How to maintain contact between your adopted child and birth family
I think in some parts of the world, and even in the UK among adopters and adopted people of a certain age, there is a surprise that adopted children nowadays have contact with their birth family. It certainly never was the case last century in the UK. Back then the thinking was that a child needed a ‘clean break’, i.e. their life before adoption was never mentioned, never a topic for discussion, and just swept under the carpet. The reasons for that attitude was probably largely cultural, i.e. the taboo of unmarried mothers, the unspoken power of religion and family/peer pressure. It was thought that adopted people might feel ashamed of being born into such circumstances, and their adopters would themselves struggle to acknowledge it — effectively being complicit in the persecution of women who fell foul of a male-dominated society.
So obviously we still tell women that they are not suitable mothers, and these days we also tell men that they are not suitable fathers. We still probably make them feel ashamed, if they are the type of people to not avoid thinking about it. But we like to think that we have different reasons now. They are more objective and fair to the birth parents, at least by our current cultural standards. No cultural taboos, no out-of-their depth middle-class social workers getting all het up about little Lucy not having access to a pony and wanting to rescue her. Social workers all seem to be working class bruisers now from a wide variety of backgrounds, who are willing to let most things go and understand the pressures of poverty. Adoption should now (in theory) only happen in those rarest of circumstance where both parents are an immediate and ongoing threat to the child, and there really is no excuse for their behaviour. Or maybe we were only shortlisted for such children because the social workers realised that was my attitude. Who knows?
Anyway, one of the first things you are asked as an adopter is whether you’d like a meeting with the birth parents when you are matched. We’d said yes, as I think most adopters do nowadays. Maybe that shouldn’t really be a question, it should just happen. Unfortunately we weren’t able to do it in the case of our son. The social workers left the decision to us but made it very clear that they couldn’t guarantee our safety. And we took our cue from them, after all if seasoned professionals couldn’t guarantee safety in a heavily staffed contact centre with security people then we decided we wouldn’t push for such a meeting. In hindsight maybe we could have been more insistent, and perhaps asked for a police presence (as the social workers had a police backup when visiting this family) but you don’t really have the knowledge of the situation right at the beginning of a placement, and you don’t have a good idea about what you can push for. All you have is the child protection report. But I’d say meeting the birth parents is probably a good idea on balance. After all, at the very least you’ll be writing to them over the next few years, and possibly trying to arrange their cooperation for any future reunion. So it is nice to get a measure of who they are. However if you live the kind of life where your name and picture appears in the public media or social media every now and again don’t do it if your safety can’t be guaranteed.
One of the things that we didn’t initially realise is that you can change the initial contact agreement (which I think even now is still pretty basic and infrequent indirect letters or emails). I think perhaps a lot of adopters don’t realise that. Also, it is only adopters who can ask to change it. It took an as-an-aside comment at a support group for me to find that out. Pretty sure we weren’t told that when we adopted, I’d pretty much assumed that a request could go in either direction so was pretty relaxed that the agreement at the time was fine for the birth family. Of course if the birth parent won’t or can’t use the method you’d like to then that stops any attempt at change, but at least you can show you’ve tried to improve things. And are you given any idea about how contact other than the default might be done or navigated? Nah, most social workers don’t seem to have a clue. So I thought I’d put together some ideas. I might add to these over time as I come across them, and please feel free to chip in on the comments!
If the time isn’t right to initiate any in-person meetings yet then there are still some other things you can try, if your child is wanting it. And I should emphasise that last point — don’t force something on them, just say what is available and let them choose it when ready.
Not everyone has access to modern technology of course, either because of disability or financial reasons, however for those that do there are some options, especially if you are ready for some form of direct communication. You can create an anonymous email account that the birth parents can email you directly on. Depending on the age of the child either you or they could monitor and respond when they want. You need to agree with your child what content they send of course, and it is sensible to control the password for the account! Another option might be a Slack channel, for messaging. If social services want to monitor then this is particularly useful as anyone can see every message. You can disable video calls if that is a worry, and change names. However you can’t disable direct messaging or the uploading of files so you may not want younger children having their own accounts, or you need to be able to log in as them to check their messages and/or delete things. Discord has a bit more control for you (as administrator) but is quite complicated, with endless settings to configure initially, and probably still has some ways to bypass your control. Recommended over Slack though. And of course if you can set one up so can the birth parents or your child — you really need to have a conversation with your child about what is appropriate to share and when.
Other social media is not really fit for purpose for a child’s contact with birth parents in my opinion (see a previous post), as it is not managed or supervised in any way. But it will happen. Let your child be in control of it — they should make the first move if they want this kind of contact as there is nothing worse for an adopted child than not being in control of a situation! A Facebook/Instagram/TikTok/whatever account with their birth identity is sometimes suggested, just for communication with birth family. I’m not so sure about that. It is obviously safer if birth parents in particular don’t know the family name, but is it really fair to expect adopted people to have 2 different social media identities? Lots of people do have more than one of course, but that’s by choice, most people don’t compartmentalise their lives like that. In a sense you’d hope that your child would want to do it, just to protect both you and themselves, but you are going to have to explain and then trust. Maybe just use an initial for family name wherever they are exploring online instead. Explain about location services on phones and suggest that they turn them off. Equally they may want to use a VPN. The default digital and social media world is not set up for anonymity or alternative identities, despite what people think. You have to work quite hard to maintain it.
