The Black Adoption Project – creating better futures for Black adopted children in London

The Importance of Openness in Adoption

12th March 2024 Blog

Sarah Johal, Adoption England Strategic Lead, shares her views on why it is important for the sector to help adopted people know more about their family history and stay in touch with birth family members or other important relationships, where safe and supported to do so. Sarah has decades of first-hand experience working within the sector, after previously leading the first regional adoption agency in the country. She now works collaboratively with regional adoption agencies and sector professionals across the country to address challenges and deliver high quality services for children and families.

“Adoption is a lifelong journey. It remains a pivotal option for securing permanence and stability for children in local authority care, when they cannot live safely with their birth or extended family. From speaking with adopted people, we know the negative impact that closed adoptions and secrecy about their life before can cause to identity and emotional wellbeing. Which is why we’re highlighting the importance of adopted people having access to information about their birth family and life story as they grow up.

The current system for children maintaining relationships is quite formulaic, with the typical standard being an indirect ‘letterbox’ exchange that often happens with birth relatives once a year. The film created for NAW 2023 portrays the importance such relationships have on children’s identity as they grow up. There is now a large body of research and evidence (Neil et al 2015) showing that ongoing relationships post adoption are important to be maintained. This is also supported across the sector with 70% of prospective adopters now believing that direct contact should be standard, when deemed safe. 80% of adopted adults and 88% of adoptive parents who were involved in direct contact during childhood were glad they had participated (Adoption UK Barometer 2022).

More needs to be done to improve practice around maintaining relationships for adopted people.  A clear focus is needed on the individual needs of children, with more consideration to be given to in-person meet ups or the involvement of other relatives and key people who have shaped their life so far such as, grandparents, aunts and uncles, previous foster carers or school friends etc. There is not one size that fits all so a tailored approach is required. For example, it may be appropriate for an ongoing, direct relationship with a birth parent who is accepting of the need for adoption but lacks the ability to fully care for the child, compared to a child who has experienced severe abuse and continuing to see their birth parent would not be safe or appropriate.

Children who are adopted come into care at a younger age than children who are in other permanent arrangements, such as long-term foster care or special guardianship, where risks are considered and managed to support important relationships for children. Adopted children have similar family backgrounds yet they often experience unnecessary loss, losing crucial relationships with brothers and sisters because of fears that information will reach the birth parents. As a sector we need to question ourselves and work with adoptive parents to ask what the risks are if this were to happen, rather than assume that information getting out is in itself inherently risky.  If we don’t manage these from an early age then unsupported and unmediated reunions will continue to take place, often through social media, led by unmet needs which can often be problematic, unsafe at times and difficult for all involved.

As children enter local authority care we need to get them off to a good start and support ongoing relationships, ensuring these are reviewed and all parties supported as children’s needs change. Adolescence and emerging into adulthood can be particularly challenging for adopted people as identity issues come to the fore. It’s important that they’re supported with a responsive service as and when they wish to access their records and find out more about their life and birth family.

As we move to modernise adoption and meet the needs of children and young people, birth families will play a continuing role in their child’s life. We need an increased focus on policy and investment to provide support for them.”

With permission from Sarah Johal and credit to the Adoption England website.

Next: The London Early Permanence Project

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