Keeping birth parents in the loop

During the adoption process, it is natural for social workers to focus on the child. However, three projects have shown that helping birth parents come to terms with their loss can bring benefits to everyone - not least the child. Rosie Walker reports

During the adoption process, it is natural for social workers to focus on the child. However, three projects have shown that helping birth parents come to terms with their loss can bring benefits to everyone – not least the child

Letting birth parents support each other

St Francis’ Children’s Society (SFCS) runs monthly support groups in Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes and Peterborough where birth parents can offer each other support at difficult times. “We celebrate their children’s birthdays, with a cake and singing, and mothers’ day too,” says Kate Garside, support worker at SFCS who runs the Buckinghamshire group with a colleague. There is a separate group for birth fathers who often feel the most ignored by social workers. Members of the fathers group choose to focus on more practical things, like getting help with job applications.

SFCS is commissioned by all three local authorities to run the service because, Garside says, it is essential that birth parents get practical and emotional support, independent from social services because some have developed a mistrust of councils.

She adds that SFCS sent a group of birth parents to Luton University to talk to social work students about being on the “receiving end” which pointed out that greater awareness was needed of learning difficulties, and involving the birth father as much as the birth mother. “It gave them a chance to feel that something positive had come out of a lot of negativity,” she says.

Garside says although birth parents are traditionally a difficult group to reach, the uptake has been relatively high. “We’ve also managed to help people go on to successfully parent subsequent children, so in the long run we’ve saved more children coming into care,” she adds.

Helping birth mothers in prison

For women in prison, adoption can be a confusing process – it can, for instance, be difficult for them to clarify what the arrangements are for post-adoption contact particularly when this group have a traditional and deep distrust of social workers.

So Manchester-based charity After Adoption has set up Inside Outside – a pilot project offering counselling and practical advice to birth mothers in two prisons.

The women get help organising their “letterbox” contact – where birth parents and adoptive parents communicate at agreed times, by open letters passed through social services – as well as counselling for their grief. The three-year pilot is part of a programme on social exclusion which will be funded by the Cabinet Office until March 2011. The funding covers two full-time support workers, one in each prison.

“We make sure they’ve got a solicitor, but we’re not there as advocates for the birth parent. Our role is to help them recover,” says Frances Coller, service manager at After Adoption. “Often, birth parents who have lost one child will have another to try and replace it, and you can get five or six children who end up being taken into care.”

Dealing with anger and disillusionment

Leonie Baldwin, a former senior social worker at Brighton and Hove Council, says the adoption process can be “emotionally charged” and sometimes social workers lack the confidence to deal with parents, and their strength of feeling, after the court has issued an order for a child’s adoption.

“It’s very easy to lose engagement with birth parents at that point: they often become angry or disillusioned,” she says.

As part of a package of support measures for birth parents which the council runs, Baldwin and her managers, ran a two-day course for 12 social workers, most of whom were new to adoption.

It included a “powerful” presentation from a birth mother, as well as videos of one-to-one sessions the mother had done where she had written poetry about how the adoption process felt and discussed ways to help birth parents.

Social workers were shown how the cycle of grief can affect someone’s level of drink or drug abuse or their ability to work with professionals.

The course is designed, Baldwin says, to demonstrate to social workers the value of continuing to work with birth parents “because if you’re going to provide a child with long-term adoption support, you have to keep the birth parents involved”.

Key points

A local authority’s adoption service must provide birth parents with a counselling service and written information including:

  • Their wishes and feelings about the child.

  • The procedures for placement for adoption and adoption itself.

  • The legal implications and consequences of consenting to placement for adoption and to adoption itself, both now and in the future.

  • Wishes and feelings about the child’s religious and cultural upbringing.

  • Why the agency does not think the child should be returned to the parent.

  • Implications for parental responsibility and contact.

  • Birth parents also have the right, on request, to an assessment of their adoption support needs.

Source: Community Care Inform Reference Manual “Work with birth families”. For more information please e-mail or call 0208 652 4848

This article is published in the 17 June 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Keeping Birth Parents in the Loop

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