Contact from a Social Worker’s Perspective

We are delighted that Sue Glogg ,Assistant Team Manager  for Adoption in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, has contributed this piece to our Sore Points week on Contact. 

contact lettersContact. The mere mention of the word is enough to strike fear into the hearts of most prospective adopters as they start out on their adoption journey listening to social workers explaining the importance of children remaining in touch with their families of origin. The usual response is one of surprise, as for the first time they realise they are expected to support their adopted child to maintain a connection with their past. Hopefully, along the way their understanding of the significance of contact will develop and with training and support they will shift from that initial fearful, anxious and threatened position to one which is more open, empathic and child-focussed. Most do, some don’t! But what are we looking for in prospective adopters when it comes to contact? It’s people who are “communicatively open” or in other words, people who are open, honest, non-defensive and emotionally attuned when it comes to thinking and talking about all aspects of adoption but especially contact.

Having spent the past 12 years working as a social worker in a busy local authority adoption team, I understand just what a complex, complicated and emotive topic contact is for all involved. I understand that given the choice many adopters wouldn’t do contact and that of those that do it, some feel they were talked (pressured?) into it by their social worker rather than genuinely believing in the benefits for them and their child. I understand that for birth parents the agony of losing your child is further compounded by the wait for an annual letter, which is often late and sometimes doesn’t arrive at all, and that for adopters there is frustration, resentment and disappointment when nothing arrives in return. I understand that adopted children and young people often have ambivalent feelings about their birth parents and mixed views about contact with them, with feelings of wanting and needing to know more to feelings of anger and sadness at having to manage the loss.

Normally, when considering contact, I am, of course, thinking from the viewpoint of the child, the birth relatives or the adopters and so when asked to write about contact from my own perspective I initially struggled because it’s not often I get time to really reflect on my own professional beliefs and views and what has influenced them. So what do I know and how do I really feel about contact?

Well, firstly, as a social worker I know that I have a statutory duty under the Children Act 1989 to recommend and promote contact between children and their birth parents, siblings and other relatives wherever possible. The prevailing culture within my team is pro contact and my own professional views have been influenced by training and research which backs the view that contact supports the development of a coherent sense of self and positive self-esteem for adopted children, and helps them to experience themselves as loved, thought about, cared for and remembered.

Secondly, I know that as a team we want to provide the very best support in relation to contact but don’t have anywhere near enough staff or resources to manage it as well as we would like to. We currently have one full time dedicated social worker who manages our contact service and a part of her job is to support almost 300 letterbox contacts and 45 face to face meetings every year. I know that without her we would sink under the deluge of cards which arrive every Christmas and that the duty social worker would be overwhelmed just dealing with distressed birth parents whose letterbox is long overdue. I know that the same duty worker will also contact the adopters to chase them up only to be told that the child’s behaviour is so difficult at the moment and they are so exhausted that they really don’t want to send a letter this year because they can’t think of anything positive to say!

I know I feel frustrated by those adopters who promised to support contact before the child was placed only to go back on their promises once the child is adopted and I feel resentful that I am expected to break the news to the birth parents that there will be no more letters and will no doubt be on the receiving end of their understandable anger and upset.

I know I feel disappointed and saddened on behalf of all the children whose birth parents let them down by not engaging in contact. 

I know that I feel exasperated when the courts expect me to make recommendations about ongoing contact before adopters have even been identified and at a point when for birth parents the fight for their children is not yet over, but I am still expected to assess their capacity to manage contact constructively in the future.  I know that plans for “too much” contact will inevitably make it harder for me to find a family for a child.

I know that many of the direct contacts I have facilitated between adopted children and their siblings have been some of the highlights of a long and fulfilling social work career spanning almost 30 years and I know how happy it makes me when adopters genuinely “get it” and are not just telling me what they think I want to hear in relation to contact.

The recent Contact After Adoption study by Dr Beth Neil reported that for adopted children their adoptive families were clearly seen as “my family” and there was no evidence of contact disturbing adoptive family relationships or affecting the child’s adjustment.

contact heart

Therefore, the final message I want to send to all adopters is to please be less insecure and more open and generous in relation to contact and more accepting of birth families because the birth family is not your enemy and shouldn’t be seen as a threat to your place in your child’s life. Remember, you have a key role in facilitating your child’s identity development, self-esteem, self-worth and happiness and helping them to maintain contact is a huge part of that.


