Amanda & Jazz's story

Amanda Boorman is an adoptive mother who believes she and her daughter, Jazz , (now 19) have benefited enormously from open communication and contact with Jazz’s birth parents.

Amanda had been told by social services that the five year old she was about to adopt had a distressingly abusive history. As a result, Jazz was a “lively” child, “the sort that you couldn’t use the TV as a baby sitter for - I thought that was brilliant,” says Amanda. “I traveled a lot at the time - the idea that I had, the naïve little bit that you have about becoming a parent - was me and my daughter, rucksacks on our backs, traveling the world, going to friends, sleeping on the floor…”

The reality was very different. “I became a prisoner in my own home.” By the age of eight, Jazz had been permanently excluded from three schools because of her aggressive and sometimes inexplicable behaviour. “The actions of someone who is traumatised,” says Amanda.

In an effort to understand her daughter’s extreme behaviour, Amanda began to consider the idea of meeting Jazz’s birth parents. Although she was discouraged from this approach by social services (“there was a bit of a ‘shock, horror’ response to my request”), she felt had to follow her instinct. “As a mum I needed the information first hand, to feel it for myself, not see it written on a piece of paper.”

Amanda was terrified to meet Dawn, Jazz’s birth mum, but when she stepped through the door her fears vanished. “Dawn came up to me and laid her head on my breast and just sobbed. And we just held each other and it was one of the most powerful, emotional things I’ve ever been involved in.”

Slowly, the tale of abuse began to unfold, one quite different to the story Amanda had been told. For example Jazz’s teeth had been knocked out in an accident with her brother. And another sibling had been sexually abused, but by a foster carer, who eventually went to prison for his abuse.

But it also became apparent that Dawn had been born with a learning difficulty that had gone undiagnosed for 53 years. “She ended up in care, was raped by one of the staff. So she comes out the other end a very angry person with a learning disability, which is exactly what my daughter is.”

Amanda began gently discussing the idea of her daughter meeting her birth parents. She captured that first meeting on film “It’s heart-wrenching,” says Amanda.

The change in Jazz after contact with her birth family was profound. “It’s a form of child abuse and cruelty to not allow people to have their history. Handled well it has the potential to be a healing thing.”

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Drop Capor six years Claire hasn’t seen or spoken to the eldest of her three adopted daughters. She does not have her phone number or her address. Contact with her middle child occurs rarely and each year her birthday passes without cards arriving from any of her three children.

Claire and her ex-husband adopted siblings aged five, three and two in 1991. “They had a chaotic background,” says Claire. The trio’s birth mother was a single parent, struggling with addiction, who had spent time in prison. As a result, the children had shifted between foster care placements. “They suffered as a result of that,” says Claire. Towards the end of December 2009, a Facebook message pinged into the three children’s inbox, the youngest was 19, the eldest 23. It was from their birth mother. It said: “Hello, remember me, you’ve been told lies about me.”

The girls subsequently reunited with their birth mother and it is she the children now call “mum” on Facebook. In the process, Claire has lost regular contact with her adopted daughters. She believes those nine words, which appeared uninvited on her children's computer screens, were the catalyst.

While an extreme example, Claire’s story illustrates the disruption that social media contact between birth relatives and adopted children is causing adoptive families today. Now a message can arrive unsolicited in an inbox taking no notice of the emotions of its receiver. Perhaps they’re in the middle of their GCSEs, or they’re being bullied at school or maybe a relationship has ended. And without a mediator experienced in adoption reunions to act as a buffer, what starts as an emotional ripple can soon turn into a tidal wave.

Claire's story continued...

When she opened the Facebook message from her birth mother, Claire’s middle daughter, Sarah was living away from home. Despite memories of her birth mother’s cruelty (“She used to tell her she was ‘ugly and stupid, just like her birth father’,” says Claire), the Facebook message threw Sarah into an emotional tailspin. “One of her biggest fears was that birth mum would turn up,” says Claire. Not surprising then that the message stirred up tumultuous feelings.

