Messages from research for professionals making contact plans.
- Practice briefing: what is post-adoption contact for?
- Practice briefing: post-adoption contact and identity
- Practice briefing: assessing and managing risk in post-adoption contact
- Practice briefing: social media
- Practice briefing: direct contact and young-placed adopted children
- Practice briefing: direct contact in adolescence
This section contains a number of exercises that can be used to consolidate learning. They can be used for individual or team based learning. At the end of each sheet you will find notes highlighting the main learning outcomes for each exercise.
- Exercise: contact with foster carers after adoption
- Exercise: understanding post-adoption contact and identity
Practice briefing: what is post-adoption contact for?
Post-adoption contact can help to meet young-placed children’s needs not just in the first few years after placement but as they get older. It can also meet some needs of adoptive parents and birth relatives. Some possible benefits are outlined below:
For adopted children
- Finding out more about their family history and birth relatives
- Understanding more about why they needed to be adopted, providing a reality check
- Finding out how birth relatives are getting on and keeping up with events in the birth family
- Knowing that adoptive parents accept their connection to the birth family
- Building trust with adopters and helping communication about adoption
- Making sense of being a member of two families
- Being reassured that it is OK to settle in the adoptive family and feel part of this family
- Dealing with feelings of loss or rejection, knowing they are not forgotten and the birth family still cares
- Understanding and valuing their ethnic, religious or cultural heritage
- Keeping in touch with important people
- The potential to develop a supportive relationship with birth relatives
- Avoiding some of the stress and difficulties of searching later on
For adoptive families
- Finding out more about the child’s birth family and history
- Developing an understanding of why the child needed to be adopted
- Dealing with anxieties about the child’s membership of their birth family
- Promoting openness with the child about adoption
- Showing the child you can accept and value their birth family, building trust with the child
- Feeling more entitled to parent the child
- Becoming closer to the child because s/he has a more realistic view of the birth family
For birth relatives
- Gaining updating information and reassurance about the child
- Dealing with feelings of loss
- Being able to make a contribution to the child’s life after adoption by showing care and affection
- The chance to show the child you value their adoptive family and want them to be happy
- Being able to support adopters by providing information
- The opportunity to develop a supportive relationship with the child
Practice briefing: post-adoption contact and identity
Birth family contact, whether direct or indirect, provides an opportunity for adoptive parents to talk to children about their thoughts and feelings about adoption and their birth family. It can act as a cog that turns the wheels of communicative openness. When there is no contact, adoptive parents need to find other ways to keep the birth family alive within the adoptive family and to recognise that birth relatives are a powerful presence in the hearts and minds of most adopted children.
Accepting children’s thoughts, feelings and curiosity about their birth family is crucial to developing a positive adoptive identity. As adopted young people grow up their interest in and feelings about adoption varies, but few are completely uninterested. Four patterns of adoptive identity development were identified in the ‘Contact after adoption’ study: cohesive, unexplored, developing and fragmented.
- Children with cohesive adoptive identity tended to have detailed and coherent stories about their adoption with which they were at ease. They were thoughtful but not overwhelmed by their feelings and felt strongly connected to their adoptive family, and regarded their adoption as justified. Views about birth family varied
- Children with unexplored adoptive identity gave simple accounts of the reasons for adoption, did not question this much but felt at ease with their story. They regarded adoption as entirely positive and accepted their adoptive parents unquestioningly. Their views of birth relatives varied
- Children with developing adoptive identity had some unanswered questions about adoption and wanted to know more. They had some uncertain feelings about the birth family, but saw the adoptive family as ‘my family’
- Children with fragmented adoptive identity had stories about their adoption that were rigid, stuck or lacked coherence; some felt anxious about finding out more. They had many negative feelings about life in general or adoption in particular and felt ambivalent about birth families. Some had a shaky sense of belonging in their adoptive family.
There was no evidence that well managed contact with the birth family had a negative effect on children’s overall development. Pre-placement experiences and age at placement had a more powerful effect, along with the love and care that the adoptive family offered.
By their late teens or early twenties, most children placed for adoption before the age of four were thriving in their overall development, but those with fragmented identity were not; for some, adoption issues were dominant in their life.
Some children with no contact had cohesive adoptive identity. Some children with fragmented identity had more contact – there were varying patterns of contact across all four groups.