9 thoughts on “Contact from a Social Worker’s Perspective

  1. Gem

    Thank you for taking the time to write this post which I found interesting but also frustrating to read. We are adopters who get contact and will facilitate as much as is beneficial tumour children. We manage direct contact with a middle,sibling who lives with his young birth father. We were left to get in with this by our adootion team after an initial meeting with birth father. It has been our responsibility to explain to him that he cannot tell birth mother that we have contact or where we are. It is a relationship based on a lot of trust and it works well. We are now godparents to all his children.

    I read your post after reading the previous post from an adopter on her experiences of contact and I would urge you to read it for it highlights that support and understanding and facilitation from willing adopters was not enough to prevent the fracture of their family when direct contact with birth parents was sought and how they have had to step back as parents in order to let the relationship play out and I imagine they wait to pick up the pieces. This is a far cry from the romantic idea of contact being positive and helping the young person. As a 40 something I know it may well help them over the course of their life but the distress it can cause for everyone involved during the teenager ears and early adulthood is not an ideal many people would want to sign up for especially if it comes with a risk to the lives and stability of the family. As a larent I want to do what I can to support my children’s emotional wellbeing and I know from my own experiences that the sense of loss will follow them throughout their lives but I would say that contact is far more complex than the ideal you have presented.

    Your post post highlights how underfunded post adoption remains and how much more support should be given to social workers and adopters alike in this matter. It also highlights why things get missed or overlooked and that contact is not well supported and facilitated with adoption teams. How can it be with the statistics you quote? Writing a letter is a challenging task for all concerned. We have agonised over how honest we should be in our letters. Do we tell birth fs,icky just his challenging our lives currently are? Do we tell them about the kicking and screaming and punching that is our daily lives? Do we just give the basics about achievements? It’s hardly surprising that some adoptive parents find to hard to write those letters. We are balancing the experience of our children and their birth families in our hands. Our letters will provoke a reaction in the reader. For me those are people we’ve never met. I ask you how, as an adopter, I should manage the fact that birth grandmother wrote well for a few years and then just as I felt our relationship was developing well, her letters stopped for a year. I had considered until that point that we might facilitate direct contact between our daughter and her but that hope has diminished now. She has now written back again and explained she was having problems with the behaviour of her young son which I can understand but that has highlighted for me how fragile our contact is, her I am expected to just carry in as if nothing has happened. I understandably feel a little frustrated at the somewhat idealistic view that children’s services take of contact and the pressure put on adoptive families to manage such a complex issue which is ongoing throughout the year and not just for twice a year letters. Contact can fracture an adoptive placement because it is such an emotional matter. Ideally it is an issue that should have more resources given to it.

  2. paul

    It is the biggest mistake that was ever made in the children’s act that , any contact should be promoted. It is destructive in all areas, birth and adopter side. And it makes more fears and insecurities for the child, it should never have been introduced. Adoption is a leagle matter and should not be opened up till a child is 18. This gives a child a real chance to forget and attemp to live a normal life without labels and reminders of pre adoption care. And be mature enough to understand once the ‘file’ is open. Birth parents should have no entitlement at all. And most don’t want to, they want to forget too.
    The constant thorn of being reminded stacks up even more resentment towards parents, it’s like rubbing salt into a wound that could take years to heal. And contact is a set back. Opening it up time and time again.

    Young minds should not be treated like this. No child has the adult mental capacity to deal with what the adult world has ‘already’ done to them.
    Children want to run free of the dark clouds of bitter memories that follow and mould them. adoption is their only chance at a fresh start and to mingle this in the reasons why what who when etc is a disaster waiting to happen.
    Adoption….in itself is a scar that never heals…its lived with for the rest of a life, the questions can never be answered, only partially understood with the development of empathy and understanding.

    Give children a chance to live away from their past by creating an adopted free future, they want to feel part of the adopted family, not have the armour they have created for themselves pricked, prodded and tarnished by the people who want to be there Mum And Dad being forced by the children’s act to keep the book open. It is adults again thinking they know best , and trying to ‘do right’ by all parties.

    Adoption in the mind of a child can be a fresh start, a chance to forget for a few years, a chance to develop trust in an adult world again.

  3. Vicki

    I’m disappointed in your final paragraph there.
    I have not been insecure about contact, I believe I have been ‘generous’ and ‘open and I don’t know any other adopters who have been any different. All the adoptive parents I personally know write on time, agonising over what to include and what to omit, they gently encourage their older children to get involved by sending artwork or even writing little bits. And they manage that whilst parenting often very challenging children.
    I regularly wrote, on time, at length, with no response, sometimes in tears as I’d recall all the violence, but only being able to write about the fluffy nice times.