Claire’s youngest hadn’t been checking Facebook regularly - she received the same message in February. “She was struggling at uni anyway but her strategy was to dive into a bottle of vodka. She barely went to any lectures,” says Claire. “The message was the trigger. She dropped out and came home for the summer, depressed and in a terrible state. Very difficult to live with and highly uncommunicative.”

“They go into a kind of traumatised shock,” says Claire. “But there are so many things going on in their lives that you’re never quite sure what the root cause is - which bit do you deal with?”

Amid these complex emotions, a reunion with their birth mother was arranged. “The middle one is seeing how birth mum is nice to the eldest but indifferent to her. And is upset when she doesn’t receive a birthday card. [Birth mum’s] not interested in the youngest either. So there’s this massive dynamic going on. It’s just awful.”

For Claire the fallout has been life changing. “I’ve lost three kids. Would it have happened without Facebook? Probably not. And I’m not the only one.”

Cause for Concern

Social media is enabling instant reunions between adopted children and birth relatives without expert mediation - and it has caught many professionals and parents off-guard.

This month over one billion people around the world will have logged onto the social networking site, Facebook. They will have posted pictures of their summer holidays or been tagged in others. They will have updated their status or ‘liked’ their friends’ and should they have their location sharing button activated, they will have broadcast their whereabouts to anyone interested in knowing it.

Social media has fundamentally changed the way in which we live and communicate. It has created fresh opportunities for connection and enriched our lives in a multitude of ways. But the technology has also had some unplanned for side-effects.

“I’ve heard some terrible stories of adoptions breaking down. There have always been cases of teenagers deciding they’re going to leave home, but Facebook and the ease of being able to contact your birth relative has just changed everything - the disruptions can happen more easily and more often. It is heartbreaking,” says author Eileen Fursland who has written three handbooks on the topic.

“It’s difficult to describe the extent to which the Internet is changing the everyday realities of adoption – and the lives of the millions of people it encompasses – without using words that sound hyperbolic,” say the authors of Untangling the Web, a research report published by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in December last year. The report is wide-ranging, exploring issues such as the growth of unregulated adoption websites as well as the ease of finding birth relatives and the growing number of children who are forming relationships with biological relatives without “guidance or preparation.”

Adoption groups are concerned. In 2010 the British Association of Adoption and Fostering organized a series of workshops to address the issue and Adoption UK has run two training events (the most recent held in June). According to Hugh Thornberry, CEO of Adoption UK: “We know that in some cases the impact of birth family contacting adoptees can be devastating and lead to the risk of disruption. Our view generally is that you can’t control this, so all you can do is prepare children and parents to be able to deal with it if it arises.”

During consultation on the Children and Families Bill last year, the government recognized that in the age of social media, contact can’t always be regulated. Proposed reforms to adoption reflected in the bill include Clause 8 which provides for a ‘no contact order’. This gives adopted parents the right to ask a court to stop “unsolicited, potentially harmful and disruptive contact.” During a Public Bill Committee debate, Edward Timpson MP said social media was a contributing factor to the proposal. Other proposed restrictions include strengthening the ‘permission filter’ that already exists for birth parents to apply for a contact order before allowing them to communicate with their adopted child.

While the long-term effects of unmediated contact via social media are being researched (a large-scale US study is due to be published in December by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and the University of East Anglia will publish the Stage 3 findings of their Contact After Adoption study in November), the short-term fallout can be seen anecdotally in families across the country. Some, like Claire, are dealing with the loss of an adopted child who has severed all contact, others are reeling from a child returning to their birth family (sometimes within weeks of the initial message), many others are doing their best to cope with a teenager whose world has been thrown into turmoil.

