There is no doubt that the adoption of a child is a life changing event. Whilst it may be tempting to view the child's new life with their adoptive family as a "fresh start", it is becoming more widely recognised that there may be benefits to children in maintaining a link with their biological family.

When considering a petition for adoption, the court will asked to consider whether contact with the child's birth family ought to be granted to allow contact to continue post adoption. Whilst previously the norm would have been to either to sever all ties with the child's biological family, or to order only "letterbox" contact (letters which are exchanged between them and the child a few times per year with the frequency of the correspondence determined by the court) there is now a greater understanding of the benefits to a child in maintaining in person contact with their biological family.

The positive impact of contact on adopted children

Children who have been adopted have generally not enjoyed the best start in life. The trauma they have experienced in their early years cannot be erased. Research conducted by child psychology experts has shown that traces of early traumatic experiences will remain indefinitely in the primitive structure of the brain. Whilst it may be tempting to think that the best way to avoid repeated trauma is to stop the child from seeing his or her birth family, doing so will not stop the child from experiencing reminders of past trauma. It is now the opinion of many child psychologists that it is likely to be better for the child in the long term in most cases that these past traumas are acknowledged and feelings associated with them are addressed. It is not uncommon for children to have a fierce sense of attachment to their birth parents regardless of any abuse or neglect they may have experienced. It has been recognised by experts in child psychology that contact can:-

  • Promote the child’s placement stability.
  • Help the child manage loss/separation.
  • Help the child understand why they are in care (by letting them see first hand why their birth family could not look after them).
  • Help the child integrate their past.
  • Help the child understand their identity.

Managing contact effectively

If contact is to take place it requires to be well managed. The child should be informed in advance that they will be seeing their biological family and the arrangements ought to be explained clearly to them, such as where the contact will take place, who will be present and for how long it will last. Any concerns or questions they have should be addressed. During the contact, the child ought to be supported as required. Afterwards, the child should be provided with an opportunity to debrief and share his or her feelings or any questions surrounding the contact with his adoptive parents or another trusted adult.

Support for both birth and adoptive families

It is not just the child who will require support before, during and after contact. The birth family and the adoptive family may also require assistance. For the birth family this might mean practical support such as assistance with travel arrangements to reach the venue where contact is taking place. They may also require guidance as to what it is appropriate to say to the child. The best case scenario will involve the birth family and adoptive family communicating directly to plan the session. The adoptive parents may need guidance from other professionals such as counsellors regarding how to manage the child before, during and after contact. To be successful, all parties have to be fully "on board" to ensure that the contact is a positive experience for the child.

The child's placement with his or her adoptive family has to be the primary consideration for the court and if contact will undermine that placement it ought not to be considered. Nor should contact proceed if it will likely cause the child to become further traumatised or re-traumatised or if it would expose the child to further abuse or severe neglect. As with all contact matters which have to be considered by the court and those entrusted with the care of children, the welfare of the child is the court's paramount consideration.

It should be noted that the term "birth family" has been used throughout this Insight article. It is not just the biological parents who may seek contact with a child. The court may order contact between a child and his or her siblings if it is the child's best interest that this takes place. The provisions of the Children (Scotland) Act 2020 which are slowly coming into force will make it clear that the special relationship between siblings ought to be preserved where possible.

If you require legal advice regarding adoption or post adoption contact please contact a member of the family law team.


Donna McKay

Legal Director