The landscape associated with adoption has changed over the years. In post-world war two Scotland, there was a huge stigma associated with being a single mother and many children were adopted because of that. At that time once a child was adopted all ties with their birth family were permanently severed. Things have moved on, however, and it is now more common for some kind of link between the child and birth parents to remain following adoption. This allows children to maintain a connection with their birth family which can be beneficial for their mental health. Adoption is no longer seen as taboo and accordingly the process can be more open. A recent article published by bbc news highlighted the importance to children in the care system of being aware of their birth family.

Types of contact after adoption

Often "letterbox contact" is ordered by the court post adoption. This involves written communications passing between the adoptive parents and birth parents. The frequency is determined by the court (often once or twice per year). The communications contain updates as to the child's development and welfare.

The court can, however, grant an adoption with the condition that in person contact is to take place between the birth parents and the child. An adoption order removes the parental rights and responsibilities held by the birth parents and transfers those rights to the adoptive parents. When determining whether contact should take place between birth parent and child, the court requires to determine what would be in the child's best interests. Having worked alongside child psychologists and other mental health professionals it is apparent that the court ought to place the child's mental health at the centre of its decision making. If contact is poorly managed, it can lead to further trauma for the child. It can even undermine their current placement with their carers. Clearly this outcome must be avoided at all costs. There is, however, an emerging school of thought that denying children the opportunity to maintain in person contact with their birth parent may be counterproductive.

Traumatic memories for children

Many children who are adopted have been subjected to trauma since birth. Removing the birth parents from their lives does not eliminate these early experiences from their core memories. If properly managed, contact with birth parents can be of value to the child as follows:-

(a) It can actually help a child understand why they has been removed from their birth family;

(b) It can help promote the stability of the placement with the adoptive parent (s) as it can reduce the child's descent into a fight/flight mentality

(c) It may help the child if the birth parent acknowledges the errors he or she made and addresses the child's anger

(d) It can help the child to process and integrate his or her past

(e) It allows the child to learn about his or her genetic history

Managing the contact carefully

The management of the contact is crucial. There are three parties involved in contact- the child, the birth parents and child's current carers. All three have a role to play if contact is to be successful. To be meaningful the contact must be planned, prepared for and supported. Work is required before, during and after contact.

Before contact

The child should be told that contact is happening sufficiently far in advance that they have time to ask questions. They should be informed when it will happen, what the arrangements are to be and crucially, how long the contact will last to avoid the child mistakenly thinking that they are being returned to their birth parents. The child's carers should be given information about the birth parents which may help them empathise with their situation . Meeting them in advance of the contact may assist. At the very least, the carers ought to be given an opportunity to explain what they can expect from the child, to the birth parents. Carers must understand the benefit to the child, otherwise they are unlikely to be supportive of the contact. The birth parents will likely need support to understand what their role in the contact will be and what it is that they can still offer the child. Their expectations may also have to be managed. On a more basic level birth parents may need practical support such as assistance with travel or a simple reminder of the time and location of the contact.

During contact

The contact ought to be supervised by someone who is aware of the support required and is able to provide it. Ideally the person supervising will be known to the child so that the child feels safe and relaxed in their company and can ask questions if required. That could be the child's carers or perhaps their social worker. It is important that the supervisor is aware of the limitations of the birth parents. They may not be capable of acting in the manner expected of a parent but could still have a role to play in the child's life. E.g. they may be able to play with a young child but not change or feed him.

After contact

It is crucial that a debrief take place following contact to ascertain what worked and how any issues can be overcome for future sessions. The child's feelings regarding contact must be addressed and clarity regarding future sessions must be provided to manage expectations of everyone involved.
The most important factor for consideration is, however, the effect contact may have on the child's current placement. If contact taking place is likely to undermine that then it ought not to proceed. In all other circumstances, with careful management, contact can not only be beneficial to the child, it can enhance their current placement and most importantly; allow them to grow up into a well-adjusted adult who has left any trauma suffered in their early years behind them.


Donna McKay

Legal Director