This is a guest post written by Sarah Phillimore (@svphillimore), a barrister at St John’s Chambers. It arises from a discussion Sarah, myself and other colleagues had last weekend about the difficulty in obtaining s26 contact orders in placement proceedings and the spate of media reports of teenagers tracked down on Facebook by their biological family, not always with a happy ending.
Social media – our master or our servant?
I dimly remember being a teenager. It was not a great time. It would have been much worse if I had been adopted and on top of my hormonal struggles to come to terms with my place in the world, I then had to cope with the sudden discovery via Facebook that numerous members of my biological family wanted to get in touch and share their perspective about why I was adopted.
The human part of me feels compassion for the families who have had to face this; in some cases the fall out from such sudden reintroduction to the birth family has been massive and children have decided to move out of their adopted homes. But the less compassionate, lawyer part of me says ‘good’. Because perhaps now we can kick start more debate about post adoption direct contact. We can’t have a blanket assumption that such contact is either good or bad as each case involves a multiplicity of complicated facts and a variety of different people. Direct contact involves a dynamic relationship between people that changes over time. However, if there is now a serious risk of haphazard and unstructured post adoption contact being facilitated through the medium of social networking sites, we need to decide how we deal with that situation and our decisions should be based on good evidence.
The last 50 years have seen enormous shifts in societal attitudes towards accepting different concepts of ‘family’. Adoption is no longer a mechanism to cover up a shameful indiscretion and to encourage adopted children to vanish without trace into their ‘new’ family. There is recognition of the likely strength of our curiosity about our origins and the pull of the blood tie.
According to the Adoption Information Line, 70% of children adopted are between 1 -4 years. Only a very few are under 1 or over 10. The numbers of children adopted each year have decreased significantly from about 21,000 in 1975 to 5,797 in 1995; a reflection of the increased availability of abortion and the societal shift that no longer stigmatises illegitimacy. Adopted children are very unlikely to be brand new babies, given up by desperate teenage girls, but rather older children who have already suffered or were likely to suffer significant harm from their birth parents. We are thus considering a group of children who had a less than ideal start to life, may suffer difficulties with attachment and may retain memories of the harm done to them. It is likely that these children will find it difficult to cope with sudden and unsupported reintroduction to their birth family.
Research suggests that ‘communicative openness’ in adoptive families – how they think and talk about adoption – is positively linked to ‘structural openness’ – contact with birth family members – but that children’s emotional and behavioural development was not related to either the type of contact they were having with their birth families or the communicative openness of their adoptive parents (see Post-Adoption contact and Openness in Adoptive Parents’ Minds: Consequences for Children’s Development Elsbeth Neil Br JSoc Work (2009) 39).
More research is needed; as Elsbeth Neil recognises ‘finding empirical answers to questions about outcomes of contact after adoption is frustrated by significant methodological challenges …what is meant by contact after adoption? The type, frequency, duration and management of contact all need to be considered, as does the type of birth relative involved.’
Elsbeth Neil urged social workers to remain open minded about the issue of direct post adoption contact, resisting blanket predictions of either help or harm. However, it seems that the prevailing attitude is to assume it shouldn’t happen. Different reasons are given for this and they are compelling; birth parents may try to undermine the placement, the children may have unpleasant memories of the birth family and become upset by contact. Many social workers worry that potential adoptive parents will be ‘put off’ adopting if they also have to manage direct contact with birth parents.
But in practice it is rare to find social work analysis that goes beyond those familiar shibboleths, to consider the particular circumstances of children and birth family currently under scrutiny. Those of us who represent birth parents in care proceedings will be sadly familiar with the ‘party line’ around post adoption contact. It seems that the best we can get is a vague expression of a ‘hope’ that an adoptive family can be found who would be ‘open’ to direct contact but in the majority of cases the industry standard is letter box contact once or twice a year. This is so even in cases involving parents who would not actively attempt to undermine the placement and who had not subjected their children to serious abuse, such as parents with a learning disability whose children were removed on the basis of risk of significant future harm.
Perhaps we are still left with a residue of those earlier desires to entirely absorb the adopted child into the new family and to protect a sense of entitlement for adoptive parents. After all, it is asking a lot of someone to undertake the arduous task of raising a child (who often is neither grateful for nor welcoming of the parents’ input) without clear recognition of the status of ‘parent’.
Thus, the current purpose of the law appears to be to assume that adoptive families should be left in peace without any direct dealings with the birth family throughout the child’s minority. The child’s need for information can be met by Life Story books, some photographs and possibly a letter once or twice a year. An adopted child and birth families can now enter their details upon the Adoption Contact Register to apply for contact with one another. However the clearly stated purpose of the register is to permit contact only between adults if both want it.