    Despite no longer having contact with my son’s birth mother I would like to think that I’m still supporting my child’s “identity development, self-esteem, self-worth and happiness”. Contact may be a part of that, but it’s not the only part and I work bloody hard to raise a confident, happy, healthy child (despite the challenges).

    My son made the decision to cease contact with his birth parents. We only had a formal agreement with his birth father, who in 4.5 years never wrote back. We didn’t have an agreement at all with birth mother, but she wrote a couple of times within that period. When my son decided that he didn’t want these ‘strangers’ knowing about him, we supported him, but I was forced to write, re-write and re-write again a final contact letter explaining our reasons for cessation, but without including anything that could upset his birth mother. I wasn’t allowed to mention attachment issues, or anger, or even say that the decision was my son’s.
    I was urged to re-consider stopping on the basis that birth mother found it comforting. I was urged to consider writing behind my son’s back (yeah cause that wouldn’t cause problems further down the line), I had it made clear to me that my (or indeed my son’s) decision was not supported.

    Contact should be about my son and his needs – they naturally change over time and he (and in turn we) should be supported in that, not made to feel like we’re the bad guys.

  4. Suddenly Mummy

    I am glad that I am not the only person who had mixed feelings on reading this post. As a foster carer and adopter I have seen many, many contacts, direct and indirect, over the years, in a range of circumstances. They are hard on everybody, not least the children. The oft-repeated mantra that it will be good for the child’s sense of self in the long term seems to look rather weak when dealing with horrendous fallout in the short term. But we plod on, believing the experts, managing the trauma and the loss with very little support.

    I have been struck over the years by the number of young birth mums I have worked with who have been raised in long term foster care with plenty of direct contact, who, when they reach their teens, repeatedly run away to birth families. It seems to me that contact alone does not solve the issue of children creating a fantasy about their birth families. Sadly, by the time I meet them, these young women are often effectively homeless, unsupported by birth family, and their baby is being taken into care. The same birth family that couldn’t care for them years ago is in no better position to do so now.

    Also striking is the frequency with which birth parents miss contacts with their children altogether. I foster very young children, and it is not uncommon for contacts to be missed more than 50% of the time, often without any notice. When contacts are attended, children are often filled with sweets and plied with gifts so that every contact feels like a party and the children leave hyped up and with unreal expectations. In other cases, birth parents show a total lack of interest, even failing to bring anything (or even turn up) for special contacts that have been arranged on a child’s birthday or at Christmas. What expectation can we really have then, that contact that has been so unhelpful during a child’s period in foster care will suddenly become life affirming and vital to their long-term well-being after they are adopted? My son was let down dreadfully by his birth mother, many, many times. I am not keen to expose him to the possibility of being continually let down by her via letterbox throughout his entire childhood, without (at present) even having his consent to participate. Of course I write the letters, because I am told it is for the best, but we don’t receive replies from birth mum, although we have had one reply from his paternal grandmother. I would not have read him that reply under any circumstances, and I don’t discuss with him what I am doing at all. How is a 4-year-old supposed to process all of that?

    I know that policies on continuing contact arise from research, and I would like to buy into the whole thing, but my experience has shown me that the reality is very different, especially when the ones promoting these policies are not the ones that have to live the realities of them. I know several adult adoptees who have no interest in finding their birth families and do not consider their ‘identity’ to be an issue, but these people are rarely the ones who set up action groups and campaigns on social media, so it seems to me as though it is the loudest voices that are listened to. Does policy formation take into account those quiet folks who are just getting on with their lives? My personal experience of talking to adult adoptees does not always match the rhetoric. I am open to the possibility that my son will seek reunion with birth family, or that he will brush the dust off his shoes and pursue his life without them, and every scenario in between.

    I don’t see my son’s birth family as my enemy. That’s too simplistic. I spent a lot of time with his birth mum while I was fostering him, and have a great deal of sympathy for her, damaged and broken as she had become due to her own dreadful childhood. But my sympathy and understanding for her comes from the perspective of a grown woman with years of experience of life. I can hold the paradoxes of his birth mum’s behaviour in tension in my mind, but it takes an effort. This does not mean that I want my son exposed repeatedly to the chaos that is her life, to a scenario where she fills her facebook page with images and loving words about a child she abandoned and never contacts despite being given opportunity. I can understand the complexities of her situation. I doubt my son will be able to for many years.

