Yesterday’s tragic story on the BBC about an adoptive family who fell apart is unusual: Listen Again to BBC Radio 4 Today Programme But it’s not unusual enough. Just 3% of adoptions break down, but that’s over a hundred families a year who are ripped apart by trauma that has its roots in a time before they even met their children.  

In this particular story, the final straw was unmanaged contact between the children and their birth family via social media. Our own research shows that around a quarter of adopted 13-18 year olds are in touch with their birth family, outside formal contact arrangements. The vast majority have searched via social media, often initiated by the adopted child, more often by a member of their birth family.  

There is much to fix about the way adopted children are supported to manage their relationships with their birth families. The majority of adoption placements start with contact arrangements in place. Only 4% of adopters have no contact agreement, and nine out of ten newly placed adopters have a formal arrangement for indirect contact via letters with the child’s birth mother. But an annual exchange of letters is a far cry from a meaningful link to your roots, even when the system works. In many cases, the contact is one-sided or tails off. 

There are many positive stories about birth family contact - stories like Ruth Scotten’s, who talks movingly about the way contact with her children’s birth mother has enriched all of their lives. According to Adoption UK’s own data, over half of adopters feel that informal contact has been positive for their child, as well as for relationships within the adoptive family. But an equally large number of families describe unsolicited and unsupported contact as destabilising. And in Northern Ireland, where concurrent care is common and direct contact is a feature in four out of every five newly placed families, adopters report higher levels of concern about contact arrangements. 

The fact is, adopted children have more than one family. The drive to explore one’s own identity is a recognised part of growing up. It’s natural for an adopted young person to be curious about their birth family, and no teenager has a perfect radar for risk.  

Social media has redefined all our relationships. We can’t stop our kids using it, and neither would we want to. Over the past year the opportunities to turn to virtual contact has been a lifeline for many of us. But in its ability to transcend barriers, social media presents significant risks for vulnerable young people, and as adopters it’s incredibly frightening to feel so out of control of this aspect of their lives.  

There’s no easy solution to any of this, though the key is clearly to be led by what’s right for the individual child. What is certainly needed is an overhaul of the way contact is decided and supported, from before the adoption order and right into adulthood. Right now, support is patchy. Some agencies do a brilliant job of supporting contact for all three sides of the adoption triangle – adopters, adopted children and birth family. Many do not. The family interviewed today were told there was ‘no such service’ – sadly, our Helpline hear this a lot.  

In failing to recognise the strong likelihood of unmanaged contact and failing to invest early in life journey work and identity development, the adoption system is setting young people up for risk. I hope that tragedies like the family torn apart by unsolicited contact will spotlight the need for better preparation. Adopted children deserve to be able to find out who they are without feeling forced to go behind their parents’ back or running the risk of exposure to crime, drugs and violence. Adoptive families, birth families and adopted children all deserve a relationship-based contact system that comes much closer to meeting their needs.  

While it’s right for us to invest real energy into helping families manage contact, we need a wider conversation about getting to grips with supporting families who are parenting some of the most vulnerable children in the UK. Families need excellent adoption preparation including life story training, the right package of therapeutic and peer support for the early months of placement, and specific help for adopted adolescents who are exploring their identities as part of making the transition to adulthood. These are the building blocks of giving adopted children an equal chance of a bright future.  


Sue Armstrong Brown, Chief Executive, Adoption UK