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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.