BLOG: When asked by researchers, most children in long-term foster care or adoptive families want more rather than less contact with some birth family members and former foster carers. How can we prevent these children from having ‘searching’ anxieties and help them maintain a sense of ‘connectedness’?
June Thoburn is an Emeritus Professor of Social Work at UEA Centre for Research on Children and Families and Research Affiliate at the Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism, University of Bergen.
As a ‘cup half full’ person, I’ve consoled myself for the enforced lack of travel (Bergen having been one of my favourite places over the past few years) by spending more time following Twitter links, some turning into Zoom-conversations that almost certainly wouldn’t have happened without the lockdowns. I especially value links made with young and older adults who have been in care (some for a few years before being adopted, or as troubled teenagers; some for most of their growing up time) and those who have provided them with love and parenting – and still do[i] (if you follow me on Twitter @junethobu you will recognise some of them).
I want to tie this reflection in with the pleasure and stimulus I’ve gained with Marit Skivenes and the Bergen team, Tarja Pösö and the friends from across Europe and the US made through our work, first in the DISCRETION-project[ii] and then the Adoption book[iii]. It has been so good to see publications (referenced below) from each of these.
My deepening understanding of the impact of ‘coming into care’ from personal accounts, and from trying to understand why some countries use adoption from care as a major part of their child welfare service, and others not, led me to the focus of this blog. It mainly concerns adoption as practiced in the US and UK nations, but is also relevant to children who enter care and for whom return to birth parents or relatives is either not possible or not safe. It follows on from my chapter on birth family links for the adoption book, but is particularly influenced by the adoption case files and judgements I read for the DISCRETION-project, adoption stories and webinars on the internet (some references below) and conversations with UEA colleagues (earlier David Howe[iv] and over the past 20 years with Elsbeth Neil[v]), who have woven conversations with adopters, adoptees and birth relatives into high quality research on adoption.
Although in UK nations around 80% of adoption placements from care are in theory not totally closed, it is clear that the routine ‘letter box’ contact rarely manages to keep meaningful links.
– June Thoburn
I home in especially on ‘searching’ stories of birth relatives and adopted people, some in their mid-teens but others at any stage in their adult lives. Some were helped in their ‘search’ some did it in secret. For some (probably a minority) there has been a happy ending all round, but more often it is a complex stressful and sometimes painful journey. So I ask the question – why do we still have ‘total severance’, ‘fresh start’, and ‘rescue’ models of adoption?[vi] Although in UK nations around 80% of adoption placements from care are in theory not totally closed, it is clear that the routine ‘letter box’ contact rarely manages to keep meaningful links. Especially as in many cases (we don’t know how many) the letters from birth relatives are not sensitively shared with the adopted child and young person until they are considered ’old enough’. Actual meetings, sometimes using online platforms, do a better job, even if only once or twice a year. But there is a growing awareness from research, and taken on board by senior members of the judiciary, that decisions about family contact should not be age based, or even whether there is an actual relationship (for infants there usually isn’t) but for each child and their circumstances, and should be regularly reviewed. Some adopters and young people are still under the impression that searching cannot happen until you are 18 – resulting in some teenagers bursting out without the help and safeguards needed. Just not true: adopters and social workers together can help a young person at any time to appropriately reconnect.
For professionals (social workers, lawyers, therapists) who assert that decisions must be based on the welfare of each child, the formulaic practices and the reasoning (or lack of it) behind them really should be questioned. In the mainly Anglophone nations: if a (young) child can’t go home, she must be placed for adoption because adoption is ‘more successful’ (evidence relevant to this particular child not usually provided), but what will be lost for this particular child then tends not to be asked. In most European jurisdictions, the opposite – reunification – must remain on the table, long after it is clearly not possible, denying long-term foster children and their foster family members the benefits from secure family membership.
When asked by researchers, most children in long-term foster care or adoptive families want more rather than less contact with some, though not all, birth family members and former foster carers, than they are actually having. They want the adults (both sets of parents and social workers) to ensure those links are comfortable and safe. They especially want to stay in touch with brothers and sisters. Another formulaic response I’ve come across in court reports has no support except in a very small number of cases: the youngest sibling (usually the one who is adopted) can’t see older brothers and sisters who are in contact with the birth parents because they might talk about the birth family (what I call the ‘contamination’ theory). This could be reframed as: even though at the moment we can’t safely arrange for Mary to see her mum, the fact she can have a sense of connectedness through her siblings will help her and assist her adopters and social workers in making more meaningful links as she gets older.
Systems (including access to judgments explaining why decisions were made) must allow for birth parents’ information to be updated and passed on so that actual contact arrangements can be changed when appropriate.
– June Thoburn
There is much in the research and personal stories in the ‘twitter-sphere’ as well as other media that I could say, but all this convinces me that even for those who enter care when very young and who need a permanent alternative family, professionals, new parents, and birth family members themselves, must keep ‘in trust’ for them, their connections with their first families and cultures. Systems (including access to judgments explaining why decisions were made) must allow for birth parents’ information to be updated and passed on so that actual contact arrangements can be changed when appropriate. That way, the ’searching’ anxieties so often voiced by those who have lost these links will be lessened or even disappear: Shall I search? Who will I upset? Who do I tell? Who can help me? What might I find? Will they still be alive? Do I have any brothers and sisters? Adopters’ concerns about harmful social media contacts ‘out of the blue’ will be considerably lessened if not eliminated.
In simple terms, if professionals haven’t lost your birth family, you don’t have to go searching, and are better placed as a teenager and young adult to decide ‘who is family’.
[i] Some examples: @TwoGoodMums @MrAlCoates @mummytiger1 @weirhopper.
[ii] The DIPA-newsletter and project website provide details of several publications and J. Thoburn (forthcoming) “Processes and determining factors when family court judgements are made in England about infants entering care at birth.” Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law.
[iii] T. Pösö, M, Skivenes, J. Thoburn (eds.) (2021) “Adoption from Care: International Perspectives on Children’s Rights, Family Preservation and State Intervention.” Bristol: Policy Press.
[iv] See for example D. Howe, and J. Feast (2000) “Adoption, search, and reunion: The long-term experience of adopted adults.”London: The Children’s Society.
[v] E. Neil, M. Beek, E. Ward (2014) “Contact after Adoption: A longitudinal study of adopted young people and their adoptive parents and birth relatives.” British Association for Adoption and Fostering.
[vi] J. Thoburn (forthcoming) “Understanding adoption breakdown: a socio-legal perspective” in N. Lowe and C. Fenton-Glynn (eds.) Research Handbook on Adoption. Edward Elgar. and J. Thoburn and Featherstone, B. (2018) “Adoption, child rescue, maltreatment and poverty” in Stephen A. Webb (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Critical Social Work. London: Routledge, pp. 401-411.