There was an association between post-adoption contact and positive adoptive identity, when contact worked well. But contact plans need to be determined by the needs of individual children and by the quality of the contact, rather than by research alone. This may change over time and needs to be regularly reviewed. The role of adoptive parents in supporting children before, during and after contact is crucial.
Practice briefing: assessing and managing risk in contact post-adoption
Adopted young people generally value contact even if it is quite difficult. However, professionals need to be aware of the risks contact visits may pose for the child and have strategies to address these.
- Contact with some birth relatives may perpetuate harmful relationships, make the child feel to blame for family troubles or confused by conflicting accounts of why they were adopted
- Poor quality or unreliable contact can make children feel rejected or forgotten
- Children may feel worried by evidence of their birth relatives’ frailty, but this can also provide a useful reality check
- Adopted children are more likely than most to experience the death of a birth parent before they reach adulthood. This can make contact during childhood more important – leaving it until the child is grown up may be leaving it too late – but the death of a birth relative can also be very upsetting, and children can feel that this loss is theirs alone – rather than a loss they share with their adoptive family
- Children may be exposed to moral values at odds with those of their adoptive parents
- Hostile birth relatives may seek to undermine the adoptive placement. However, many relatives who are opposed to adoption at the time of final hearing come to be able to accept this with time and support the child
- Children may be overwhelmed by contact that is too frequent to allow the child to regain emotional equilibrium between placements
- A too high frequency of contact (which can occur especially when the child sees a range of different birth relatives on different occasions), may get in the way of activities that cement the child’s membership of their adoptive family, and/or exclude the child from other regular activities important to him or her
- Many children feel some emotional strain around direct and indirect contact, as do birth relatives and adoptive parents. Supporting children with feelings of sadness or upset after contact provides an important opportunity for adoptive parents to build closeness and demonstrate acceptance of the child’s membership of two families
- The primary protection for adopted children is the reassuring presence of adoptive parents before, during and after contact visits or receiving a letter and their willingness to make decisions about contact based on a good understanding of the child’s needs
- It can be difficult to find suitable venues and to work out roles and boundaries, but social work support can help to overcome such challenges and improve the quality of such visits
- Children may be at risk of further abuse or neglect during unsupervised contact (which rarely occurs in adoption) or if left to make their own arrangements during adolescence
- Adults need to listen to children’s wishes and feelings about contact, allowing children to express both positive and negative feelings about their birth family
- Children who experience the death of a birth relative may need opportunities to grieve and support to cope with their loss
- The frequency of contact needs to be realistic given the child’s relationships and activities in their adoptive family
Reviewing contact arrangements
- Contact that does not change over time may cease to meet the child’s needs
- Children’s feelings about contact may change over time, especially in the teenage years
- Unmet contact needs can lead to unplanned contact with birth relatives in which the child is without the support of adoptive parents
- Some children who have experienced severe abuse or neglect or exposure to domestic violence may show signs of re-traumatisation during contact. Persisting with such contact can undermine the child’s trust in adoptive parents and impair the child’s recovery
- Contact that is disruptive or harmful to children does not tend to persist in adoption
- There is no evidence that well managed contact affects children’s overall development or their attachment to adoptive parents. Pre-placement experiences and the quality of care provided by adoptive parents are much more powerful influences
- There is no evidence that well managed contact with foster carers prevents children settling with adoptive families
Practice briefing: social media
- A significant minority of adopted young people, adoptive parents and birth relatives use social networking websites for adoption specific purposes in one or more of three different ways: information, communication and reunification
- Some adopted young people, adoptive parents and birth relatives with little or no contact use social media to access information and photographs but do not make contact
- The most common use of social media is as a way of keeping in touch online with people already connected to each other in the offline world; this is often a natural and easy means of communication, particularly between siblings and cousins
- Some young people use social networking websites to actively search for birth relatives with whom they have no contact
- A small number of birth parents plan to search in this way once the child turns 18, and some young people had been ‘found’ by their birth parents in this way before the age of 18
- Social media can be a positive way of communicating with birth relatives when it takes place in the context of established relationships with the support of adoptive parents
- Contact by social media is more likely to be problematic when it is driven by unmet contact needs, initiated impulsively by adolescents during an emotionally turbulent stage or hidden from adoptive parents
- Children are in particular need of support from their adoptive parents if they seek a reunion with the birth family or if their birth relatives are seeking to reunite with them
How social workers can help
- Think about the possibilities of future on-line contact for every child as part of placement planning – not all birth relatives present a risk, consider every situation individually
- Link adoptive parents into the general advice for parents about keeping a child safe on-line as well as specialist resources
- Keep up to date with new forms of communication
- Recognise that it is not possible to entirely prevent future contact via social media, however careful families are about parental controls
- Take a measured view of the risks and benefits of social media contact
- Include this topic in the assessment, training and support of adoptive parents
- Talk to birth relatives about why an unexpected approach on-line might be hard for the child. Be available for advice if the child contacts them
- Be clear that contact plans made at the time of placement need to be regularly reviewed as children’s needs change, so that children do not resort to secret on-line contact
- Accept children’s on-going thoughts, feelings and curiosity about birth relatives and support adoptive parents to do the same
- Encourage adoptive parents to talk to the child about what they would do if a birth relative got in touch before this happens
- Support adoptive parents if the child seeks out birth relatives as they get older. Encourage them to support the child if they seek a reunion, so that they do not do this alone
Practice briefing: contact in adolescence
How adopted young people think about adoption in their teenage years is very variable:
- Some adopted young people may become emotionally pre-occupied with thoughts and feelings about their birth family as they strive to establish a sense of identity and make sense of their mixed feelings towards both families.