And parents whose children are too young to use Facebook are experiencing the fallout too. A trawl through Adoption UK’s message board shows parents’ fears:

Puffle,10 July 2013: “not long till our sons will be on facebook and have their images splattered all over the place by their friends.....noooo....after all these years of taking care of photo policies in schools and nurseries.......I really don't want the birth family to find our kids and contact them before they're 18 yrs old but it seems inevitable.”

Sapphirezodiac, 11 September 2012: “our LO [Little One] is a very long way off using the internet but I do hope [birth parents] are not searchable online by then, as their life could look so much more appealing than it really is... grr for technology”

Catnipsam, 11 September 2012: “I couldnt help looking after reading some awful posts on here about LOs photos everywhere. So i checked and they had put all the photos of LO plastered everywhere, last contact everything. A lot of false things and I wish I hadnt looked. Im not looking again, it was too easy.”

Most of these parents adopted their children before social media became a buzzword - this new reality of unfiltered, unmediated contact was not part of their pre-adoption preparation. Many are, as adoption researcher Deborah H. Siegel, writes in Social Work Today: “adventurers in a brave new world in which people are wandering without a map.”

The Changing Face of Adoption

Today, most children in the UK are being adopted from the care system, many of them deeply scarred by abuse and neglect. This makes modern-day reunions more complex than the rose-tinted version we might imagine.

Most of us are familiar with heart-warming stories of adopted adults reconnecting with their birth relatives after many years: Reddit Tracks Down Adoptee’s Family, Glastonbury: father and son reunited. At the centre of these tales tend to be babies and their parents who were separated in the1960s or 1970s – a time when single mothers were stigmatised by society.

We enjoy these life-affirming tales - in June a record 5.6 million viewers tuned into the first season episode of ITV’s Long Lost Families. It’s human nature to hunger for a happy ending. I know because I hope for one too.

Two years ago at the age of 34, I learned of the existence of a brother who had been adopted at birth. My parents were in their early twenties, unmarried and living an unburdened expat life in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe: sunny skies, golf, a bit of work... My mother fell pregnant and knew instinctively she couldn’t tell her parents, well-known business owners in Northern Ireland.

Unprepared to go through with an illegal abortion, she gave birth to a baby boy. Their story is not uncommon. Between 1974 and 1979 53,132 children were born outside of marriage in the UK. My parents later chose to marry and so, I have a full blood brother who my mother named Paul.

My surprising discovery took me on a search that, for the time being at least, has culminated in a cul-de-sac. But it raised the tantalising question: if I knew my brother’s full name, would I search for him on Facebook? The answer is, without hesitation, yes. Does he look like me? Does he have children who might be my nieces and nephews? What does he do for a living? What kind of music does he like? These and many more are the questions I’d love to have him answer.

But when I consider if I’d send him a Facebook message and join the growing numbers of birth families connecting online, I stop with the theoretical game playing because there are too many unknowns (Does he know he’s adopted? Is he angry with my parents? Would he be resentful of me?) How would he respond to an unsolicited message pinging into his inbox one morning revealing, with the best possible intentions, that his parents had gone on to marry and have two more children?

Research conducted by David Howe and Julia Feast into why some adopted adults search for birth relatives and others do not and published in Adoption, Search & Reunion (The Children’s Society, 2000), suggests that while some adoptees found the request for contact “intrusive” and “unwelcome”, most adopted children have a positive experience of reunion. Contact, both for those who reached out and those who had been found by birth relatives, had answered important questions about their background. Perhaps then, Paul and I might have our neatly-packaged happy ending after all.

But it's important to remember this research, which suggests that adoption reunions tend to be a positive experience for all involved, is based on adoptees who, like Paul, where placed for adoption over 40 years ago. Adoption (and technology) has changed radically since then.

Today, as well as helping adults and birth families reunite in healthy and positive ways, social media is facilitating reunions between birth families and adopted children who may not be emotionally ready. Perhaps a birth mother has not come to terms with the adoption (she might even be contesting it), or maybe a child is struggling to process deep-rooted trauma caused by abuse and neglect at the hands of birth family members. Add to that mix, the ‘who am I?’ questions of identity so typical to young adults and the potential for disruption reveals itself.


