Contact with birth families

I was always planning to blog about contact this weekend.  And then as I was watching “Call the Midwife” the storyline came up with the adoption of little Mae and her mother appearing from Hong Kong.  Although it did not go into a great deal of detail, it gave some insights into the complications in any adoption balancing the well-being of the child – giving the security of a stable and permanent home and the need to allow knowledge of the birth family and background that the child has come from.

Modern adoption is a very different to the way it was many years ago.  My mother, born in 1936, was adopted.  It was a very familiar story – her birth mother got “into the family way” before she was married when she was seventeen.  She was sent away to relatives to have the baby, who was then taken away from her at just a few weeks old.

Mum was adopted by my wonderful gran and grandad, who had not been lucky enough to have children of their own.  It was organised by their family doctor as was often the case.  My grandparents did not keep this a secret, and told my mum that she was adopted when she was twelve. 

Many years later, after my gran had died, we managed to track down and contact mum’s birth family and we now have a great relationship with them all and a wonderful extended family. As was then the practice, mum did not have a birth certificate, only her adoption certificate.  When she finally decided to track her birth family down, she had to undergo counselling from specialist social workers before she was allowed access to her original birth certificate.  From this we were lucky enough to track the family down to Hull and the US, and also lucky that everything was so amicable.

For many others the story is quite different.  Sometimes they have never been told that they are adopted, and either never find out, or find out very late in life.  Sometimes birth parents do not want to be reminded of such a painful point in their lives – often feeling so guilty that they did not or could not keep their child.  Sometimes it is a painful secret that was never told.  My mother’s story was one of the lucky ones.  But the point is that the practice was that there was a complete break with the birth family at the point of adoption with no ongoing contact with the birth family.

Adoption now is very different.  There are many fewer babies put up for adoption.  Children tend to be older.  And as such, they are likely to have memories of their birth family.  They are often from families with other siblings and half-siblings who are in different homes, either with different parts of the family, in foster care or other adoptive families.  The situation is much more complicated.  Even children that were taken away when very young will know that they are adopted and that they have a birth family, and will have a copy of their birth certificate.  They are also likely to have a “Life Story Book” that will give them information about their birth family – all of this is there to help them come to understand their background and where they have come from.  They are given “ownership” of their own story, something that they can choose in later life to be open with, or to keep as a part of themselves only shared with those they are closest to.   But with this openness comes the vexed question of contact.

It is made very clear to adoptive parents that they are likely to have to maintain contact with birth family in some way.  It is part of the agreement that is made when the adoption is being applied for.  When the child is in foster care, there tends to be more frequent contact with the birth family.  With foster care, the bond is maintained as there is not the same level of permanence that comes with an adoption.  This is then eventually reduced when an adoption order is made.  At this point the adoptive parents are the legal parents with full parental responsibility, and the birth parents lose any of the legal rights that they had.  This increased separation is important for a successful adoption to help the child become properly attached to new parents and family.

I think it’s fair to say that contact is still a difficult issue for many adoptive parents, particularly those that have adopted older children.  During our training we looked at the issues related to contact a great deal.  I could see how important it would be to any child we adopted – although I have to say explaining that to our family and friends was often more difficult.  They really found it hard to understand how contact could be beneficial, and would often say that they thought it might Mac – I think that is a common and understandable position.  In fact, when pushed, some social workers held the same view, even if that wasn’t the officially accepted position. 

But from my experience, the hard truth about contact is that it is all purely theoretical until you have a new child in your home and you begin to understand the family dynamics they have come from.  With that situation, especially as you are also busily adjusting yourself to this wonderful and challenging new role, as you are falling in love with this child and getting to know them better and better, the issues and emotions around contact can become very complicated indeed.

For many adoptions, contact is fairly straightforward.  It might just consist of “letterbox” contact – probably an annual exchange of letters and photos with birth parents.  It’s an opportunity for the birth parents to be given updates on the child and for the child to get updates on their birth parents.  This is all done through social services to maintain anonymity and to keep the address and contact details private.  These letters are valuable for the child as it is important that they understand their parents are well and get up-to-date photos.  It helps them understand that time passes and enables them to prepare for the time when they reach adulthood and will be able to decided for themselves whether they want to have direct contact.  It also helps them understand that their birth parents are growing older, as it can be difficult for them to understand how the passage of time might be affecting them.

