‘Hello, I think you’re my sister’: how can we manage post-adoption contact in a social media age?

An adoptive father talks about his experience of managing contact with birth families in the age of social media and how attitudes to contact are too conservative

description-of-image-used-in-child-contact-piece-family-unde-magnifying-glass-fotolia-jenny-sturm
Photo: fotolia/Jenny Sturm

by Al Coates

White as a sheet my daughter showed me her phone.

A message read: ‘Hello, I think you’re my sister?’

This had not been the plan, actually there was no plan, but this was not the plan. We looked at the message and followed the link to the sender’s profile. From the familiarity of the features she definitely was the sister left behind when my daughter was swallowed up by adoption.

The genie was truly out of the bottle.

The issue of contact between adopted children and their biological families – mums, dads, aunts, sisters, brothers and grandparents – is ever growing in the adoption community. It never really went away but with the all-consuming world of social media connection is easy and instantaneous. What would have potentially taken months of letter writing, research and hard work now can be a few hours and a little bit of social media insight. Families are able to contact children and children find families with universally accessible resources.

Professor Beth Neil has researched contact between adoptees and birth families through childhood over the last two decades and notes that there is less contact occurring now than when she first started observing it. Why that is remains uncertain but the wishes of adopters and the advice that that they are given in the tentative first days of their new family remains steadfastly conservative.

‘Risks almost always outweigh benefits’

Social care often champions the idea of evidence-based practice; however this one area seems to remain steadfastly stuck in a conservative paradigm where risks almost always outweigh benefits. The research is clear that, when appropriate, contact brings benefits to children and adults. Children’s understanding of their life story and original family help them develop their identity and process their feelings and thoughts about adoption. Interestingly contact promotes openness between adoptees and their adoptive parents and the evidence would suggest ongoing contact was seen to mitigate the loss of the child to some extent for birth families.

All good? Generally, yes. But it’s not easy. There are challenges and contact is sometimes not in the best interests of children in relation to their safety or wellbeing.

Regular consistent contact works better but unexpected or uninvited contact through social media can be distressing, confusing and destabilising for families. This issue is not going away and to think or act otherwise is to sit like King Canute demanding that the sea turns back.

Social media is here to stay and to think that we can live in a disconnected world is unrealistic. Openness and honesty from the outset can be an antidote to the shock of an unsolicited direct message on a child’s phone.

Adoption is described as a service that finds families for children but in light of the ever-shrinking number of prospective adopters coming forward the adopter’s needs are brought increasingly into focus. Do adopters want open, or partially open, doors to the families of the children that they are looking to adopt? A yearly, or twice yearly, letter is often the most that adopters can tolerate and the most that biological families can hope for.

To adopt a child is to adopt their history

Is practice being led by the perceived needs of adopters looking for straightforward children with as little complication as possible? To adopt a child is to adopt their history and if their needs are best supported by regular meaningful links with their family then it is necessary is to open the door to those people as well. Yes, that’s hard. Yes, it might be messy but it may be in the best interests of that child and in that case meaningful appropriate contact is the minimum standard that we should aim for.

The alternatives – heads in the sand or trying to disconnect from the reality of modern life and connectivity – are unrealistic and naive. Adopters need to walk with their adopted children, make sense for them, be open and honest about anxieties and insecurities and accept this new reality or risk undermine the relationship they’ve often worked hard to build with them.

A future for adoption?

Adopters continue to hold the power in this issue and speaking to many they see that in the early days of creating their family worries of safety, fear of upset and social worker advice led them to accept the minimum of the letterbox. However, a few years on they felt more relaxed and were able to balance the risk and benefit more objectively. By then however the links had withered for many and effective contact could not be established or under resourced adoption services were unable to help. Opportunities were missed and the benefits lost.

The connection made with my daughter and her sister was a new start point when in reality the connection should have never been severed. The decision was made for us and we, as nervous new parents, lacked the knowledge or insight to ask the right questions, or consider the risks and weigh them against the benefits.

When we adopted again, we brokered relationships with birth family members who were safe and consistent and every day we see the fruit of that sometimes difficult path.

As adoption looks to the future the question of contact between children and members of their original families is being drawn into the centre of the debate. I believe it needs to define the future of adoption or I’m not sure it even has one.

Al Coates is an adoptive father and social worker who has received an MBE for services to children. He tweets @alcoatesMBE .

3 Responses to ‘Hello, I think you’re my sister’: how can we manage post-adoption contact in a social media age?

  1. Mrs C May 7, 2019 at 6:21 pm #

    As adopters 24 years ago, and now special guardians for our Littl’un, we wholeheartedly agree that openness has to be the way forward in adoption. Reasonable contact when it’s safe and positive promotes a cohesive identity, and builds resilience to cope with some of the more difficult aspects of adoptees’ stories. Like you, we constantly see the benefits of contact. The adoption system should always be based on what’s best for the children. Not what’s more expedient for local authorities or prospective adopters.

  2. GD May 8, 2019 at 9:02 am #

    Such a refreshing read. As a practitioner working with birth families, their voice and rights are so often negated. The adoption triangle of relationships is not equal. I agree that adopters need to be found and trained that can embrace the child and their history and what is best for the child is reviewed as the child grows and their needs for contact changes. Thank you for this.

  3. Mr. T May 16, 2019 at 6:12 am #

    Interesting! I agree it does make you wonder about the future of adoption. After all, if current thinking is that most adoptees are likely to benefit from direct contact with the birth parents from the word go, then why place them for adoption in the first place? A permanent guardianship of some kind would be better, rather than trying to turn adoption into that.

    The reality of many adoptions is that the birth parents are in prison during the first few years of an adoption placement of course, often because of evidence supplied by the child. So the chances of arranging direct contact that doesn’t upset the child in the beginning are pretty slim really.

    Contact with siblings is another matter of course, and I don’t know of any adopters who don’t try to enable direct contact there, even if the sibling is still in care. That does depend on the cooperation of the sibling though, which is not always possible in families blown apart by events.

    The problem of social media is more about how we protect children who *don’t* want to be contacted by birth family. They do exist!

Leave a Reply