UK adoption through the years

The Kids Aren't Alright

Social media contact between adopted children and their birth relatives tends to occur during the teenage years - a time when young adults are least able to cope with the conflicting emotions that rise to the surface.

The ability for adopted children to connect with their birth relatives via social media is a new phenomenon, but the desire for them to know about their past is not. A key finding from the Howe and Feast research on adoption search and reunion was that most adoptees think about their birth parents while growing up, particularly as teenagers: “It is during adolescence that many of the psychological tasks peculiar to adoption interact with the more general task of identity formation,” the authors write.

Adoptees tend to wonder if their birth parents are alive or dead and whether they have any other children (‘Might I have brothers or sisters?’) but the primary questions asked are: ‘What do they like?’ and ‘Do I look like them?’ “There is the missing experience of encountering ‘likeness-to-self’ that is accentuated by feelings of difference,” write the authors.

Pre-social media, contact between birth relatives and adopted children was tightly controlled. Letterbox contact (which is still used today) might have been arranged during the contact agreement phase of the adoption, allowing photographs or letters to be sent between adoptive families and birth parents – usually via the agency. The terms of these agreements would (in cases of best practice) be revisited at intervals and changed depending on the needs of all involved.

And when an adopted child wanted to make direct contact with a birth parent or vice versa later in life, an intermediary service was often provided. Before 2005 this was given in an unofficial capacity by some adoption agencies, but with the advent of the Adoption and Children Act (2002), adopted children and birth relatives were given the legal right to ask a local authority or adoption agency to provide a go-between service. This meant that contact could be monitored and controlled.

Social media has changed all that. Not only has the process been fast-tracked, but mediation has been side-stepped. And of course, connection is possible at a much earlier age.

Helen Oakwater is an adoptive parent and coaching specialist who served on the Government Adoption Task Force for four years. She wrote Bubble-Wrapped Children in 2010 in response to the growing numbers of adoptive families she saw struggling with contact through social media. She says the teenage years can be particularly explosive: “Partly because of the unprocessed trauma, partly the shame and partly because the teenage adoptee’s impulse control and self-regulation is poor. Now, thanks to Facebook, we can add the dynamite of unsupervised contact to that volatile mix.”

Responding to a government call for input on the issue of adoption contact, The Adolescent and Children’s Trust describes unmediated contact as an, “increasingly fraught area for adoptive families,” advocating that, "adopted children who are aware of the fact that they are adopted be offered advice, training and counseling.”

Shona and Becky’s story

One teenager in need of guidance is Becky, aged 15, who is dealing with conflicting emotions brought on by social media contact with her birth mother. She was adopted aged seven by Shona, a single mother from Scotland.

Becky arrived with the “usual background of neglect and trauma,” says Shona. “She was hungry, had to go out begging for food. There was a lot of violence in the family, she witnessed her father being knifed. They moved home 15 times before she was five.” Now Becky suffers from agoraphobia and will not leave the house.

Nine months ago Becky searched for her birth mother on Facebook. But before sending her a message, she spoke to her adoptive mother. “I asked her not to until she’d had some support from our social worker,” says Shona. The topic, however, was brushed aside. Shona feels the communication tools needed to draw the information out of her teenage daughter were lacking in the social worker. Becky grew impatient and, desperate for contact, she sent her birth mother a message.

The initial contact between Becky, her birth mother and the extended family started with a bang. “It was all absolutely wonderful,” says Shona. “Lots of excitement, which of course you’d expect.” But Becky’s birth mother was soon telling her, “I’m your mum,” and suggesting that when Becky turns 16 (legal age of capacity in Scotland), she move back in with her. Becky now wants to change her surname back to her birth mother’s.