Contact arrangements for Mac were more complicated than most.  He was one of four brothers, all sharing a birth mother.  Mac and his younger brother were full brothers and had always lived together – the relationship for Mac was very important.  He tended to worry about his little brother as he had taken a caring role in the past, so knowing that he was happy and well was really important.  So Mac saw his little brother frequently – initially monthly and then during school holidays, so approximately every six weeks or so.

They used to get together for a couple of hours or so at a soft play area and were able to go off and throw themselves around until they were tired.

However the first time we met Mac’s younger brother and his adoptive parents was at one of the annual sessions when Mac got together with all of his brothers.  Mac’s older brothers were a fair bit older than him and were half-siblings.  It had been decided that it was important that the four brothers did keep contact up annually.  To be honest it was always difficult to decide what to do to keep the older and younger boys entertained.  What would they all be interested in doing?

The sessions were facilitated by social services – as Mac’s older brothers were still in contact with their birth mother as they were living with members of their paternal families.  it was important that the older boys should not have direct access to the younger boys addresses and contact details in case these were then shared with the wider birth family.  So the meetings were intermediated by social workers who specialised in these types of contact and who had known all of the boys for a number of years.

The first time we all met, Mac had been with us for a couple of months.  We were all to meet at a bowling alley that was near where the older boys lived as it was more likely that they would come along.  We were particularly nervous, as it was the first time that we were going to meet Mac’s brothers, but it was also going to be the first time that we had met Mac’s younger brother’s adoptive parents – the couple who had adopted Mac’s younger brother, but did not adopt Mac.  We were obviously worried about how Mac might react to seeing them, but also not sure how we would feel when we met them.  After all, we had already fallen in love with Mac – it was difficult to understand why it had not worked for them.

So we all approached the contact with some trepidation.  Mac was always concerned with meetings whenever social workers were involved, and we were not sure how it would be meeting the people who Mac had lived with as potential adopters before.  But for Mac’s sake we knew we needed to go through with this.

As it happens, meeting his brother’s birth parents was fine.  Of course, it was as awkward for them as it was for us, but I think they took some comfort in seeing that Mac was already settling and seemed to be happy.  We spent time with them as the boys went bowling, and got to know them.  They had information that they were able to share with us about Mac from the past, and we were always happy to pick up as much information as possible, as it was by piecing all sorts of information together that we were able to help Mac manage his feelings about all sorts of situations by starting to understand his past.  The contact went well, and after an hour or so, we all got together and went our separate ways.

This was the first of our annual contact with all of the brothers – and it was rare as it was one of only three occasions when all of the brothers made it.  One of Mac’s brothers was less reliable in turning up to contact and it used to upset Mac – after all he only saw him once a year.  A year is a long time in an 8-year old boy’s life –  and if his brother didn’t turn up, he knew it would be yet another year.  This was particularly hard as he had a really close relationship with him as his older brother had looked after him when his parents were not around. 

It was frustrating for those of us who did make the effort, and it seemed that no-one was able to understand why he was not able to come – in hindsight we should have realised.  One year he did send a note to apologise as he had gone on holiday.  Of course, we soon worked out that the holiday was “at her majesty’s pleasure”.  This prevented him from coming to contact a number of times.  Luckily Mac’s oldest brother always made it, often egged on by his grandma, and we were able to form a good relationship with them both.

The contact with Mac’s younger brother was more straightforward.  Social services were happy to leave the arrangements to us, so we would contact his brother’s parents and arrange meetings for half terms and other school holidays.  Mac did find this useful, and although he sometimes wasn’t sure how to play with his younger brother, he always was able to see that he was well and getting on OK.

In addition to the face-to-face contact, Mac also had letterbox contact with his birth parents.  Once a year, normally around August time, we would send a letter with a number of photos and giving some updates on how Mac was doing – how he was getting on at school, new hobbies, if he’d grown – and in return he would receive a letter back to update him on their news.

