Adoption and social media

Last week there was an article on the BBC website (and apparently on the radio too) about a case of adopted teenagers (14 and 15 years old) coming into contact with birth parents on Facebook. It didn’t go well and has ended with the two getting involved in suspected criminal activity with their birth parents, plus cutting off all contact with their adopters. I’ve not been able to find the article again myself but I did read it, and it was referenced on a podcast I listened to this weekend. Sadly it is not a new or rare story, I know some neighbours who had a similar story 8 or 9 years ago and adoption support forums are full of similar cries for help. Anyway, the article caused a furore on Twitter apparently, with some adoptees who perhaps should know better being quite gleeful about the collapse of fellow adoptees’ adoptive family, and blaming everything on the adopters. Sometimes I am so glad that I don’t do social media.

I don’t think it is paranoia or insecurity to say that most parents, guardians and carers would be concerned if the children in their care came into unsupervised contact with the people who abused them. Even if those people were close blood relatives. Adoption is just like any form of legal order where one person is prohibited by law from directly contacting someone else without supervision. Some care orders and restraining orders are other examples. These kind of orders being necessary if one person is exploiting, abusing or harassing someone else and causing them physical or emotional harm. They all have some manner of supervised contact between the parties involved, but this is usually to help the victim in a way closely managed by professionals in social work and therapy. Admittedly with adoption direct contact doesn’t usually start until mid-teens (for hopefully obvious reasons — the children really don’t have a hope of understanding the complexities of their particular circumstances until they have gone through puberty and understand a bit about mental health, drugs, alcohol, social inequalities etc — i.e. life), but the point is that it does happen at some point. The timing has to be dictated by professionals and carers determining the needs and understanding of the child though, rather than just going by the desires of the birth parents or the profits of a social media company.

Social media bypasses all that detailed planning and at a critical moment in life can interfere with the child’s recovery, quite often without the parents or guardians knowing until too late (as it was in this case). The standing advice for adopters is to understand that contact will happen, talk to the child and prepare them for it. Try to get them to understand why contact is currently mediated. Tell them that they don’t have to tell us if they are contacted or if they go looking, but we are here to help if they need it and that they shouldn’t feel pressured to accept a connection invite or indeed feel under pressure to look. This seems hopelessly inadequate, and as the adopters in this case said, there is nothing to support us if things go wrong.

These adult conversations are always ones that are difficult to have with teenagers, regardless of background. Natural inquisitiveness and rebelliousness will tend to trump any parental authority for any child. This is normal. For children to be interested in their birth parents is normal. However social media is officially available to 13 year olds in the UK, and let’s face it, most kids are on it a lot earlier than that. A phone for the 11th birthday along with a WhatsApp, TikTok and Snapchat account seems to be the current societally accepted norm where I live. I would suggest that this is far too young for any kid. They aren’t mature enough to navigate it. My own son has plenty of (thankfully inconsequential) misunderstandings with friends electronically that just wouldn’t happen in person. And something that always seems missing from these conversations is that most adopted kids have had, and at this age will probably still have, developmental delay resulting from their early criminal neglect. They may *be* 13 but they are not operating at that level emotionally or rationally. One of the children in this story has additional needs for example. This leaves them even more exposed to manipulation and exploitation.

So that’s why this is an important issue to talk about. We can’t limit social media to adults only; we can’t stop youngsters using it now even if we wanted to, the genie is out the bottle. But people need to know about it and understand the effect of it. Social media can help bridge the gap between adult adoptees and their birth parents, when both are fully able to consent to it by law. Even then I’d respectfully suggest that using the government’s Adoption Contact service is a better option, as people only sign up if they *want* to be contacted. But it is folly to deny or ignore the negative consequences it can have on children, and pretend that it is not important to figure out a way of dealing with it both in adoption and the wider context of protecting the vulnerable.

Adoption seems to be uniquely targeted by campaigners who believe that every birth parent should have the right to be able to contact their birth child unsupervised, regardless of the manner of that contact or their original crimes against the child. It probably stems from a popular public image of adoption as being like the awful mother-and-baby houses in the 50s and 60s, or the scandal of UK World War 2 orphans being shipped off to Australia for ‘adoption’ that was to all intents and purposes slavery. It is time they stopped fighting against these straw men as it is just damaging the child protection system we have today.

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