Nearly 1 in 4 adopted children make contact with their birth family before they turn 18 years old, according to charity, Adoption UK.
When adopted children turn 18, they have a right to request information about their birth family. However, the rise of social media means that many children are tracking down their relatives (or being found by their relatives) and making contact much earlier.
Birth family contact is a question that many adoptive parents have to face, even before their children grow up. Adoption UK also reports that in 2019, 84% of adoptive families signed an agreement for ‘indirect contact’ (such as exchanging letters, known as ‘letterbox contact’) with the child’s birth family. A further 25% were engaging in direct contact with birth relatives, usually the child’s brothers and sisters.
Despite how common birth family contact is, adoptive parents are understandably worried about the impact it will have on their children, particularly as many adopted children experienced neglect or abuse before they were taken into care.
Charlotte Ramsden, the present of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services says that modern adoption should understand that, “children have multiple attachments, they have complex identities, they are desperate to be loved and to understand their backgrounds”.
This means that trying to restrict information from adopted children is unlikely to be the right way forward.
It is a very complex issue, so if you are worried, it is worth seeking legal advice for guidance about your options.
Making contact with an adopted child’s birth family
What is contact?
Contact, as the name suggests, refers to any type of contact between an adopted child and their birth family. Contact may be direct (such as face-to-face or over the phone) or indirect (such as via letter). If a child has contact with their birth family, it will usually be with their parents or siblings, but may also be with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins or other wider family members.
Do adopted children have to have contact with their birth family?
There is no law that says children must have contact with their birth family. Whether contact is right for a child, as well as how much and in what form, will vary depending on the child, their needs and personal circumstances.
However, when an adopted child turns 18 years old, they have a legal right to request information about their birth family, so may make direct contact on their own. Of course, as discussed above, adopted children often make direct contact on their own before they turn 18, usually via social media. It can be very hard for adoptive parents to prevent or monitor this kind of contact.
When is contact agreed?
Adoptive parents and birth parents will usually agree contact arrangements before the child is adopted and they will come to a voluntary agreement. Sometimes, the court may also set out contact arrangements in a court order.
Such orders will always be made in the best interests of the child (rather than what the birth family or adoptive parents want).
Adoptive parents and the birth family may also arrange adult-to-adult contact to allow the adoptive parents to keep the birth family updated about milestones in the child’s life. Birth relatives may also write letters to keep the adoptive family updated about what is going on in their life. This arrangement allows the adoptive parents have control over whether to share the birth family’s correspondence with the child or decline it if they think the content is inappropriate.
It is more common for adopted children to have face-to-face contact with their siblings over other members of their birth family. This is a direct recommendation of the Department for Education for siblings who cannot be placed in the same adoptive home. However, it is still up to individual families to decide whether contact is in the best interests of the child.
Why is birth family contact important?
In the past, UK adoptions used to be ‘closed’, which meant that children had no access to information about their birth family. In many cases, a child would not find out they were adopted until they were older or even an adult, a situation which can be very distressing and destabilising.
Nowadays, it is recognised that children have a need to understand their history, where they come from and who they are connected to. Contact with birth family is often important to help children understand their identity.
However, of course it is vital that adopted children receive the right support.
How should families manage social media contact?
Social media has allowed many families to track down adopted relatives and birth relatives in a matter of minutes, often when the child is still under 18 years old.
As previously mentioned, trying to restrict unsolicited contact from birth relatives may not be the right way forward. Adoptive parents can monitor social media activity, however, Adoption UK recommends that the right approach may be to try to prepare children for the possibility of unexpected contact from birth relatives.
The charity states that having open and honest conversations about your child’s history and identity is important. It is also important to let your child know that you support them and that they do not have to make decisions about contact by themselves.
Do you need advice about adoption?
At Henriques Griffiths, our friendly childcare solicitors can provide advice and support to adoptive parents and prospective adopters. We can handle all legal matters relating to adoption, helping to minimise stress for you and your family.