Mac would look forward to contact, but we began to notice that the week running up to contact Mac’s behaviour would get worse.  He would be distracted, he would behave worse at school, he became more withdrawn and rude.  At the beginning this was particularly the case when social workers were involved.  Mac’s experience of meetings with social workers in the past had often led to him being moved on to a new home – and it was a while before he was confident enough that he was not going to be leaving us.  Once the adoption order went through, he did begin to believe that this was going to be for the long-term.

But Mac was also nervous before contact because he was never sure how things would work out and if all of his brothers would turn up.  The meeting was really important to him, but he also knew that he was quite likely to be disappointed, and he didn’t really know who to blame.  Coming back from contact was often a sad car journey – sometimes quiet, but as time moved on, and Mac began to trust us even more, he would open up about how he felt and that he felt let down.  It was for all of these reasons that we ensured that contact was held during school holidays – at least then it interfered less with his school work.

Modern contact issues

When we adopted Mac, social media was non-existent.  It was not the case that everyone had a smartphone and had constant contact with all sorts of people.  It was just not something to think about.  But as Mac grew up, and got towards moving to secondary school, it became an expectation of most children that they would get a mobile phone – Mac was no different.

So when Mac turned twelve, just before he started at secondary school, he got his first phone.  As he got older, he wanted (needed in his mind!) more and more powerful phones as social media really began to take off.  And being indulgent parents, we normally acceded to his request (although he did tend to get my cast-offs when I upgraded).

Being responsible parents, we tried our best to keep up with the technology so that we could understand what Mac was able to do online, and I would sit down with him as we gave him greater access to things and ensure that we all understood if he was safe or not.  Of course, this is something that all parents have to be aware of these days – the internet can be a dangerous place.  But for parents of adopted children, it can be a place for their children to start trying to contact birth family, and a way for birth family to find ways of contacting your child. 

For our own part, we were fairly sure this would happen at some point.  What we were most keen was that Mac should be honest with us and not keep any of this a secret.   We also didn’t want him to feel guilty.  Eventually Mac did get access to his birth family – his brothers had shared their phone numbers in a contact session and everything grew from there.  Once Mac was on Facebook, the cat was out of the bag.  Of course, we could have insisted that he keep everything private, but we were keen there was no conflict around all of this, and the more we knew then the more we would be able to travel the path with Mac and not be kept out of this part of his life.

It seems to me that the world of social media now means that it is next to impossible to stop birth families from being able to make contact with your adopted children – unless your child has no interest and does not want to be found.  It is an issue that you have to think carefully about and be prepared for.

Mac and I would have quite open conversations about his phone calls with his birth family.  He did not tell them where he lived – it was still important for him to be able to keep that part of his life safe and protected.  But he did talk to them increasingly frequently.  He would normally tell me afterwards.  I would always make sure that I showed no negative reaction to ensure he didn’t clam up in the future (of course part of me was always worried about what could happen from this contact).  What it did do for Mac was enable him to establish a relationship of sorts with his birth parents so that when he was old enough to decide if he wanted to see them again, it was better informed. In fact, it helped him to fill in the gaps.

However difficult contact issues are for the parents involved, it is small compared to the conflicting loyalties that the child is feeling.  It was very interesting to me that Mac would never phone his birth family from our house.  I told him it was OK, and his room was soundproofed enough that we couldn’t hear the conversation, but I think Mac wanted there to be a separation between his home and his birth family.  In his mind, the safety of his home was very much tied up with us and separate from birth family.  This behaviour never changed.

In the end though, I think Mac was able to balance his loyalties and that was so important for his well-being.  He knew that we were his parents, and that we would always stand by him and keep him safe and let him have whatever he needed.  But you should never underestimate the bond with of birth parents, especially on the child adopted at an older age. 

One post on Facebook made me happy that Mac had sorted these things in his own mind.  On Father’s Day 2016, he posted:

“Happy Father’s Day dads, Richard and Paul.”

I think this said it all – and thanks to autocorrect he even got the spelling right!

2 thoughts on “Contact with birth families

  1. I haven’t kept up with all of your blog entries, but this and another that I have read are wonderful reflections on important matters. Please keep writing.


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