Contact or family time refers to any kind of communication between an adopted or fostered child and their birth family. This can be face to face, Letterbox (ln writing/indirect) or by phone or video call.
It can involve birth parents, siblings, aunts uncles, grandparents or occasionally friends.
Contact can also include meeting with former foster carers.
There is no legal requirement for adoptive families to maintain Contact but there is an expectation that foster carers will promote contact as outlined in minimum standards.
Contact arrangements will be discussed before an adoption order is made and families will be encouraged to come to an agreement, but sometimes the details of the contact arrangements may be included in the court order.
The child’s best interests will always be paramount. This will dictate the form, extent, and frequency of contact. Adoption UK advises that the majority of adoptive parents do have contact. In 2019 advised that 84% of adoptive families had signed an agreement for ongoing indirect letterbox contact. A further ¼ have direct contact mainly with siblings.
Letterbox contact is overseen by local authorities, and they intercept any unsuitable correspondence. Adoptive parents also can refuse to pass on communication if they feel it is not in the child’s best interest. Adoptive and foster carers often pass on details of achievements, education, social activities, and milestones.
It is recommended by the dept of health that siblings have contact, where they are not placed together. Clearly, there are situations when this is not possible, or in children’s best interests but my experience on supporting older care leavers is that sibling contact should be strenuously pursued.
Contact does not always occur it may be due to safeguarding issues or the distress of the child.
Why should I support contact?
In some US states and the UK until 1976 when the adoption act gave adoptees the right to access their original birth certificates. There is a clear need for adoptees and foster children to have a clear understanding of their history. It is ultimately the adopter’s choice but the adoptee or fostered child must be clear about their own heritage. They must be aware that they are adopted and where they come from contact is a key part of this process.
Half of the adopters who had contact in place said that contact creates difficulties or challenges for the child.
Social media is an issue that does need to be addressed. 25% of children were reported to have been contacted informally by birth family by adopters to adoption UK through informal ways.
What does the research tell us?
Contact is a key issue for children and they often have ambivalence about contact they often want more contact even if they are happy in placement content can reassure the child what is happening at home.
There is a legal presumption of promoting contact where safe to do so, and that it is generally beneficial but frequently in adoption contact is indirect. Carers’ needs and safety must also be maintained.
Birth parents can have mixed feelings about contact can indicate feelings can range from relief to shame, failure, and a mixture of emotions. Contact can also be distressing to all concerned on occasions. Some adopters really struggle with acknowledging that the child had a life before they met. The problem with this attitude is that the child will therefore grow up to believe that they birth history, therefore their identity and themselves
ACTIONS WHICH WILL HELP
- Gain as much information about birth family, hobbies, heritage, place of birth, etc.
- Be an active part of the discussion of contact arrangements
- Don’t start the discussion with fixed ideas, (I can’t do…..) Arrangements will be different for different parents, children, and carers
- Where possible and safe to do so, meeting the parents if you can as you can describe the child’s birth parents when they are older. This will be hugely powerful for them.
- Consider the purpose of contact, and if you are not sure, ask. Is it to allow the child to be reassured about their parents, is it to know where they come from? This will inform the regularity of contact.
- Start a realistic arrangement that you can maintain over the long term. You can increase later, but it is hard to reduce arrangements.