Becky's identity confusion is compounded by complex new family dynamics. Shona points to a recent incident as an example: Becky's response to her traumatic formative years can take destructive turns and she'd broken her bed for the fifth time in five years. It was a Friday and Shona couldn’t get a new one delivered until the following week. Becky had mentioned this to her birth mother on the phone. “She called social services and told them I’m making her daughter sleep on the floor,” says Shona. “She was on the floor but she had two mattresses!” Social services called round to their house to check.

Becky needs support says Shona. “She’s got very torn loyalties, as I think anyone would. It becomes very messy.”

The Legacy of Trauma

Many adopted children arrive in their new homes carrying deeply traumatic experiences. In some instances, social media contact with birth relatives could trigger a retraumatisation.

“Many adopted children suffered terribly before placement,” says Oakwater. “Their world was terrifying, chaotic, unpredictable; an unsafe place where adults could not be trusted or failed to shield you from harm. These children protected themselves by hiding their true feelings, shutting down emotionally, being compliant or aggressive or both. The observable behaviour often seems to make no sense.”

A 2002 study conducted by the Child Trauma Academyin the US, led by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D, suggested that children who had suffered severe maltreatment and neglect had significantly smaller than average brains. The findings were based on cases in which children had experienced “minimal exposure to language, touch and social interactions.” Recovery from this extreme sensory deprivation depended on how soon the child was removed from the neglectful environment. While based on extremes cases, the study highlights the physiological damage childhood neglect can cause.

The effect of trauma on observable behaviour and on a child’s ability to form attachments, is illustrated in the 2011 BBC2 documentary, A Home for Maisie . It tells the story of then eight year-old Maisie, who is in the process of being adopted by experienced adoptive parents, Jim and Sue Clifford. In one scene, Maisie is seen having to be physically restrained, later we see dark bruises on the arms of Sue – an indication of the severe harm Maisie can inflict on her loving caregivers.

Clifford, who played a pivotal role in the launch last month of the world’s first Social Impact Bond, the aim of which is to help provide therapeutic care for 300 difficult-to-place children a year, said: “It’s toned down to fit on mainstream TV, so you don’t get all the violence in there but its still pretty full on.”

Some scenes were filmed at Family Futures, a London-based adoption and therapy agency where Alan Burnell, an experienced social worker is manager. “Maisie is at the more extreme end but she’s not unusual – these are all children with that lovely potential that all children have. It’s not destroyed by trauma, it’s just masked.”

But trauma runs deep. “The children we work with remember the needles on the floor. They remember finding their birth mother collapsed on the sofa they remember the police coming, they remember the baseball bats, they remember the fights, the screaming,” says Burnell.

The result of these early experiences is that children grow up fearful. “Their whole brain physiology is wired for fear and that counteracts their ability for forming secure attachments,” he says. Consider then what happens when a Facebook message from a birth relative pings into a child’s inbox…

None of Clifford’s brood have had contact with birth family members through social media (“Thank god,” he says), but he recognizes the potential for damage when unfacilitated contact meets trauma. “It’s very hard to regulate incoming messages, and if you’re trying to recover someone from trauma, triggers could be many and varied.”

Traumatised children require structure. “The fundamental of trauma therapy is you create a place of safety, build their confidence then re-address the trauma causes together,” says Clifford. “[But] if you’ve got all this other stuff coming in, in a way the child can’t control - you’ve got a re-traumatising effect running.”

Support for Parents

The role of social media in bringing adopted (and often traumatised) children back in touch with their birth relatives has highlighted the need for better post-adoptive support for parents.

Back in Scotland, Shona says the social worker’s response to Becky’s desire to change back to her birth surname came as a shock. “The worker who was with us said, ‘Oh I like that name better’ – she didn’t see anything wrong with that!”

Clifford isn’t surprised by this. “There is extremely variable practice in the four home nations and it’s from the sublime to the ridiculous – from unthought-through responses to the very best of the best,” he says.

