I thought I would write a blog post on this as it’s quite a big subject and we have had some interesting experiences recently.
So, in the UK, in most adoption cases, direct (in-person) contact with birth parents is usually not allowed once adoption is approved by a judge as a course of action. (Unlike in the US where they have open adoptions – this is usually down to the fact that in the US a lot of women give up their children for adoption at birth voluntarily whereas in the UK most children have been removed from their parents by the state due to neglect or abuse – so the safety and trauma of maintaining contact has to be managed in the best interests of the child).
When a child is first removed from a parent’s care, they continue to have visitation and direct contact visits, supervised via social services in a neutral location until a placement order is made (meaning that child will be put up for adoption). Once this decision has been made by a judge to be in the best interest of the child, a final contact visit with birth parents will be arranged, and the parent (and child if they are old enough) will be told this is the last time they can see each other in person.
What is allowed after this point is something called Letterbox Contact, which is an agreement you can enter into as an adopter or a birth parent to send and receive 1 letter per year (and on a case-by-case basis, you can include photos). Both adopter and birth parents have the right to choose whether they engage or not in this process. The letters are sent via social services who review and redact letters and photos as necessary to ensure the child’s (and birth parents) safety. Copies of all letters are stored with social services so when children are older/adults they can go and see all the letters that were sent to them, or that they sent to their birth parents. Similarly, if a birth parent has chosen not to engage with the process, but a few years later changes their mind and wants to read the letters or see the photos, they will remain available to them via social services.
There are some cases where even letterbox contact is not approved, particularly where abuse or violence was extreme, or where for example a parent has sexually abused a child, and they would not deem it appropriate for a child to maintain a relationship with their abuser.
But in cases where it is allowed, it can be an opportunity for a grieving birth parent to see how their child is growing up and to learn about them and feel connected to them. And it can be very helpful for adopted children to help them understand who they are and where they have come from, to feel a connection to their birth parents, and ask them questions etc.
When it comes to siblings and grandparents, aunts and uncles, contact is more complicated. In most cases where it is safe to do so, direct (or in-person) contact with siblings is preferred, to allow siblings to get to know each other and spend time together a few times per year, even if they have been adopted into different families in different locations. However in some cases, some siblings may have stayed in foster care, or continue having contact with birth parents and this can sometimes mean it isn’t safe for a child to have contact with that sibling. For example, if an adopted 5-year old child has a 16-year old sibling who still sees their birth mother regularly, the mother might coerce the 16-year old to try and get their younger sibling to tell them where they live or which school they go to.
So some siblings might have direct contact, others might only have letterbox contact, and some may not be accessible at all. Some families might request direct contact or letterbox contact for grandparents or aunts and uncles as well, but it is very much a case-by-case basis. It can be a lot of work to manage contact with several different family members, but it’s important to also recognise that it isn’t just a mother who has lost their child, but grandparents who have lost a grandchild, aunts and uncles who have lost a niece or nephew. So there is a lot of grieving that needs to be done across whole families when it comes to adoption.
The vast majority of research I have read on adoption indicates that those children who have open and honest conversations about who they are, where they come from, and contact with birth relatives (in whatever form) grow up to be more settled and have a stronger sense of identity and belonging. Those children who either don’t talk about their adoption or past or are denied access to it tend to have significantly bigger issues with their sense of self and identity into adulthood. It is also an important entry point to be able to talk to your kid about safety issues, why they were taken into care, and why it may not be safe to just go and try to find their mum or dad via Facebook to talk to them. Letterbox gives you a structured and safe method of communciation to help avoid a secretive teenager talking to a birth parent directly, which can often lead to a lot of upset and confusion.
It can be hard to explain to a child why someone may or may not engage with the process. I have had some friends express shock that any parent would choose not to receive a letter from a child who was taken away from them. But people grieve in different ways. Some parents wait all year for their one letter and photos to see how their child is doing and what they look like now. Others find it so painful knowing that they can never see that child again that they simply want to pack it away in their minds and pretend it never happened. For some parents it is far worse to get an annual reminder of the child you can never see, growing up happily without you, and for those people, writing and receiving letters might just be too painful to bear.
And so contact for us is different for each of my children.
My youngest daughter A has letterbox contact set up with her birth mother, meaning that we can write a letter to her once a year, and send up to 4 photos. There are rules about the photos (they can’t be in an identifiable location, or have any nudity etc) and there is guidance on how to write the letters, which are sent adult to adult, from me to the birth mother, not directly to the child.
For A, we tried for over 2 years to set up letterbox contact with her oldest sibling, who is now 23, but ultimately were not able to find her and track her down to respond. Her 4 other siblings are sadly not contactable and we are not allowed to write to them. Similarly we have no contact information for her birth father and therefore cannot write to him either. The courts were clear that she should not have any contact with any grandparents at all due to severe levels of abuse in the birth family, so that was also not an option.
So every year we write a letter and send some photos to her birth mum, but have not received anything back.
For my older daughter S, we have set up letterbox contact with her birth mother, but it was not recommended to have it with her birth father, and we are trying to set up both letterbox and direct contact with her sisters, but have struggled so far to make contact with their adopters via social services. We have been able to establish direct contact with her older brother and her aunt and uncle, who we have seen a few times at the park etc.
It’s a lengthy and difficult process to make contact with family members, and of course you cannot force them to engage, which is particularly hard on my oldest daughter, who misses her sisters desperately and wants nothing more than to see them again.
Then this month, out of the blue, we received a letter from A’s birth mother. It was very unexpected (we subsequently discovered she had written to us in August but the letter went missing and was finally returned to sender in December!). It was a really lovely letter, and so nice to have some photos of her birth mother than she can see and engage with.
However it was really hard for S to see that A’s birth mother had written to her and her own brith mother had not. It brought up a lot of big emotions for both girls, who both miss their birth families a lot. It’s hard to explain to a 5-year old that this is not something to lord over your sibling the way she does with other things (Along the lines of “Nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh I got a sticker and you-ou didn’t”).
So we have been navigating this complicated world, and I am slowly but surely continuing to poke and prod social workers in the background every few months to see if there is any news. And we are thrilled to have had our first letter from a birth relative. I am pleased for A that she has this, even if it is the only letter we ever receive. And I am pleased that we managed to set up direct contact with S’s brother, even if we can’t connect with her sisters.
A couple of my friends have asked me how I am coping with all of this, and the truth is I am fine. Obviously I have been frustrated having to fight tooth and nail with social workers to set things up, only to find myself hitting a dead end. But I am not threatened by my children’s past or history. I don’t feel threatened by them having other mothers or loving them, or wanting to reach out and connect with them. I’m a naturally empathetic person and I can imagine I would feel exactly the same way if I had another mother out there somewhere who I never got to know. It’s important that my kids know they can talk to me openly about their feelings, about missing their birth families and grieving for those losses. A lot of the adoption process is a grieving process and you have to be able to support your kids to process the immense sense of loss they feel, and often cannot articulate.
I hope one day we will succeed in getting more contact set up, but in the mean time we will just keep on trying.