Beverley Barnett-Jones, Associate Director (Practice and Impact) at Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (Nuffield FJO), is the keynote speaker at Adoption UK’s Annual Conference, The Power of Connections. Here she provides a taste of what to expect from her keynote address, which will focus on modernising post-adoption contact, with insight from a recent Nuffield FJO project as well as this year’s Adoption Barometer.

Most people adopted in recent decades will have direct or indirect contact with their birth family at some point in their lives, either put in place officially by the court when they were adopted, or through an informal arrangement. The focus of Adoption UK’s latest Adoption Barometer was direct contact, and, for me, it confirms two things that I have long believed; firstly, that having sustained relationships with birth family members helps adopted people to navigate identity issues and make sense of the past, and secondly, that many adopters are open to their children having (safe) contact with birth relatives.

Almost three quarters of adopted adults taking part in the Barometer survey agreed that maintaining a relationship with a birth family member had helped them to understand their identity and life history more fully, as did 78% of adoptive parents. The majority of adopted adults agreed that direct contact in childhood should be standard If deemed safe.

And, while adopters are often portrayed as being resistant to birth family contact, the Barometer revealed that adopters are (cautiously) open to the idea of maintaining direct relationships with birth relatives (albeit they can have reservations about the potential risks, emotional impacts on children and the level of support available). Among newly placed adopters, 37% already had an agreement for direct contact with one or more of their children’s birth relatives in 2021, and 64% were willing to consider establishing it in the future (including some who already had direct contact and were willing to consider additional arrangements). Prospective adopters were more likely than any other adopter group to say that contact, when safe, should be normal for all adopted children.

Evidence suggests that an open, more flexible approach to post-adoption contact can be beneficial. However, the dominant, entrenched narrative around post-adoption contact (within social care, government and society as a whole) doesn’t yet properly reflect this, meaning professionals and practice continue to conform to the status quo of indirect ‘letterbox’ contact, where letters – and sometimes photographs, small gifts, drawings or cards – are exchanged periodically between the adoptive parents and the child’s birth family.

While the introduction of letterbox contact over 20 years ago signalled a more ‘open’ approach to adoption (opposed to the ‘closed’ system of the past, where adopted children and their birth families wouldn’t have any contact with each other after adoption), its primary purpose is the exchange of information, rather than the creation of meaningful connections. The system is riddled with problems and issues, and is considered a notoriously difficult way to enable rewarding and lasting contact.

A range of research has found most letterbox arrangements were inactive even by middle childhood, and many had either stopped working early on, or had never even begun. For many reasons – including literacy challenges and emotional stress, and the system’s lack of flexibility and inability to effectively adapt to people’s changing feelings and circumstances – it can be hard to start the letterbox process and to sustain positive exchanges over time.

And, in today’s world, if the letterbox system isn’t working for adopted people, birth families or adoptive parents, they can potentially turn to social media to take contact into their own hands, without the necessary support and preparation being in place. The Barometer data shows that 23% of 13-18-year-olds who had informal (planned or unplanned) direct contact in 2021 were approached directly by a birth relative, mostly via social media.

With evidence clearly suggesting that letterbox contact needs substantial change to make the system fit for the modern world, in 2021, Nuffield FJO embarked on a project to examine how it could potentially be modernised. We consulted birth families, adoptive families, young people, adult adoptees, local authorities, and regional and voluntary adoption agencies in England – gathering a wide range of perspectives and identifying challenges and opportunities.

In particular, we explored how digital solutions could help to address some of the known difficulties of letterbox contact, and also examined, demonstrated and encouraged pilot digital products and services. Our discussions identified that using digital forms of communication to modernise letterbox contact may, if implemented carefully, better meet the needs of some families and children.

Digital solutions extend the opportunity to create adaptive, flexible and accessible forms of communication that meet needs over time. Digital contact platforms could, for example, enable people to communicate in different formats or in simpler ways (including through video, voice notes, ‘likes’ and emojis). Post-adoption contact could become more fluid, with preferences (such as whether cards can be sent) being changed more easily, and smaller, granular moments could be exchanged more frequently.

For the adult adoptees we spoke to, the idea of an organised national system that could support reunion work through the use of a portal where adoption records are digitally remastered and stored was seen as a potential breakthrough.

From an adoption agency perspective, digital platforms could reduce administration tasks, and improve record keeping and data management and storage – helping to free up resources that could be better used to support families.

However, while digital solutions may offer important benefits, we recognise that digital technology is not appropriate or accessible for everyone, and that letters and items sent through the post often have an intrinsic value and represent an emotional and personal connection that perhaps cannot be replicated in the digital world.

Furthermore, the potential impact of digital technology on post-adoption contact can only be fully realised if underpinned by concrete policy that considers digital poverty (including the impact of poor internet connections, limited data credit and a lack of devices) and digital competence, and sensitively meets the different support needs of children, adopters and birth parents.

I’ll be discussing the findings of our project (which are outlined in our spotlight paper on modernising post-adoption contact) in more detail at Adoption UK’s Annual Conference in October. I am honoured to have been invited to deliver the keynote address and also take part in the panel discussion, and look forward to hearing the views and experiences of those attending.

Written by Beverley Barnett-Jones, Associate Director (Practice and Impact) at Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (Nuffield FJO)