This lack of consistency in post-adoption support has been recognized at government level with a number of changes proposed by David Cameron in December last year. Further Action on Adoption, a government report published in January 2013 states: “Surveys show that some parents do not even know about their right to request assessments of their support needs, and where assessments happen families are too often left without the support that they need.”

This points to one of the key criticisms leveled at current adoption legislation: while The Adoption and Children Act, 2002 guarantees a legal entitlement for adoptive parents to ask for an assessment of their support needs, local authorities are not legally entitled to give it.

The Children and Families Bill includes a clause that would allow local authorities to give adopters a “personal budget” to buy support services, however provision of this would be optional meaning that many adopters in need would miss out. Writing in the Guardian in March, retired judge Baroness Butler-Sloss, chair of the Lords Committee on the government’s adoption legislation, warned: “This has the potential to worsen the current postcode lottery that applies to post-adoption support.”

While a future commitment has been made by government to improve the support for adopters and their children (this includes raising awareness of trauma amongst professionals and the introduction of the Social Impact Bonds), what is being done to solve the problem of those families grappling with social media, now?

According to Garry Lucas, a training manager at Adoption UK, there appears to be a lack of understanding of the impact of social media amongst social workers. He said: “[They] do not see social networking as such a big issue that parents see it, I think because they don’t have to deal with it.”

Linda James, a College of Social Work spokesperson disagrees: “I work within an adoption service and the workers here are acutely aware of the impact of social media on adoptive and birth families. The contact arrangements set up for children with their birth families whether direct or indirect are influenced by this awareness and both birth and adoptive parents are given very clear advice and direction to help deal with this situation. In my experience non-specialist social workers are equally aware of the impact social media has had on many aspects of social work practice.”

Elsbeth Neil is a researcher on post-adoption contact at the University of East Anglia. She says that in her experience, support is lacking: “For the families in my study…a lot of them won’t have seen a social worker or anybody for 16 years.”

Carla and Buster's story

Carla is adoptive mother to six-year old Buster. Just after his adoption aged three, she discovered a Facebook account in Buster's name. It had been set up by his birth mother. “The first time I saw a photo was like a kick in the stomach. It wasn’t just the photos, but the fact [Buster's birth mother] was clearly in denial that he wasn’t with her anymore, and the continuous updating of what he had done, what he liked...,” says Carla.

Lacking input from a social worker, Carla followed advice from friends and contacted Facebook (it’s illegal for children under 13 to hold an account). “I emailed explaining he was only three, that he was my adopted son, and this had been set up by a birthparent - it was taken down within 24hrs.”

However the pictures on Buster’s birth mother’s site remain. “She still has him as a profile picture, and presumably many others as well. I rarely look and her page is no longer open to the public.”

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Clearly some birth parents need advice on the appropriate use of social media, too. According to James, when adoptive parents find photographs of their children posted on social media and call the adoption support services, “work is undertaken with the birth family to effect removal and to reinforce the reasons why these photographs are private.”

But connecting with birth parents isn’t always easy. Burnell, who worked on a pilot project of birth parent support groups, experienced some challenges: “Many of them have mental health problems and many felt very aggrieved with the local authorities and so it had to be provided by an independent service paid for by local authorities - that was never seen as much of a priority.”

According to Margaret Bell, Director of DFW Adoption in Durham, discussing how best to use social media when drawing up the contact agreement in the early stages of adoption could help birth parents process the tricky emotions ahead. “At present the ways that local authorities complete contact plans varies a great deal and there should be a more structured and customized way to deal with this. All too often the birth families are left unsure about what to expect or contribute to the indirect contact but can be highly criticized or penalised when they get it wrong.”

Open or Closed?

Some experts argue that open contact with birth parents (where appropriate) can mitigate the potentially disruptive effect of contact via social media.