- They may wonder if they will develop similar difficulties to birth relatives (such as mental health problems or violent behaviour)
- Adolescents also have other pressures and demands in their life (e.g. school, exams, relationships, career options) and some young people may want to take a break from thinking about adoption in order to focus on these other issues
Teenagers are often looking for more complex answers to their questions about adoption and beginning to evaluate what they have been told more critically. Young people who experienced abuse and neglect in early childhood may be dealing with the legacy of such harm during adolescence and need additional support and guidance to reach maturity.
- There is no evidence that well managed direct contact affects adopted young people’s overall development. Experiences before placement, age at placement and the quality of care provided by adopters are much more important factors
- Contact can help teenagers to understand why they were adopted by talking with birth relatives or seeing their needs and difficulties and crucially by processing their thoughts and feelings in conversations with their adoptive parents
Building relationships with birth families
- Contact can help teenagers to build a sense of identity through identifying likenesses to birth relatives and understanding their genetic heritage
- Contact provides an opportunity to enjoy close relationships with birth relatives for some teenagers. It can help young people feel loved and cared about by their birth family
- Direct contact can be an emotional strain and it can be sad for young people to see their birth parents’ problems first hand, but most young people value contact highly even if it is difficult
- The birth parents of adopted children are a vulnerable group, a disproportionate number of whom are no longer alive by the time the child reaches adulthood. Adolescence may be the last chance for contact for some children
- Contact with grandparents is generally easier
Building relationships with adoptive parents
- Contact can help to build closeness with adoptive parents through creating an atmosphere of openness, protecting the child from the experience of searching for birth family without support
- Direct contact can help to alleviate adoptive parents’ fears about birth relatives turning up unexpectedly or making contact on-line
Managing contact over time
- Adopted young people’s needs in relation to contact often change during adolescence
- Some young people may choose to take a break from direct contact in adolescence because they are finding it difficult or wish to focus on other things
- Others may seek contact with birth relatives for the first time at this stage or wish to change the type or frequency of contact that they are having
- Adopted teenagers want to have some say over the kind of contact that they are having, but still need the support and guidance of their adoptive parents
- Young people having agency mediated contact (direct or letterbox) may continue to need this service after the age of 18, and reviewing contact support plans with young people is important.
Practice briefing: contact and young-placed adopted children
Babies cannot express their views about contact verbally, but careful observation before, during and after contact can help to inform contact plans. Building trust in their adopters is the key developmental task for infants. Pre-verbal children have no understanding of the concept of adoption, they rely on the presence of familiar people and routines for their sense of security.
As children get older, they begin to develop more curiosity about adoption, but still rely on their primary carer to help them understand the world and manage their feelings. Toddlers are developing autonomy but still need adults to help them feel secure. They are ego-centric, magical thinkers who may blame themselves for the loss of important people. As children approach school age, they become more conscious of differences and may have new questions about their family.
