Planning and supporting adoptions that respect children’s relationships and identities: Connections to policy and practice

Over the last 20 years, a wide range of research studies from different parts of the world, including our own at UEA, have shown that adoption involves a lifelong process of resolving loss and building a coherent sense of identity. In 2013, a group of UK charities reported on how best to achieve stability and a positive sense of identity and belonging for children in care. They identified children’s past relationships as “the golden thread” that runs through their lives, querying why children who cannot be brought up in their birth families should frequently lose so many important relationships from the past (The Care Inquiry, 2013). We suggest that adoption practice should also regard every important pre-adoption relationship and identity as having the potential to be an ongoing "golden thread” in the child’s life.

In terms of adoption policy, it is important that the legal frameworks around adoption do not create and enforce barriers that prevent children from maintaining connections to important people, through restricting or preventing birth family contact or sealing adoption records. However, it is also important that legal frameworks allow an individualized consideration of the quality of such contact and the impact of this on the child, including any risks. Courts making adoption orders need to “set the tone” for a more inclusive model of adoption by requiring the child's existing relationships to be taken into account and strongly encouraging the maintenance of contact unless it is clearly not in the child’s best interests (Neil, 2018).

In terms of implications for practice, the first-level step in minimizing the loss of relationships and identities for children is the careful gathering and preservation of as much information as possible about the child’s background history, the communities and cultures that this includes, and the people who have been significant to them. Consideration should be given to the child's relationship and identity needs not just in the near future, but later in their life: what and who will the child want or need to know?

The personal circumstances, wishes, and resources of birth family (and foster family) members need to be explored. Attention should be paid to considering who in the child's existing network has something to offer in terms of providing background information or ongoing news of how significant people are doing. Who can reassure the child that they are cared about and remembered? Which individuals are most able to support the child as a member of their adoptive family? What help might birth parents need to manage adoption-related loss, anger, and shame so they can focus on their child’s needs (Neil, 2006)?

The feelings and resources of adoptive parents should also be explored (Neil, 2007). What is their understanding of the child's losses, and how do they think they can work with birth and foster families to meet the child’s needs? What are their thoughts and feelings about the child’s birth family, the reason they needed to be adopted, and how do they plan to talk with the child about this? What worries them about contact, and what support or information would help them feel comfortable in connecting with birth family members?

In collaboration with adoptive parents, birth relatives, and children (when old enough), professionals then need to consider the full range of contact arrangements with birth relatives, from "no contact” (in a small minority of cases, this may be the best or only option) through to face-to-face contact on a regular basis. Our research suggests that “formulaic” contact plans are not helpful, but that, instead, planning should be underpinned by the following key principles. That is, contact should be purposeful (of some benefit to the child); individualized (according to the particular needs of the child and the particular relevant qualities of the child, the adopters, and the birth relative); and should be viewed as a relationship-based process that is dynamic over time. The foundation of successful contact is trust between birth and adoptive families (Neil, 2010), and trusting and mutually comfortable relationships take both time and effort to grow (Grotevant, 2009). From the start it is important to think about how best to promote trust and empathy between birth and adoptive families and to provide early opportunities for people to meet up and start these discussions.

Whether or not families might need help from professionals to maintain contact after the adoption order should be considered and the nature of this support negotiated with those involved, with the goal of contact that is comfortable and family-like, with risks managed (Neil, 2010). Both the contact itself and any professional support services need to be reviewed from time to time, particularly when circumstances change or children reach new stages in their lives. Figure 6.2 summarizes these ideas in a model for planning and supporting contact (Neil, Beek, and Ward, 2015, p. 284).

Children’s connections with previous caregivers also need to be respected when they move to adoption. Gradual transitions that are sensitive to the child’s feelings and allow the child to build trust in the new parents, while at the same time using the previous caregivers as a secure base, can help the child to grieve their losses as well as enjoy their new family life. Some continuity of relationships with previous caregivers should be considered in all cases and, wherever appropriate, ongoing contact (ranging from an annual card to regular face-to-face contact) will help the child to fill the gaps in their identity and to know that they are still held in mind by their previous caregivers.

The aim of every adoption is to provide a secure base for the child through to adulthood and beyond. Research has shown us that this is rarely achieved by the total severance of the past, but rather through an acknowledgment of the role of birth relatives, previous caregivers, and adoptive parents in helping the child to achieve a coherent sense of the past in ways that are comfortable and individually tailored to changing needs across the lifespan.

Planning and Supporting Contact Model

Figure 6.2 Planning and Supporting Contact Model

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