How social workers can keep children in contact with foster carers after adoption

Sophie Boswell and Lynne Cudmore explain how social workers can help adopted children maintain attachments

leaving care
Photo: Design Pics Inc/REX Shuttershock

by Sophie Boswell & Lynne Cudmore

In the flurry of excitement before a child is moved to be adopted, the fact they are losing a parent figure seems to get overlooked.

Our research showed that during this time levels of anxiety within the adopters and foster carers are extremely high. Despite the best intentions of professionals and others involved it is difficult for to keep in mind some fundamental facts about attachment and loss in young children. Such as:

  • Losing a parent figure in childhood is always traumatic, particularly in the first four years of life.
  • Children experiencing such a loss are likely to experience acute feelings of confusion, mistrust, fear and abandonment.
  • How gradual or how abrupt the separation is and how much emotional support is given to the child at this time are crucial in deciding how traumatic this loss will be.
  • As long as it is handled sensitively, the ongoing presence of an existing attachment figure can reassure children and reduce the trauma of sudden loss.
  • Children can react to loss by becoming outwardly compliant and cut off from their feelings; this should not be taken as evidence that they are ‘fine’.
  • Broken attachments can lead to low self-esteem and insecurity. Maintaining contact with carers can give children a powerful message of love and acceptance.

What can social workers do to prevent this from happening?

Many people are involved in decision-making during these moves, but there is no one person with overall responsibility for ensuring these principles are kept in mind. Social workers have a crucial role in providing clear guidance and support to foster carers and adopters so that the children’s emotional needs remain central during every stage of an adoptive move.

  • The child’s relationship with their foster carer is important, and the loss of this relationship should be made as gradual as possible to avoid unnecessary trauma.

Social workers can help by providing a clear and consistent message that this is an important relationship and one that should not be abruptly broken. Transitions can be much more gradual, with clear plans for regular ongoing contact with former carers not just planned but actively supported.

Regular and frequent visits from former carers, probably quite short at first, should be taken as the norm. These should become less intensive over the following months as children settle and become attached to their new parents.

If adopters or foster carers become anxious about potential upset during or after a contact, social workers can gently remind them that it is better to support children with their feelings, rather than give a message that distress is better avoided or denied.

Where actual contact is not possible other ways can be found for ensuring the foster carer remains an ongoing presence in the children’s lives. In an ideal scenario the carers will gradually assume an ‘auntie’ or grandparent–like role.

  • The relationship between foster carers and adopters should be understood as a long-term commitment to be supported and sustained over time.

A good relationship between carers and adopters is crucial in determining how thoughtful the transition will be, and whether or not ongoing contact is carried out in a mutually supportive way.

Sensitive ongoing support and guidance from a social worker can ensure foster carers and adopters take on the task of providing as much continuity and joined-up thinking as possible over the transition and beyond.

This will give the child the message that both old and new attachments are important and have a place in their life. It will also mitigate against the pain of torn loyalties or having to shut down memories of people they have loved.

  • Foster carers and their families need support so they do not devalue or minimise their importance to the child.

We believe that the system inadvertently gives out the message that foster carers’ relationship with a child is no longer important after the move. Carers who question or show distress about this are too often seen as obstructive or unprofessional.

Foster carers should be encouraged to remain in children’s lives, albeit in the background. Social workers will have a crucial part to play in supporting foster carers who may find this upsetting, and in reminding all parties that this can help new attachments being formed with adoptive parents.

  • Adopters need help in understanding the emotions of the child they have adopted, including if a child appears to be unaffected.

Adoptive parents often feel in the dark about the emotional impact the move has had on their child. At the same time they are being asked to make major decisions about contact and other issues.

Although they are trained in attachment and loss prior to placement, we suggest that social workers also provide adopters with extra help in understanding their children’s emotional needs post-placement. This should include recognition of the ‘compliant’ child who may appear to be fine but may have cut themselves off from their feelings, as described above.

