision are – whether there is a security risk (whether the child is likely to be recognised), how unusual the name is, its meaning and how old the child is.

I can give you my situation as an example – two of my children were older children when they came to live with me, hence it was entirely up to them what they did with their names. My eldest literally waltzed downstairs one morning and informed me that she was dropping both of her middle names, and had picked two new middle names for herself instead, which were x and y! And that was that, as far as she was concerned. My middle child on the other hand, only ever changed surname, and has kept all her other names as they always have been.

However my youngest child has been entirely named by me (and themselves!). I changed my child’s first name for many reasons, chief among them a security risk from a few people. I kept the old first name as a middle name, because I couldn’t take that away from my child. However, recently my child asked for that (original first) name to go entirely, and to pick a new middle name instead. So I went with my child’s choice, and we picked a new name together, which we are in the process of making legal now.

We are just one family, and every adoptive family will have a different story. So I can’t say whether or not your child will be given a new first or a new middle name. However I can say that if your child’s name is changed, they will at some point be told about it. My youngest always knew which name was originally the first name.

Again, if you have any more questions you want to know about adoptive parents/adoption that you think an adoptive parent could answer, please comment on this post, and I’ll try my best to answer for you.

Contact Post Adoption – time for a new default position?

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.

Birth Families

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.

It’s Not Always Easy

We are grateful for the following contribution from an adoptive parent. We know that adoption can be a hard and difficult option and it is best for everyone to go in with their eyes open and with genuine communication about the potential problems. We hope to increase the information available here about post adoption support and attachment difficulties. 

The Bubble Wrapped Child by Helen Oakwater contains a good discussion about some of the emotional difficulties adopted children can have. Her website is here.

We are adoptive parents. We have birth children who are older than our adopted daughter. We are probably a bit conventional.

We adopted our daughter aged 6. That should have flagged up a lot of signals but we were optimists, believing that love and care would be enough. It wasn’t.

We were not told the truth about our daughter when she arrived, and we gradually found it out over the next 7 years. We were naive, in spite of our professional experiences.  Do not expect to be told the full truth – some of it will be confidential, and even though it would help to know it, you may not be told.

Things got worse with puberty, and our daughter started demonstrating the fight or flight symptoms (we learnt later that she had Reactive Attachment Disorder and this was natural), but it was very stressful and we didn’t understand it.

There were problems, when we adopted her we were told that one day she may “revert to type”. We found this awful at the time, but later it came back to haunt us. Beware though, you may be blamed for the problems, even though it may not be you that have caused them.