With other ways of contact you are a bit limited I’m afraid. In-person contact shouldn’t really start until your child is older, and then it should be supervised by social services until they are adult. You can send indirect video or audio messages if social services are willing to act as intermediaries and play them to the birth parents, but they don’t really have the resources for that.
So that’s ideas for the birth parents, but what if you’ve adopted a child and they’ve got brothers or sisters elsewhere? If they’d never been taken into care then you’d expect that they’d probably stay together and see each other most days. Yes obviously parents can split up and one might go with one parent and the other with the other, and in large families the older kids might not see the younger ones if they’ve moved out etc, but let’s just stick with the middle-class archetype of a nuclear family for now, as that is what adoption is usually compared against (unfairly in my opinion). Is it fair to keep them apart? I’d say no but that just unravels a whole ream of complexities which never seems to be spoken about. Activists online just call for more ‘contact’ but never seem to have any practical solutions. Adopters are asked/told to keep in-person meetings as frequent as possible but there isn’t really much help for this.
First of all you have the logistical problem. Adopted kids are often placed a long way from their birth parents, for obvious reasons. However that might well mean they are also placed a long way from any siblings too. Being separated by ‘only’ a hundred miles might sound a bit like moaning for the sake of it, but it puts a barrier there. There isn’t the option of waking up to a sunny day, making a quick call to the parent/carer of the other sibling and then nipping down to the park for a couple of hours to allow them to play together. You have to plan, find hotels, spend whole weekends taking them away from friends and other activities. Trust me, just because you know that spending time with birth siblings is better in the long run for them than playing in that crucial football match doesn’t mean that they’ll see it that way at the time. And what’s one of the main things that’s hammered into you during preparation? Don’t take them away from home for the first year. Yes, there’s a very good reason for that advice, trust me from personal experience! And what about your child’s adoptive family? You know, the new siblings they now live with? They are going to have to give up lots of time for their new brother or sister too, visiting people they don’t know or care about. Getting the balance is an art rather than a science.
What if those siblings are still in foster care? In theory they can still be in contact with their birth parents which might well be a concern to you, depending on circumstances. If the parents are threatening you or the child (sadly not as rare as the online world would have you believe) will you be brave enough? It is inevitable that your child’s name, school and location will become known to their siblings, just though normal chatter. You are going to have to accept that. But what if that information gets into the hands of birth parents, either accidentally or exposed by intimidation or manipulation? That’s a risk that you have to decide to take on behalf of your child. I remember our social worker assuring us that the kids wouldn’t talk about things like that, they’d be too excited to see each other. However it was more or less the first thing they said to each other when meeting for the first time after separation, perhaps not surprisingly really. So far (touch wood) it has been fine though.
Another possible circumstance, which happened to some adopters I know, is that the birth parents had further children in later life, and were allowed to keep them with them. Now that’s difficult. There is societal pressure to treat those siblings in the same way as you would siblings with other adopters or in care. However tread carefully. Just because the birth parents have changed doesn’t erase the torture they’ll have put your child through. The effects on the child are still there. Contact with those siblings (who your child will not know anyway) will also mean an early reunion with birth parents. Is the child ready for that? Unless you’re a therapist yourself that’s not a decision you’ll be confident in making. Get some advice!
What about foster brothers and sisters? What about birth grandparents, aunts and uncles? Where do you draw a line and say you can’t do that? I don’t know really. Suck it and see. When we attended one of our son’s siblings’ Lifelong Links day we met all kinds of people he’d not seen for ages and enjoyed seeing, and others who obviously expected him to know them, but he didn’t remember them at all, even though they were important to his siblings, and he wasn’t interested. Really, if your child had a close relationship with someone then it would benefit them to continue to see them, but of course it is not always practical or safe. And just because a member of the birth family wants a relationship doesn’t mean your child does.
How do these meetings with siblings work? Well I guess everyone will be different, but I think is important to arrange something to do together rather than just an artificial and awkward hour at a contact centre, so it obviously can only be done if it is safe to do it. Try to agree to share contact details with the social worker, foster carer or adopters and meet up somewhere mutually convenient with an activity like a country park, meal, museum or something. The initial meeting might well be attended by a social worker to check it goes OK, and you’ll likely have to arrange it via social services as they will be the only ones who know the contact details to start with!
Managing the emotions around meeting up in person can be difficult. The excitement, nerves and happiness can cause dysregulation in the build-up to the meeting quite easily. That’s just something you are going to have to take on the chin.
You can use electronic methods of communication to keep up the relationship too, when they are not seeing each other. I mentioned Discord before, or email. If they all like online gaming then why not let them share gamertags and play on a Minecraft world together? You can enable voice chat for an Xbox party for instance (not just for XBox owners!). When they are old enough to get mobile phones then obviously they will share numbers. By then you’ve lost control so try to have set the parameters beforehand. You never know, you might even get invited to their WhatsApp group although that’s probably wishful thinking.
So hopefully, there’s a few things to think about! Can’t say I’ve tried all of them yet, but eventually, when the time is right, I probably will. Any other suggestions are welcome.