  • Social work professionals and managers involved should be trained to recognise and respond to a young child who appears to be ‘fine’ after a major loss.

Most people agree that a child who appears cut off or ‘fine’ after a major loss is usually more worrying than one who is able to communicate their distress. However, this quickly gets lost when adults are anxious or upset themselves and seek reassurance that a child is not unduly distressed.

Social workers can play a crucial role in holding this in mind and helping others to do so, resisting the temptation to be relieved rather than worried when a child in this situation appears to be ‘fine’.  A child who is not showing their feelings will need the support of sensitive, emotionally available adults who can be aware of, and hold on to, feelings that the child may be finding frightening or overwhelming.

Sophie Boswell and Lynne Cudmore are child psychotherapists and author of the report: ‘The children were fine': acknowledging complex feelings in the move from foster care into adoption.

5 Responses to How social workers can keep children in contact with foster carers after adoption

  1. Stephen Marks February 25, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    This is all well and good if the adopted child had a good experience in Foster Care. There is no way that I would allow our adopted daughter to keep contact with her Foster Carer after the damage that was done is still being worked on and repaired 5 years later.

  2. Anisa February 27, 2016 at 7:28 pm #

    Yes, I agree with Stephen: this all assumes not only that all was well in foster care, but also that foster carers are able and willing to let go themselves. Moreover, it places a huge burden on adoptive parents who really need some space to find their feet in their relationship with the child – even if it’s hard for everyone. The best and most emotionally capable and well supported (as if,…in the current financial climate) foster carers could theoretically support this, but most can not. They either continue to seek to be the ‘parent’ or are so overcome with their own emotions/loss that this becomes the focal point (especially if the child is not showing feelings). Yes, the best interest of the child is the most important thing, but the child’s interest is fundamentally connected to the well-being of their forever family. Maybe some of the child’s immediate assumed attachment needs need to be sacrificed so that there is space for adopters to attach too: it is a two way process. The well being and – ability to attach – of the adoptive parents is in the end the most important to the child’s well being in the long run too.

  3. Sue March 1, 2016 at 10:12 am #

    I have been a Foster Carer for quite a few years now. I personally agree with the fact that it does help children settle once they have been adopted if we as carer’s carry on caring for a child’s emotional wellbeing after they have been adopted. I have had only great experience of this and our family has grown considerably due to the fact that the adopters and ourselves have grown very close to each other we are still Nan and Grandad to both sets of adoptive children and can hand on heart say how it has had a very positive effect on the children too. But the key is to know when to back off and when to offer help or advise. I do know some carer’s who found it doubly hard to let go because the adoptee’s have a different way of bringing up children to themselves. It all depends how well the adoptee’s get on with the carer’s and vide versa during the intense introductions. But as I say I have had only positive outcomes and I can hand on heart say we are really enjoying watching these children flourish and grow into outstanding young people and still playing very important role in their lives.

  4. Margaret March 2, 2016 at 2:39 pm #

    We have been foster carers for a number of years and to see a child we have cared for happy and settled with their new family is a great joy,to not be able to see that is very sad and hurtful to the people who have given a great deal of their time and love in caring for a child that wasn’t their birth child.So i totally disagree with what Anisa has said,what she has put sounds very selfish as regards to the child and its foster carers.

  5. janeh March 6, 2016 at 7:17 pm #

    We have been a foster carers for 15 years and our policy has always been that it is up to the adopters/birth family to instigate contact after the initial visit once the child has moved on. Some adopters wish for no further contact which is fine and which we do understand (although it would be nice to get the occasional photo), others keep in contact around birthday times and will often invite us to birthday parties, etc., yet others have become firm friends and we remain part of their family as token aunts/uncles/grandparents. I find the last category very satisfying because these children have no secrets in their lives – they know exactly where they spent the first months/years of their lives and they know who looked after them and loved them. That said, it would be impossible to keep in touch with all the children we have fostered over the 15 years!