Burnell has seen three severe cases of disruption as a result of social media contact in the last few years. He believes Facebook isn’t the problem though. Children have not been sufficiently prepared he says. “We haven’t done our job properly. The only reason that Facebook contact is destabilizing, is because [adopted children] don’t know anything about what happened and it’s seductive. If you’ve done the work with the children they’ll know who’s on the other end of the phone, they’ll have seen the video they will have heard the voice they will have got the message. It’s normalised.”

Family Futures is a well-known proponent of encouraging openness in adoption, telling the child the full reality of their past in an age-appropriate, managed way and encouraging facilitated contact between adopted children and birth parents. Transparency about a child’s past is essential, says Burnell, but not easy. “It’s still largely the case that there’s a great reluctance on the part of social workers and more understandably the adoptive parents to talk about children’s history because some are horrendous and horrific and it’s difficult to know where to begin and how to find the right words and the right context.”

Neil agrees that contact can be beneficial in terms of a child’s development. “What’s emerging from the research evidence is very strong support that openness is healthy for the adopted child.”

The government proposals for a more restrictive post-adoptive policy concern her. She believes that where it is carefully managed and in the child’s best interests, contact between birth parents and their adopted children can help birth relatives come to terms with their loss. “A return to the more closed adoption practices of the past could actually bring about an increase in unmediated and unsolicited contact between children and their birth relatives,” she says.

Neil believes the message being sent to adoptive parents by the governments planned legislation reforms is that contact is dangerous, something which they need to be protected from. “In the opening paragraph to their consultation document, Martin Narey [Government Advisor on Children] says: ‘Contact harms far too many children far too much of the time.’ Yes it does harm some children some of the time but there’s no evidence that it harms most of the children most of the time,” she says.

“We’ve interviewed hundreds of birth relatives in our research at the University of East Anglia and I can count on one hand the birth parents I’ve met who I’ve felt are really very difficult and probably quite dangerous people.” Still, a lot of the decisions in adoption are being driven by that small proportion, says Neil. “That level of risk is applied to situations where it doesn’t exist.”

If evidence is suggesting contact is beneficial, how can adoptive parents ensure the best kind for their child? According to Neil, contact is most likely to have positive benefits when the adoptive parents have an open attitude and are able to empathise with the birth parents. This helps to manage the child’s expectations and ensure their needs are kept paramount.

“The best circumstances are where the adoptive parents enter into it willingly and create a general climate of openness within their adopted family. It’s not just about meetings that take place once or twice a year but conversations that happen all year round between the parent and the child, so the child is genuinely processing and dealing with adoption issues all the time,” says Neil.

Where to From Here?

Harnessed in the right way, could social media perhaps be a force for good in adoption?

“We found a lot of positive examples [of social media contact],” says Neil of her research into post-adoption contact. Where other forms of contact between birth relatives and adopted children have been successful, social media becomes just another way to connect she says. And it works particularly well between people of the same generation like siblings and cousins. “Writing a letter to an adoption agency once a year is completely alien to them, it doesn’t have a lot of meaning. Whereas keeping in touch on Facebook is normal. It’s just what they do.”

Miss Smidge is an adoptee who blogs about her everyday life in Scotland. Earlier this year she found her half-brother, 'A' on Twitter. His thoughts on their virtual contact and eventual reunion (posted on Miss Smidge’s blog), offer insight into how social media can facilitate bonding between siblings. He writes: “I’m not going to make it sound like everything after this point was hunky dory, it wasn’t. It took me a while to get my head around the idea. I couldn’t concentrate in work and was very distant from the people who are closest to me […] I started to read this blog and felt like I started to get know my half sister and realised how much we have in common especially in music. We met a couple of months later where we sat opposite one and other and mostly stared at each other […] I’m so happy that my sister plucked up the courage to get in touch with me and I’m so happy to be able to call her my sister.”