Key messages from research
- Contact is important to most adopted children, even when it is quite difficult
- For young placed children, foster carers (not birth relatives) are usually their most important attachment figures and children may need to see their foster carers soon after placement, even if this makes them sad. Support with grieving is an opportunity to build closeness with adopters
- Young children can have multiple attachments. They do not need to sever ties with important adults in order to build trust in adopters, although contact arrangements must not undermine adoptive parent/s’ roles as the main psychological caring figure
- Direct contact with birth relatives can be easier for young-placed children than for those who have clearer memories of life in their birth family or more complex relationships. The child’s lack of an established relationship with the birth relative should not automatically be seen as a reason not to have contact: such contact may be more about meeting children’s identity needs than preserving relationships
- Direct contact with birth relatives can work well for young-placed children, especially when the relative has not been involved in their abuse or neglect
- Grandparent contact is especially successful
- When contact works well for young-placed children it can come to seem like an ordinary part of family life
- Birth relatives who are strongly opposed to adoption at the time of the final hearing may be able to support it in time. Birth relatives can be reassured by meeting adopters and value this
- Children’s behaviour before, during and after contact is a good indicator of how visits affect them. Children who are being re-traumatised may remain fearful after they return home
- Children need the support of their adoptive parents during contact; seeing both sets of parents together can reassure the child that it is OK to be part of two families
- Talking about the birth family before and after visits or receiving a letter or photographs is as important as the visits themselves
- Supporting the adults involved is key to making contact work well
Exercise: contact with foster carers after adoption
Research messages: children in the care system often experience repeated loss and change that undermines their trust in adults. For children removed from home at a very young age, the foster carers maybe the only family they can remember. For others, these are the first safe adults they have encountered.
Keeping in touch with foster carers after being placed with adopters can help children to settle in their new families. It does not stop children from forming new attachments. Continued contact with familiar people and things and maintaining reassuring routines helps children to feel safe when they must move.
This exercise is suitable for: individual learning; discussions in team meetings, training for social workers, contact supervisors, foster carers, kinship carers and adopters.
Read the Mikey Maddox case study. Consider the following questions:
- Who and what is important and familiar to Mikey in his current situation?
- How many of these people and things would Mikey keep in touch with where you work?
- Who is Mikey’s primary attachment figure?
- How will he feel if this person is not there?
- By the time Mikey is 14, how likely is it that there will be somebody still in his life who knew him when he was a baby?
- What would the purpose be of contact with foster carers immediately after placement?
- How might the adopters feel about this?
- What support do they need to understand how this could help Mikey?
- How might the foster carers feel about contact?
- What support might they need?
- How could the foster carers support the adopters to help Mikey settle?
Exercise: understanding post-adoption contact and identity
Building a sense of adoptive identity centres around questions such as “who am I as an adopted person?”, “what does being adopted mean to me and how does this fit into my understanding of my life story?”. In the ‘Contact after Adoption’ study, young people varied in terms of how they were making sense of their own life story as an adopted person, and four different patterns of identity development were identified. Some young people had been able to develop a cohesive adoptive identity – they had done a good deal of thinking about their adoption, and the reasons for their adoption made sense to them – they had a realistic understanding of why they needed to be adopted, and they felt at ease with their adoption story. For other young people their sense of adoptive identity was unexplored, developing or fragmented.
Young people’s identity development was affected by a range of factors, and sustained contact with birth relatives and open communication with adoptive parents both helped young people make sense of their adoption life story. Contact with birth relatives can be directly helpful as it provides information to the child about their birth family. But it can also be useful in terms of the conversations that it stimulates between adoptive parents and their child. These conversations give the child the opportunity to process their thoughts and feelings about adoption. Contact is not always easy for adopted young people, but providing difficulties are at a level that can be coped with emotionally, direct and indirect contact can be a useful part of the process of making sense of their adoption.
Read the practice briefing ‘Post-Adoption Contact and Identity’, then watch the film clips of young people talking (these can be found on the ‘Voice of the Child‘ page. A full version is also available on the on the ‘Case studies and media clips‘ page). Consider the following questions.
- How were the young people in the film making sense of their adoptive identity?
- What impact do you think contact has had on this?
- What role do you think their adoptive parents have played?
- What messages does the film raise about your practice (for example in terms of preparing and supporting adoptive parents, making and supporting contact plans for a child, archiving information, etc)?
The aim of this exercise is to increase practitioners’ awareness of the complexity of contact planning and its relationship to adoptive identity, understanding more about the need to have individual plans for individual children and the role that adoptive parents play.