Contact in adoption: making sense of the past

Adopted children need to know and understand their history and we no longer live in an age when the facts of adoption are kept secret from children. Photos and a life story book are important to help children to make sense of what happened in the past and to help them remember important people who were involved earlier in their lives. This can be vital in a child’s developing sense of identity and help them to integrate the past with the present. Having some contact with birth relatives may also play an important role in helping children to make sense of their past.

Different forms of contact for you and your adopted child

Contact between a child and their birth family (and others who have been important in their lives) must always be considered when a child is placed for adoption. What is right for an individual child varies and a contact plan is made for each child.  The child’s needs are central to any plan which must also take account of the adopters’ views. All adopters have thorough preparation and training and will be offered plenty of support to consider what may be right for their child. Also bear in mind that different arrangements will be made for each child, and you can enquire about contact arrangements and give your views when a child is proposed as a potential match.

Confidential letterbox contact

However in reality, direct (face to face) contact between a child and their birth parent/s is rare. If contact is agreed, this is most likely to be indirect ‘letterbox’ contact, where an exchange of written information between the adoptive parent and birth family is handled through a central point (usually the adoption service acting as the letterbox exchange.) In this way, the addresses are kept confidential and any inappropriate content can be managed.

Adopters are usually asked to send letters and photographs to the birth family, on at least an annual basis.  A letter might include, for example, milestones a child has achieved during the year, their physical health and progress at school. Social workers encourage birth families to reply to adopters to keep them informed of birth family events.

Can you meet your adopted child’s birth parents?

Adopters may also be offered a one-off meeting with birth parents before the child is placed.  This is more likely to be suggested if the birth parents are able to support the adoption plan. Adopters may find this helps when writing subsequent letters to the child’s birth family, and when answering children’s questions in future.

Contact between siblings adopted into different families

A more common form of direct (face to face) contact would be between an adopted child and their siblings, who may be living in other adoptive or foster families. It can be important for siblings to remain in touch if adopted into different families and such contact can be valuable for both adoptive families.  An older child may sometimes have contact with a relative, such as an aunt or grandparent who was unable to care for the child, but is supportive of the adoption.  For a few children face to face contact with birth parents may be arranged and this is very carefully managed with the agreement and support of the child’s adoptive parents. Adopters may also find contact with the child’s previous foster carers helpful; they can be a very good source of information and support to the new family.

Remember, the most important person in any contact arrangement is the child and all contact arrangements can be reviewed as a child’s needs may change over time.  Any review will want to make sure that contact continues to be beneficial to the child.

When a child reaches 18 years of age

Providing information and helping their children make sense of their past is an ongoing task for adopters. Biological curiosity is natural and older children may want to seek contact with their birth relatives. Adopters who have supported their children to have a good understanding of their background (rather than being left to imagine and perhaps have unrealistic fantasies about their birth family) can make this very much easier to deal with for everyone. When adopted people turn 18, they may wish to contact birth relatives. All adopters have thorough preparation training and there are services to provide advice and support them through this process, as they consider the issues of contact. Birth relatives may only seek to contact adopted young people after their 18th birthday, and only through an officially approved intermediary, who will respect the adopted person’s wishes about whether he or she wants any form of contact or not.

Finding out more

If you’d like to know more about helping an adopted child deal with the past we have developed an elearning module within First Steps that deals with Identity, Heritage and Life Story work.