Your local authority has a duty to offer to assess the support needs of anyone who is affected by an adoption placement (Adoption and Children Act 2002). This applies to the child, the adopters, the birth parents, and close relatives and siblings who have had, or may have a role in the child’s life.
With respect to birth parents, the support may be provided by the local authority but the guidance indicates that it will most often be appropriate for adoption support to birth parents and relatives to be provided by an individual or specialist agency independent of the local authority, especially if the child is to be placed for adoption against the wishes of a parent.
You may find it helpful to speak to CoramBAAF, an independent membership organisation for professionals, foster carers and adopters, and anyone else working with or looking after children in or from care, or adults who have been affected by adoption.
Support that should be available
The support most usually referred to is ‘counselling’ – sometimes narrowly defined as helping a parent to come to terms with the loss of their child. While this may be appropriate and sufficient in cases where a parent requests adoption, it is not what most parents are looking for when their child is taken into care and a care plan for adoption made.
Grief counselling may be appropriate later, but in these early stages parents need advice on whether they should contest the adoption, legal advice and advocacy to help them put their views across at formal meetings, emotional support to help them get through court proceedings, and advice and practical help with arrangements to maintain links with their child during the care and adoption proceedings and after the adoption order has been made.
A key role for the post adoption service to birth family members is to help with making decisions about appropriate contact and the practicalities of making it successful both before and after adoption.
Maintaining appropriate links during the placement and court proceedings, and after adoption
When a child is accommodated by or in the care of the local authority before a placement, the local authority is required to facilitate appropriate contact between the child and birth parents and others who are important to the child and to consult parents and ‘give due consideration to their wishes’ when making decisions about the child, including contact arrangements (Section 34 of the 1989 Children Act).
This duty ends when the voluntarily accommodated child is placed with adopters, or when the Court dispenses with parental consent and makes an adoption placement order. However, voluntary arrangements can continue if the adopters agree, and the court making a placement order can make a (Section 26) order to regulate contact arrangements before an adoption order is made. When an adoption order is made, it is very unusual for there to be an actual order for contact although a parent or birth relative may (with leave of the Court) apply for a ‘Section 8’ private law Child Arrangements Order – the same provision that applies when parents separate.
A key role for adoption support agencies is to help birth parents and other relatives to decide what role they wish to, and are able to, play in the child’s life after he/she has been placed with an adoptive family. This applies whether or not they are in agreement with the adoption plan. For around 80% of children adopted today there will be some form of continuing link with a birth family member. This is because, if it can be arranged in a way that is comfortable for the child, birth and adoptive family members, there is evidence that all will have something to gain.
A small minority of birth parents find the idea of ongoing contact is too distressing, and for a small minority of children complete severance with birth parents is appropriate when it is safest for the child.
Whilst adoption is successful for most children, where there are difficulties, it is likely to be around questions of ‘who am I? where do I belong? why was I given up? – and for those placed when older – is my first mum/dad/gran/brother/ sister ok? These are all questions that can be best answered if there is, as a minimum, the opportunity for the adoptive parents to update themselves and the child. Even if there is no plan for direct contact, the adoption support agency can help all concerned to make decisions about whether they wish to have any links when the adopted child reaches the age of 18.
Whilst many adopters are initially unsure about the value of continuing links, once they feel confident as the child’s 24/7 parents, most see that they and their child will find it helpful. In some cases there will be actual meetings between the child and family member- there is no slide rule about frequency, but it needs to be arranged in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the family life and of the adoptive family. Actual meetings tend to be more common for older children, but there is no reason why this should not happen with babies, and the research shows that this is more easy to manage for all concerned when there has been no actual relationship between the birth relative and child. (see research report of Beth Neil referenced below). More often, the contact is ‘indirect’- via exchange of letters (or less often phone calls) between the birth and adoptive family at agreed times. Sometimes these are from birth relative to adopter (which may or may not be shared with the child) and sometimes from adopter to birth relative - and more often two way.
Because there are so many possibilities, it is really important that the parents and relatives are helped, as early as possible when it is clear that an adoption plan is going ahead, to think through what they would like to happen. This requires those close to them to help them move on from their sadness, grief, anger, blame and to think about what is realistic. What is clear, is that it can be very hurtful for the child or adolescent if they get used to receiving news about the birth family and then for it to stop without explanation- and similarly the birth relative who has come to value the regular updating about their child for this to suddenly stop. ‘Letter box’ contact can be particularly difficult for parents who may have learning difficulties, addictions, or mental health problems, so they are especially in need of help in writing letters and in dealing with the emotional impact when they receive news.
Continuing links that work well usually follow on from careful planning between the adopters and their support worker, the birth parent/s or relative and their support worker. Birth parents are usually asked to write a ‘letter for life’ that will be held in trust for the child to be given at an appropriate age so that they have an explanation from the birth parent about why adoption was considered necessary. When there is not a plan for continuing meetings, birth parents are usually offered a ‘goodbye meeting’. This goes back to the days when continuing contact of any sort was less frequent -it is an emotive term for something that is inevitably distressing for a parent- some agencies use the term a ‘wish you well in your new family’ meeting which avoids the distressing finality of ‘goodbye’ especially since there are now few cases when there is never any further contact. Whatever they are called, these are important meetings and most birth parents find the strength to go through with them. Less often, parents and adopters meet, and reports from both say this can be very helpful to both. If there is to be continuing direct or indirect contact these meetings can be especially helpful.
Adoption whether by consent or against the wishes of parent is inevitably distressing, and comes on top of a period of high stress. But for the child, birth parents and relatives, it is the start of a different sort of relationship which will continue to be a part of the emotional lives of all of them. The advice, support and advocacy that can be given by friends, relatives, and support workers can make a very big difference to how adoption impacts on the rest of their lives.
Please note that this is background information and cannot replace the legal advice that should be sought by any parent who is considering placing a child for adoption, or whose child is taken into care with a possible plan for adoption.