Section 4 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 provides that adoptive parents, children and birth families all have the right to request an assessment of their needs for post adoption contact. A recent study investigated the levels and nature of such support (see Supporting post adoption contact in complex cases – briefing paper June 2010). It found that direct contact happens only in a minority of cases and support for such contact is likely to be organised on a case by case basis rather than via dedicated staff or formal systems. The prevailing attitude of social workers towards direct contact is to focus on controlling risk rather than pro active consideration of how to overcome problems that would affect contact.
The main type of support offered to both adoptive and birth parents was co-ordination and administration of contact, rather than providing emotional or therapeutic support such as work on relationship building. Unsurprisingly, for direct contact to work well it helped to have an element of emotional support together with facilitators who were organised and forward thinking, anticipating challenges and changes rather than simply responding to them. The ‘average’ family used contact support services 12 times over the course of a year and the cost was £999. Unsurprisingly, the cheapest model of support was administered contact averaging £395 per year whilst supervised and facilitated contact averaged at £1,371 per year, but these costs were probably an underestimate.
It would be interesting to develop the study and to have greater consideration of the existing structure of post adoption contact support together with a more rigorous cost/benefit analysis of the different types available. Considering the detailed nature of the assessment and matching process in adoptions, the disruption rate is surprisingly high at about 25%. It is certainly worth investigating whether or not greater structural and communicative openness in adoptions is a protective factor against breakdown.
That investigation becomes even more urgent when considering the inexorable rise of the new social media and the impact this has had on the way information now flows and is disseminated. It seems unlikely that the current rather static and limited framework to post adoption contact, with emphasis on adult control and choice, can survive the challenge posed by Facebook or other similar social networking sites.
Facebook was born in 2004 in Harvard. By the end of that year it had barely reached a million active users in the US and it took until 2007 to acquire a similar number in the UK. Like an extremely effective virus it then spread world wide; to date Facebook has 800 million active users, half of whom log on every day. 350 million of these users access Facebook by a mobile device. Each user has an average of 130 friends (Source: Facebook statistics). This incredible growth far outpaces the ability of the law to react to change. Users of social media have been able to act en masse to undermine legal rulings. Depending on your perspective this is either gloriously empowering or a serious threat to the rule of law.
Not only is it now easier than ever before to track people down due to the extent of our interconnecting networks, once you have made a Facebook friend you can access richly detailed on line information, which is immediately and constantly accessible. You can engage with people in discussing and disseminating this information and for those with vulnerable personalities it can be a dangerous playground.
Those 1-4 year olds adopted in 2004 before anyone outside of Harvard had heard of Facebook will now be aged between 9-12 years and likely to be already embracing social media or just about to. It seems inevitable that the numbers of adopted children involved in on line communication with birth parents can only increase and we need to start thinking about how we deal with this now.
It does not seem remotely realistic to respond to the Facebook issue by moving even further away from a culture of openness about adoption and our origins. Worryingly, anecdotal evidence suggests this may be the response from some Local Authorities.
Human constructs such as social media should be our servants, not our masters. They should exist to make our lives easier and better and to provide us all with opportunities to attain as much self actualisation as is within our capabilities. But this will only work if we understand the nature of what it is we have created, both its possibilities and its limitations. The law is a slow and lumbering beast, out of necessity. It takes time to legislate and to see how legislation works in practice. The new social media by comparison has grown from nothing to world domination in a remarkably short space of time and most people have only a hazy understanding of how it operates.
What we need to do urgently is to review and examine our approach to the whole issue. We need more research about the benefits or otherwise of direct post adoption contact. Where such contact is considered potentially beneficial, we then need to think more about what organisation and support is both affordable and feasible.
I appreciate that many parents may not be able to cope with direct contact, or at least not in the immediate aftermath of the proceedings and may, consciously or not, undermine the adoptive placement. But it is a rare set of care proceedings that involves only a mother or father in isolation from wider family and there needs to be fuller consideration of the role played by other relatives.
Adoptive families must not be undermined or disrespected. Adoptive parents take on a very difficult task and have jumped many hurdles to do so. But we have to do as much as we can to protect children from sudden and potentially harmful exposure to a birth family who may be understandably desperate to make contact and provide their version of history, regardless of the pain this can cause. Those adoptive parents who have welcomed post adoptive contact and found it worked well reported a benefit to the relationship with their child; ‘confirming them in their status as the psychological parent and creating an atmosphere of openness and trust within the family’ (see Supporting post adoption contact in complex cases).
As Carl Rogers put it ‘the facts are always friendly. Every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one much closer to what is true. And being closer to the truth can never be harmful or dangerous or unsatisfying thing’.
Young children should not have to cope with a deluge of facts about every horrible detail of the circumstances of their adoption. But they need to understand their general situation and why they couldn’t grow up with their families of origin. We need to find the best way for them. We need to master this situation, not just dance to Facebook’s tune.