Adoption: support for birth parents in Somerset

Recent adoption laws place a responsibility on local authorities to offer independent support to birth families from the point at which adoption is considered for their child. Many local authorities meet the requirements via an in-house support worker who is independent of the child’s social worker. This article reports on one attempt by Somerset Children and Young People’s Directorate and NCH to provide proactive, independent support from another agency from the outset, and on the early  indications of the benefits to all parties in the adoption process.

Requirements in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and its accompanying guidance promote fair and positive engagement  between agencies, adopted children and birth families in the belief that this will result in positive outcomes for children. But where children’s services have made adoption plans it is often likely that birth families will have difficult or ambivalent relationships, not only with those social workers implementing the plans but with the whole service.

With this in mind, Somerset adoption managers researched the needs of birth parents. It became clear to them that, to achieve positive outcomes for all of those in the adoption process, the support service should be provided by an independent agency.

After a tendering process Somerset appointed Adoption and Foster Care NCH South West to deliver the Birth Family Support service from July 2005. Emphasis was placed on a joint approach to developing the service to ensure it would have a much higher chance of succeeding than had been experienced by other agencies.

The service aims to enable birth relatives to gain information about adoption and contribute to adoption planning for their child. It also aims to meet their support, counselling and advice needs, and support birth relatives after the adoption, particularly with contact arrangements.

At the point of initial referral, when adoption is first indicated as a plan for a child, many families decline the service. Some birth parents perceive a direct link between the service and Somerset Children and Young People’s Directorate and refuse to engage. Others feel that by accepting the service they are accepting the plan for adoption.

Some seek support in the mistaken belief that the service will help them to oppose the plan for adoption. Typically, these families’ lives are disrupted and disorganised, they have enormous feelings of failure, need time to approach their loss, and remain deeply distrustful of children’s services. However, after 18 months, NCH staff have succeeded in working with 83 per cent of referrals.

Nearly two-thirds of these have been birth mothers, 23 per cent birth fathers, 10 per cent siblings, 2 per cent grandmothers, and 1 per cent aunts. The key to engaging with families has been to offer the service repeatedly at different points in the process, by letter, phone, text, solicitors and other agencies, and to visit birth relatives in their own homes or at a venue of their choice. And  the key to meeting their needs has been offering a flexible service which they can use as required.

Trust and confidentiality

Although it is important that the project maintains a good working relationship with other professionals, it is vital that confidentiality is respected. Birth parents have been scrutinised and judged in all areas of life before referral. Gaining the trust of birth parents in a non-judgemental setting is crucial if they are to be fully engaged.

Gaining the trust of social workers is equally vital. Better outcomes for children have been achieved by the service acting as  mediator between Somerset and birth families, opening up previously difficult or non-existent communication channels and promoting an open exchange of information about the child.

Before this, many birth families withheld information as a protest against the plan for adoption. The service has also supported birth parents in  providing family histories and photographs for their children, and encouraged parents to meet adopters where at all possible. It has also worked successfully with birth parents to enable them to say goodbye to their child and give the child permission to attach to their new family.

The Somerset letterbox co-ordinator now encloses a leaflet about the service with all her letters to birth relatives. It is often at the point of first post-adoption contact that families engage with the service.

Even when a child is placed, birth families may not accept the adoption and may harbour great anger, making it difficult for them to write contact letters. Other parents may have accepted the adoption but find writing practically and emotionally too difficult.

Without support, many contact arrangements will founder. The service gives validity to their feelings of loss and anger, enabling them to move on and establish contact. For many birth families the service is their only source of encouragement to continue with contact.

Many parents feel they have little to write about. The service encourages adopters to write first so that birth families have  something to respond to. The service also works with social workers to find alternative means of contact, such as through making a video. Many birth families live from one contact to the next, and a late contact can cause desperate anxiety and withdrawal. The service can communicate the reasons for change, and support the families in dealing with delay and in maintaining or re-establishing contact.

An eight-session group for birth mothers has been piloted by the project which has taught women with very low self-esteem to interact socially, to listen and to share. Providing transport was a necessity, and several members would have struggled to commit without it.

By the end of the first session the bond felt by these women was strong enough for them to exchange contact numbers, offering each other support outside the group. They became sufficiently comfortable to look at loss and grief, participate in art and massage, make memory boxes and learn how to manage anniversaries.

Positive outcomes

Four key themes emerged from the group:

● First, was their absolute respect for adopters. If they had met the adopters they were even more positive and worked harder to maintain contact.
● Second, contact of any sort is fraught with ongoing difficulties and anxieties. Simple things such as how to address and sign off a letter can paralyse them into not writing.
● Third, no matter the reason for a child being  adopted, or whether a mother agrees with the plan, the sense of loss they experience is immense.
● Finally, giving the women permission to express their feelings allows them to explore the reasons for adoption and thus move on.

Since the service began, several of the mothers have had subsequent pregnancies and, rather than the previous pattern of avoidance, have worked positively with the Birth Family Support service and Somerset CYPD from the outset.

Feedback from users and child care social workers strongly suggests the success of the service is down to its independence from children’s services. Alongside this, our experience also indicates the importance of close partnership and clarity about roles between NCH and Somerset’s post adoption service.

Early indications are that a firm commitment and investment in an independent birth family support service contribute significantly to better outcomes for adopted children.

LUCY BLOWS is a birth family support social worker at the NCH Birth Family Support service in Somerset. She has previously worked in both the voluntary and statutory sector in child protection, family work, mental health, adult care, disability, and fostering and adoption.

JO JENKIN is the service manager for Adoption and Foster Care NCH South West and shared the responsibility for setting up and developing the Birth Family Support service.

MARY JONES is adoption team mnager at Adoption and Foster Care NCH South West.

JULIE GILFOYLE is a birth family support social worker at the NCH Birth Family Support service.

The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

● E Neil and D Howe (ed), Contact in Adoption and Permanent Foster Care: Research, Theory and Practice, BAAF, 2004
● L Charlton, M Crank, K Kansara, C Oliver, Still Screaming; Birth Parents Compulsorily Separated from their Children, After Adoption, 1998
● Groups for Women who have Parted with a Child for Adoption, discussion paper, Post Adoption Centre, 1990
● J Selwyn, L Frazer, P Wrighton, “More than just a letter”, Adoption and Fostering, vol 30, No 2, 2006

Related article
Birth parents seek out adopted children

This article appeared in the 15 March issue under the headline “Now we can talk”

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