It isn't often that tough issues like fostering and adoption take centre stage in Hollywood. Nevertheless, many of us were recently glued to our television screens, tissue box in hand, to watch the movie "Instant Family", which has been trending on Netflix in the last few weeks.

The movie provides a poignant but humorous insight into fostering and adoption, highlighting its challenges as well as its rewards. The plot is centred around a care-free, well-off but childless couple, content with their successes but who feel that there is something missing in their lives. They decide to offer a child in the care system a secure and loving home by fostering. The couple is matched with a sibling group of three very different children, with their own individual emotional and behavioural difficulties. The story examines the goal of the American family law system to reunite children with their birth parents when it is safe to do so, which mirrors our approach to looked after children in Scotland.

In this fictional account the attempted rehabilitation of the children to their birth mother fails, and the film ends with the arguably 'fairy tale' ending of the foster parents adopting the children. Many viewers will have wondered what might have become of the relationship between the children and their birth mother. The film ignores that issue and so may validate the traditional view that the future of adopted children is solely focused around their new nuclear family. However, the story doesn't end there for many families who have embarked upon the adoption journey.

It is now acknowledged that adopted children may benefit from contact with their birth family. This could be direct contact between a child and their birth parents or take the form of exchanges of letters, cards or other indirect communications between the child/adoptive parents and the birth parents. It can be facilitated through informal agreement or, on occasion, there may be a condition of contact in the adoption order. The issue of post adoption contact is now a common feature of adoption cases in Scotland. Indeed, it can often be the most contentious issue for the court's consideration. There can be competing interests involved, including the resistance of birth parents to relinquish their child and to the severing of contact with them and the desire of adoptive parents to offer the child an opportunity for a fresh start, unencumbered by their past. When considering these concerns, the court's focus is the best interests of the child.

It is common for expert evidence to be given by child psychologists in contested adoption cases about what they consider would serve the best interests of the child. Few, if any, child psychologists advocate the now outdated blanket principle that children ought to have no post adoption contact with their birth parents. Indeed many child psychologists consider that there can be advantages and disadvantages to children in maintaining post adoption contact with birth parents. Prospective adopters and birth parents should carefully consider those advantages and disadvantages when assessing their position on post adoption contact for the individual child.

Where orders are made for no post adoption contact, this can in some circumstances protect a child from confronting what may be negative information and experiences from their early lives and from having to come to terms with what may have been an unhappy parental background and the reasons why their birth parents were unable to look after them. Further, birth parents may, in some circumstances, try to undermine the relationship between the child and their adoptive parents, particularly if they are not wholly supportive of the adoption.

It might, nevertheless, be better for a child to maintain a link with their birth parents to reduce the risk of idealising their past life with them. Post adoption contact can have many positive benefits; providing the child and birth parents with reassurance about each other's welfare, helping the child deal with issues of identity and loss as well as providing helpful insight to the child into their family history. It could also help the child to understand their dual connection to their adoptive family and their birth parents and could minimise feelings of abandonment or rejection by their birth parents.

In view of the above, it can, therefore, be quite a delicate balance to assess what is best for an individual child.

Dr Woolfson, a leading child psychologist in Scotland with experience of post adoption contact, reviewed psychological studies and publications and identifies five key questions for child psychologists to consider when assessing whether post adoptive contact is best for a child. These are:-

  1. Does the child enjoy direct contact and benefit from it?
  2. Does the birth parent have a positive view of direct contact?
  3. Does the natural parent use contact to undermine the adoption?
  4. Is there an existing and secure attachment between the natural parents and the child?
  5. Do the prospective adopters have a positive view of post adoptive contact?

In summary, it is important that prospective adopters are aware of the issues surrounding post-adoptive contact and are alive to the fact that an adoption order may not necessarily involve a "clean break" from the child's birth parents. Family law in Scotland has evolved to recognise the advantages and disadvantages to a child in maintaining contact with their birth parents. A bespoke assessment of the welfare of the individual child, including whether it is in their best interests to maintain contact with their birth parents and the appropriate level of contact, will be considered.


Garry Sturrock

Senior Associate