Contact. Should it be a nightmare of insecurity and fear?
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By Lucy Hines
For some adoptive parents, contact with their new child's birth family is something that can bring a nightmare of insecurity and fear. Will it mean their child will reject them? What if the birth parent doesn't like them? And worst of all, what if it prevents the child from learning to love their adoptive family?
It's an entirely natural fear, and one that increasing numbers of adopters are having to face, as more and more agencies involved in adoption recognise the huge range of benefits that contact with birth relatives can bring.
But it's not just the children who can gain from such arrangements. Research has shown that both birth families and adoptive parents can reap great rewards from helping children to retain links with their origins.
And as a result, adopters are now learning that there is nothing to fear and in fact, everything to gain from allowing, and even encouraging, their children to keep in contact with those from their past.
Jonathan Pearce, director of Adoption UK, the national charity and network of self-help groups for adoptive parents, agrees.
He said: "It's a very complicated issue, but generally, it's absolutely essential to maintain contact with birth families, and the majority of adoptive parents would agree with that.
"It's crucial that children have a good knowledge about their history and heritage, because if they don't, problems can arise. In the past, adoptions were veiled in secrecy, and birth families were cut out from the word go - but this created difficulties when the children later grew up and decided to contact their parents.
"Most people who've been adopted want to know their roots, and why they were given up for adoption; it's a natural urge. They'll want to get in touch with their birth family eventually, and it's less of a shock for their adopters if that contact is maintained from the beginning, than if the child simply goes off to find their parents when they reach 18.
"It can be a challenge, and some adoptive parents do feel threatened by a continuing link with birth parents - but lots of them see it as an important part of bringing up their child. For every adoptive family which struggles with contact, there are more who welcome it, and view it as part of their child's extended family."
Contact with birth relatives is growing increasingly common in today's adoption arrangements.
In fact, two recent studies on contact after adoption, conducted by Dr Elsbeth Neil of the University of East Anglia, found that in a sample of 168 children aged under four, only 11 per cent had no contact with adult birth relatives at all. Eighty-one per cent had 'letterbox contact', involving regular letters and reports, while 17 per cent saw their birth families face-to-face. Arrangements varied hugely, with some meetings frequent and friendly, and others only taking place once a year - but both adoptive and birth parents agreed that some sort of contact was enormously valuable.
According to the study, the arrangements "often seemed to help the adopters feel more secure in their parenting" and to have a better understanding of the birth relatives, reducing fears and negative images about them."
In addition, although many contact arrangements decreased or stopped within a short time, the same number actually increased in openness or frequency and when questioned, the adoptive parents said they did not feel the contact had stopped them from developing a close relationship with their child.
However, not all adopters are so positive about contact.
Jonathan Pearce admitted: "Some adoptive parents do want to reduce contact with the birth family. They say they find it too intrusive, and that it affects their child, and unsettles them.
"Also, these days most adoptions come about as a result of children being in local authority foster care, after some sort of neglect or abuse, and many adopters do feel concerned about contact when there has been a history of abuse within the birth family."
Diane Ferry, manager of Southampton City Council's adoption services team, says apprehension about contact is extremely common among adopters.
She explained: "Many adoptive parents, especially ones who are otherwise childless, can find contact with birth parents too threatening, and too difficult to cope with, because they fear the child is going to prefer its birth parents to them.
"However, many adopters find it much easier to accept contact with their child's grandparents and siblings, because they don't pose that threat. The bond between siblings is a very important one, and the relationship between children and grandparents is also usually relaxed, happy and positive. Most adopters understand that, and we do whatever we can to keep those links going - because contact is essential to a child's identity."
These days, contact arrangements are an integral part of adoption.
During the adoption process, social workers decide whether or not contact with the birth family and other significant people is a good idea, and the plans for contact will be recorded in the Adoption Agreement. Adoptive parents are now encouraged to become fully involved in this process, receiving training underlining the importance of talking with their child about its origins, and supporting any contact that has been arranged.
Diane Ferry, manager of Southampton City Council's adoption services team, added: "When contact exists, you have to have regular reviews, because it may need to be increased, decreased, or even suspended for a while - and adopters' opinions are very influential when making those decisions.
"At the moment, the courts won't force adoptive parents to do anything they don't want to - but in the future, when the new Adoption and Children Act comes into force in around 2004, they will have to give good reasons if they believe contact shouldn't continue."
"But the bottom line is, you have to find adopters who are prepared to agree to contact. If it's forced upon them, it won't work."
Despite this, Government guidelines insist that the most important views on this subject should always be those of the child.
The Department of Health's National Adoption Standards for England state that: "The child's needs, wishes and feelings, and their welfare and safety, are the most important concerns when considering contact with birth parents, wider birth family members and other people who are significant to them.
"Children's views on contact should carry more weight, and contact arrangements should be reviewed regularly, while recognising the issue of safety. When it is in the child's best interest for there to be ongoing links with birth parents and families, birth families will be involved in discussions about how best to achieve this."
Birth parents can often feel extremely isolated by the adoption process - but they too can draw huge comfort from maintaining family links.
Jonathan Pearce explained: "Adoption can be hard for the birth family as well. It's like a bereavement for them to lose their child to adoption, even if it's in the child's best interests."
However, the research by the University of East Anglia found that ongoing contact helped alleviate some of the birth parents' anguish, bringing a range of benefits including:
* Reassurance that their child is all right;
* Making the loss of their child easier to accept;
* Helping them to feel more positively about the adoptive parents;
* And seeing a positive role for themselves in their child's future.
The study concluded: "Most birth relatives having face-to-face contact understood and accepted that their child was now part of another family, even if the decision to place their child for adoption had caused them great upset and anger.
"For some of these birth relatives, seeing their child well, happy and obviously loved by and loving the adopters was very reassuring."
But probably the most basic argument for preserving contact after adoption is the fundamental truth that the link between children and their birth parents can never be broken - whether contact is maintained or not.
Independent adoption consultant Hedi Argent, who edited the book 'Staying Connected: Managing Contact Arrangements After Adoption', published by BAAF, believes that trying to sever the ties between children and birth parents is not only impossible, it can lead to disaster. She said: "It's important to maintain continuity, because children can't make a fresh start unless they take the memories and experiences of their past lives with them.
"It's much more difficult for a child to settle in an adoptive family if its connections with its birth family are cut; in fact, it's a nonsense to say that you can cut those ties. Even if you physically separate children from their parents, emotionally they'll never be cut off - because it's impossible to say goodbye."