Unforgettable

    Twenty years ago adoption was considered to be a new phase in a
    child’s life, with the door shut on their old one for ever. These
    days the process is very different, with elements of the adopted
    child’s previous existence often accompanying them into their new
    world.

    There are various ways that this can happen. Adoptive parents
    may be provided with information and photographs from the child’s
    past to share with the child, or indirect contact might be
    encouraged through letters and up-to-date photographs. In some
    cases children – and even babies – have direct contact with their
    birth parents or other family members, and meet them face to
    face.

    But isn’t it confusing for a child to have two families? Not
    according to Priscilla Corbett, adoption development officer for
    Homefirst Community Trust and Causeway Trust in Northern Ireland.
    “Work with adults who were adopted as babies tells us there is a
    need for far greater openness for adopted children,” she says.
    “Later life reunions with birth parents can be fraught and
    disappointing, which could be avoided if there was some level of
    continuous post-placement contact.”

    Experience has shown that if the child is properly prepared,
    contact is often very positive. It can help the child accept their
    identity and heritage and come to terms with the reasons why they
    were adopted.

    Corbett cites the example of a child who was placed for adoption
    when he was two and who continued to have direct contact with his
    birth mother twice a year. Despite his young age he was able to
    remember some details from his past that troubled him. He asked his
    birth mother why he could not live with her and she was able to
    explain that she had been too young and had not known how to be a
    good mummy. Once he heard this, he seemed more able to settle in
    his placement.

    Children need to have knowledge about their heritage, says
    Barbara Hutchinson, deputy director of Baaf Adoption and Fostering.
    “Contact dispels the fantasy their birth parents are monsters and
    that they will inherit this and become monsters themselves. It also
    dispels the fantasy that if they could have stayed with their birth
    family everything would have been all right.”

    But it is not always advantageous, she adds. “We need to be very
    careful about traumatising children all over again. If the child
    has an internal model of their parents as untrustworthy,
    all-powerful or likely to hurt them then the contact might reawaken
    the trauma. It is important to think whether contact can meet a
    need in the child.”

    Continuous support is crucial, not just for the child but for
    everyone involved. The child may need help in understanding how, if
    their birth parents were unable to support them before, they could
    do so now, while adopters need to understand why knowledge about
    the birth family could be helpful for their child.

    Mutual trust between birth parents and adopters is vital if a
    struggle is to be avoided, and the situation must be regularly
    reviewed. “What’s right for a child at two is not going to be right
    at nine. I’d like to see a move away from court orders to allow for
    greater fluidity in the arrangements to suit the child’s changing
    needs,” says Hutchinson.

    Corbett agrees: “Careful assessments should be made on a
    case-by-case basis. There is no blueprint for what’s right and
    wrong. And the research to date is inconclusive. We have to learn
    from the mistakes made in the past and be as open as possible with
    everyone concerned, continually re-evaluating how it is working for
    the child.”

    Northern Ireland has a system of dual-approved carers. Says
    Corbett: “They take on a fostering role as soon as the care plan is
    for permanence. When the final care order is made they adopt the
    child, similar to the way the English concurrency teams work. It
    means there is already an established pattern of contact, which it
    is more natural to continue, albeit on a greatly reduced
    level.”

    Ann and Martin Smith* were concurrency carers for Adam*, whom
    they adopted last year. They were happy to have direct contact with
    Adam’s father Daniel Jones.* “He’s part of who Adam is. If it
    wasn’t for Daniel and Wendy* [Adam’s mother] there would be no Adam
    and we will always be grateful to them for that,” says Ann.
    Daniel did not agree with the adoption but he can see how it is in
    Adam’s interests to be settled there. “I wanted him back with me,”
    he says, “but I was in prison at the time and there was nothing I
    could do about it. I would never do anything to undermine Adam’s
    relationship with Ann and Martin. I know they love him, I could see
    that from the start. And they will be able to give him things I
    never could. I’ll be proud of him no matter what he does but I’d
    love to see him doing well for himself. Nothing will stop me seeing
    him every October. Once a year isn’t enough for me so I’m not going
    to miss out on what little time I do have with my son.”

    In Brighton and Hove, direct contact is increasingly being
    recommended in final care plans, says Jenny Priestman, practice
    manager of the council’s concurrency team. “As concurrency carers
    and birth parents have the opportunity to develop a relationship
    through the contact, both parties are demystified and the idea of
    future contact becomes less threatening.”

    Ann Smith agrees. “I’m not sure how I would feel if I didn’t
    know Daniel,” she says. “Going through concurrency meant we met him
    three times a week when we took Adam to see him. We knew we could
    trust him; he even refers to me as ‘mummy’ to Adam, which is a big
    thing for him.”

    But such arrangements are not always so open and
    straightforward. Corbett describes a case where the birth mother
    had locked herself and her young son in a bedroom and would not let
    social workers in. This was terrifying for the child and when the
    case came to adoption direct contact was not considered because it
    could have reminded him of this incident. Instead, indirect contact
    was arranged and support was offered to the mother to help her
    write letters to her child.

    Overall, there does not appear to be a national increase in
    direct contact post adoption. But if there has been the opportunity
    for birth parents and adopters to form a relationship before the
    adoption, contact is more positively considered by everyone
    concerned. The birth parents are more likely to accept the adopters
    and the adopters feel less threatened by people they have come to
    know and trust. In turn, this can help them to be more open with
    their child about their heritage.

    It is not always possible to organise safe or helpful contact
    between adopted children and their birth parents and the value of
    such contact must be carefully assessed in each case. But what is
    clear is that, when successful, it can help adopted children come
    to terms with who they are and help them settle more easily.

    * Names have been changed

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