In these situations, some of the dangers associated with contact via social media (its immediacy for example), are the very reason for its success. “It gets around some of the problems especially of indirect contact, that it’s very slow and infrequent,” says Neil. Weeks, months, years may pass between letters. “There’s no conversation,” she says. “It doesn’t turn into a correspondence or a relationship.”

One of the key findings in Neil’s research reveals the underlying reason for contact via social media. “People are not using this media to contact each other, they’re using it to find out about each other,” she says. “It meets a need for people.”

People like Vicki, who lives in England and is the adoptive mum to 6 year-old son, Mini and co-founder of The Adoption Social blog. She’s used Facebook to look up her son’s birth parents so she can answer his inevitable questions about them when he’s older. “I’ve gleaned little bits of information that Mini might want in the future – birthdates, favourite football teams, and saved a few photos of siblings.”

For this reason, the visual aspect of social media is crucial, says Neil. Many children wonder what their birth family members look like and Facebook gives them an instant answer. It helps the birth relatives too. “They want to know: is my child or my grandchild okay? To see a picture of them having a nice time on holiday is more reassuring than perhaps getting a letter saying they’re doing fine. It’s more immediate. It feels more real,” says Neil.

But not everyone feels comfortable with the voyeurism that social networking sites like Facebook offer. Sam Johnson, 31 was adopted in 1982 in Canada at two weeks. She now lives in the UK. She has recently reconnected with her half-sister Anna and their birth mother. “Anna is on Facebook, though I haven’t looked at her profile. I like them to trickle me information as they see fit. I like the slow process, I feel like researching their life isn't fair,” says Sam.

Ultimately Neil believes we should be looking at ways in which social media can be used positively. “I think we need to get more subtle and more savvy. For example I think letterbox contact is just dead in the water. You can’t think for a minute that even in ten years time that people will be actually physically writing a letter. We should take what’s good about [social media] and start doing it now.” Neil suggests setting up mediated ways in which people can contact each other: “something that keeps some of the advantages - the familiarity, the immediacy - but adds in some professional input or makes sure its secure.”

Still, Neil admits that social media does pose a risk for some children adopted today. “Their adoptive parents need to have very good advice about what they should and shouldn’t do and how to protect their privacy and confidentiality,” she says.

Oakwater agrees that knowledge is the key: . “If the adoptive parents are educated, if therapeuting support is put in place, if 100% truth telling is done, children who are in placement now could benefit before Facebook explodes into their lives,” she says.

In Social Work Today, Siegel writes that it’s crucial adoptive parents and particularly prospective parents be educated about the truth of modern-day adoption. “Given this new reality, all prospective adopters need to consider carefully whether they are willing to enter the adoption journey that lies ahead in the electronic era. Social workers should neither overdramatise nor sugarcoat this landscape…”

Neil agrees that adoptive parents today need to start the adoption process with their eyes open: “You cannot promise adoptive parents a closed adoption anymore because of social media,” she says.

Clearly there's no one-size-fits-all approach to successful contact. But what is clear is that open communication is key. “The thing about shining a light is that it reduces the shadows,” says Oakwater. “You can see things for what they really are.”

Sam and her birth mother are discussing the next step in their own communication. “She emailed me last week saying she wants to meet, and what do I think, and how, where. We've also discussed the idea of speaking on the phone, or Skyping, and maybe being able to BBM/WhatsApp/text." But Sam admits that contact, whether via social media, email or face-to-face, comes with its challenges. “All these social media tools bring us the possibility of spontaneously connecting, same as regular life. I don't think it makes the emotional side of connecting easier.”

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About This Project

Flesh, Blood & Facebook is a multi-media feature by freelance journalist Karen Robertson
for her MA in Digital Journalism final project at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Some names have been changed in this article.

Special thanks to all adoptive families who shared their stories with me.


Footage from A Home for Maisie used with permission from BBC Cymru Wales.

Family footage and photographs used with permission from Amanda
and Jazz Boorman.

"To My Guy in the Service" image © bunky's pickle used under a Creative Commons