    It does adopters a disservice to suggest that their concerns about contact are due to them being afraid or not being open enough. I do not wish to forget that my child is adopted or that he has another family. How could I? I am not living in a fantasy land where I walk off into the sunset and forget the past ever happened – even if I wanted to, my son lives out the consequences of his early life every day. But, while there may be positive stories and, yes, even something to be gained long term, we adopters know from painful, lived experience that continuing contact can quite easily remove the ground from under your feet on a regular basis. We cannot deny that reality, and all the research and policy-making and well-intentioned words in the world will not change it.

  5. kitty

    Whilst I appreciate your time and thought into posting, I feel that you have demonstrated what we, as adopters, suspect, which is that the people paid to support us do not understand the complexities and lissues. We are Experts by Experience. We are slowing but surely pulling ourselves together in a more strategic way to ensure our voices and experiences are heard. I have maintained contact with foster carers for well over a decade. They are like family. They are positive and validating. They love my children. My priority is my children’s mental health. They both have histories of self harm / suicide. They are very traumatised. My priority is ensuring they survive their teenage years. Quite literally. They are in no state to deal with their trauma or have contact with people that frighten them. I made the decision some years ago to halt letterbox. Yes I was challenged. I asked for a psychologically informed risk assessment to back up the contact. This could not be produced, because of course actually these are fragile situations with no garentees. I am not threatened by the birth family. I am a confident, professional woman who is also an expert by experience in parenting traumatised teens. I know I have acted in my children’s best interests. Risk is fluid, and the decisions made when children are younger or first placed must be reviewed. I have yet to see a comprehensive and credible and contemporary body of research evidence to support this blanket approach that contact is always desirable. I am writing this , not to belittle your contribution , but to ensue that adopters reading it have another perspective, I am glad to see others have also responded.

  6. aboyandagirl

    Thank you Vicki for furnishing me with the correct word. I too am *disappointed* that you can dismiss a whole tranche of people like us who are patiently, thoroughly, and lovingly working our way through the minefield of modern open adoption. There are many words to describe us; mainly exhausted, challenged on a daily basis by the effects of trauma and loss on our kids, kind and patient, loving and empathetic – insecure, not so much. But, you know what, I am not surprised by it, mostly my experience of SW’s has been that they wish we’d just get on with our job as adoptive parents and stop whinging on about it.

    We have direct contact between all our children’s siblings and their birth mother. We discovered 2 years ago that BM was pregnant again with baby number 6, the judge decided that BM had changed so radically that the new baby should live with her. We have spent the last 18 months gently explain the inexplicable to our children – why can he live with BM and not us, they ask? They don’t ask us why is he better than us, but I can see it in their eyes. Insecure? No, just a bit saddened by the whole situation, to be honest.

    We felt railroaded by the LA into direct contact with BM – there it’s out there now. At one meeting a family finder from the LA insinuated that if we didn’t agree to direct contact ahead of panel that we would be rejected as adoptive parents. We have been told since the adoption order was granted that if we cease direct contact with BM then she could overturn our adoption order and our children would return to her care. Unsupported? Yes, pretty much

    But, putting all of that aside, currently we feel that direct contact is a good thing for our kids. If at any point that stops being the case we will not do it. The only thing that matters to us is the welfare and mental health of our children. We love them and want them to be happy and as rounded as possible in the circumstances. We work at that every minute of every day, frankly we don’t have time to be insecure, we’re too busy raising our kids to be the best they can be.

  7. Belinda

    Just as I did when I first reached out to Mumsnet adopters, I feel no better prepared for the next 15 years. While I can understand the words Paul wrote about how birth families should not be allowed contact. I really don’t think he appreciates what it is like to be on the recieveing end of this decios for or against contact the for birth families like mine. And there are many who have done nothing wrong. Contrary to what Social Workers will say. The evidence I have that was not allowed to be used. Even if my son is able to get his criminal conviction reversed and The family case reviewed and show it was wrong. Our GD will be gone forever. I have looked after NAI cases. I have looked after elderly victims of abuse. I have experience of false accused families. Thise families broken by the actions of NHS and Social Services I never in my wildest dreams thought I would ever be one of them. Contact for us was never in our wildest dreams be more than the barest of bones. We can only hope we will be surprised and it is better than the impression we have been given. The description of the social worker of her colleague dealing with everything. We will get a plain letter. Nothing else will be Allowed. No scribbles no drawings. No guarantees


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