What is contact?

Contact refers to any kind of contact between an adoptee and their birth family. It may be direct (face-to-face or over the telephone) or indirect (via letter) and may involve the child’s birth parents, siblings or relations from the wider family – such as aunts and uncles or grandparents.

It can also be used to refer to contact between a child and their former foster carers. Some local authorities may choose to refer to it as 'family time'.

At the moment there is no legal requirement for adoptive families to maintain contact of any kind with their child’s birth family after the adoption order has gone through. However, contact arrangements will be discussed prior to the child’s adoption and a voluntary agreement between the two families will normally be arranged. Sometimes the details of the contact arrangements may be included in the court order.

The extent and form of contact will be determined by what is deemed to be in the best interests of the child. If anyone involved wishes to change the terms of the contact agreement, they can ask for it to be reviewed. 

Adoption UK’s research shows that the majority of adoptive families do have contact arrangements in place with birth relatives. Our Adoption Barometer 2019 revealed that that 84% of adoptive families had signed an agreement for ongoing indirect contact (such as letterbox), and a further quarter were having direct contact with birth family members (in most cases, siblings).

Letterbox contact is where the adoptive and birth family exchange a letter or card and photographs every year. This correspondence is monitored by a third party – normally the adoption agency or local authority – who can make sure that no contact details are revealed, and any inappropriate content is removed.

Adoptive families will normally send details of the child’s achievements and milestones, physical health and progress at school, while birth relatives will tend to write about events in their lives. This an adult-to-adult correspondence – adopters have the right to decline a letter they feel is inappropriate and they can choose whether or not to reply or share it with their child.

Adoptees will often have direct contact with siblings who have been adopted to other families – this is the recommendation made by the Department for Education in situations where the children cannot be placed together. In some cases, the child may also have face-to-face contact with a grandparent or other birth relative who is supportive of the adoption, or a former foster carer.

Because there is no legal requirement in place, it is up to both families to decide whether or not to participate. Some adoptees will have no contact with birth family at all. This may be because one of the families has decided it is too distressing, or it may be that safeguarding concerns mean it is not in the best interests of the child to have any contact at all. 

Why is it important?

Initially adoptions in the UK were ‘closed’ – meaning the adoptee’s birth records and previous name and family history were sealed. Often the child was not told they were adopted and would only find out at a later stage of their life. This could be difficult and distressing for everyone involved.

In 1976, the passing of the Adoption Act gave adoptees the right to access their original birth certificates. Since then there has been greater recognition of adoptees’ needs and adoption has become a far more open process.  While it is ultimately the adopter's choice, in most circumstances the child will be told that they are adopted and helped to understand what happened in their past – and this approach will be strongly recommended by the adoption agency.  Contact is often an important part of this process, combined with life story work and therapy.

When done in a safe, careful and supported way, contact can have a positive impact on the adopted child and help them to understand their past and their identity better.

Why do adoptees need to be supported with contact?

Contact can be joyful, challenging, confusing, emotional, frustrating and overwhelming – quite possibly many of these things at once. It can be especially complicated for the three quarters of adopted children who have suffered significant violence, abuse or neglect in their birth families. Adoptees will need a lot of support and guidance in managing contact and the feelings that may arise as a result of it.

Our Adoption Barometer in 2019 showed that, while the majority of adoptive families had contact arrangements in place (84%), 49% said contact created difficulties or challenges for their child. It is evident that getting the right support is absolutely vital. For many children this will involve life story work and therapy.

What about social media?

Social media has had major implications for contact. It allows young people to trace their birth families more easily and from an earlier age, and birth families can also make contact this way. Our Adoption Barometer revealed that almost a quarter (24%) of respondents’ children had experienced direct birth family contact outside of a formal agreement – often via social media. 

The use of private profiles and shared passwords can help but families may be better off preparing young people to manage unsolicited contact, rather than hoping it can be avoided. Open and honest conversations about birth family and the child’s history are important, as is making sure adoptees feel supported in their decisions regarding contact, so they don't try to manage it all by themselves.

What about contact after an adoptee turns 18?

Helping an adoptee to make sense of their past is a lifelong process for many families. Any provisions made by the adoption agency or as part of the court order will come to an end once the adoptee reaches 18 years old. What happens next will be up the adoptee and they will need to choose how to move forwards.

Contact will no longer be regulated by social workers or an agency, which will mean the adoptee will need to decide what form the contact will take, how regular it will be and what things should be discussed. They may want the help of their adoptive family, but some will find this difficult or be concerned that doing so will hurt their feelings. Adoptee support groups and therapy can be useful. 

Adoption UK’s recommendations

In our Adoption Barometer we made the following recommendations to help improve contact:

  • Advice and training that is given to parents concerning continuing contact with birth families should be reviewed in the light of the technology that is now readily available and the impact of social media, and it should address the difficulties of ensuring that all parties engage with the existing schemes
  • All contact plans should be reviewed regularly and supported by a named social worker with suitable experience
  • Local authorities and regional agencies should pro-actively offer all adoptive families support for life story work and birth family contact as children enter their teen years in preparation for the possibility of direct contact during later teens. This could include training courses and workshops for both parents and children

Quick stats from the Adoption Barometer

  • The majority of established adoptive families (84%) had signed up to an agreement for ongoing indirect contact with birth family members
  • A further 23% reported that they had been involved in direct (in person) contact with birth family members. Of these, most were having direct contact with siblings of their children
  • 69% of adoptive families said they would consider direct contact with birth family in the future
  • 45% of adoptive families felt that continuing contact with birth family members was not well-managed and effectively run by their agency
  • 72% of adoptive families stated that their child’s birth parents do not regularly participate in continuing contact arrangements
  • 24% of families with 13-18 year-old children had experienced direct birth family contact outside of a formal agreement
  • In 35% of those cases, the contact was initiated by a birth family member seeking out the adopted young person, and in 22% of cases, the young person initiated the contact without the adoptive parents’ knowledge
  • 46% of parents of 13-18 year-old children did not feel well-prepared for the possibility of unsolicited direct contact

Where to find support:

  • Adoption UK helpline: 0300 666 0006
  • Your adoption agency
  • Support groups for adult adoptees (Adoption UK runs one in Wales, email [email protected] for information)