Adoption has rightly changed enormously over the years.
Where once it would have been seen as the right thing to ‘protect’ a child against issues arising from contact with birth family, we now know the importance understanding life story, knowing who family members are and being in touch where safe and appropriate.
In recent weeks, conversations around contact have exploded and the issue has worked it’s way into the mainstream media, with a Today programme feature and attendant BBC article about the breakdown of an adoptive placement. In this case, teenage boys moved back in with their birth family following social media contact.
This admittedly shocking and unusual story has brought the subject of contact back into sharp focus for me. While there is a lot of information missing and we don’t know what the adopters did to contextualise life story, it is an extreme reminder if the challenges that can arise.
An incremental approach
We have been adopters for a couple years. Admittedly we’re still quite early on and we’re navigating contact and life story work now. Our little one is at a stage where some solid external input on these issue could really help.
Life story work and contact must be the centre of modern adoption. Children can have multiple attachments and need to have a sense of their place in the world that many of us, who did not experience early disruption in their lives take for granted.
To me, one of the things that is essential for prospective adopters to get their heads around is how they would feel about contact. That means birth parents, siblings, grandparents and potentially other significant figures like aunts and uncles in some cases.
Direct and open
It’s worth stating here that all situations are different. Some families have greater security concerns or for other reasons, it may just not be appropriate to facilitate contact. Aside from that, the evidence is extremely stark – adopted children who understand their life stories, can place their experience and work through their traumas are likely to have better outcomes. The work of Professor Beth Neil and her team at the University of East Anglia highlights this clearly.
Recent discussions in the press and comments and thoughts from other adopters have brought back into sharp focus for me the need to honour the multiple attachments that children have. Emotionally it can be difficult, particularly with birth parents, but the more life story can be understood over time and built on incrementally, the better equipped the child will be during their teenage years and beyond.
While it’s acknowledged that contact is hugely important, I would like to see much better support to help families make it happen.
New forms of contact
To many, sending an annual or possibly twice-yearly letter seems pretty antiquated. It’s also often not enough. But what other options are there before you get to direct meetings? There are many people now facilitating direct contact. The podcast Two Good Mums is the story of first mum Laura and adoptive mum Peggy who work together closely in in an open fashion. While still not the norm, stories like this are becoming more common as post-adoption contact continues to be a hot-button issue.
While it won’t always be possible to work as Laura and Peggy do, there can be lots of options in between periodic letters and close regular face to face contact. One is of course using technological solutions. Nuffield Family Justice Observatory have been piloting an app, which would allow contact. I was part of the initial feedback process with adopters and it gave me lot of food for thought.
We’re still a way off having an app for managing contact, but I’m a firm believer that there need to be new solutions, that use available technologies and can involve the support and backing of professionals.
One of the most talked about issues relating to contact is of course the role social media can play, particularly when sudden or unplanned interactions happen. The case covered by the BBC is rare and extreme, but teenagers trying to find birth family on social media or the other way around is becoming all the more common. The reality is that most adoptive parents will have to consider this eventuality and think about how they would respond.
For me, contact has to be at the centre of modern adoption. It’s difficult and our own situation is far from straightforward, with siblings and others to be in touch with. But all the evidence is clear, supporting adopted children to understand their life story and have as much safe contact as possible is likely to create better outcomes.
Contact will always be an important topic of conversation and it will always be changing and developing. But the most important thing is that adoptive families are supported to help their children navigate it safely from the early days, giving as strong a sense of their background and how they fit in the world as possible.