Notwithstanding the dubious, damaging, and frankly dangerous practice of forced adoption over many decades on an international basis, the current (and previous) UK government is committed to policies and legislative changes that will result in significant increases in children being removed from their natural families and subject to forced adoption by strangers. For babies and infants who come into care (for whatever reason), rapid forced adoption is becoming the primary goal of social services and the courts.

Traditionally (since the 1920s), adoption practice involved the:

“…legal transfer of babies from shameful unmarried mothers to anonymous childless couples. The process was private (the relinquishing mother knew nothing about the adopters), secret (the adoptee was rarely informed of family history) and closed (all contact between natural parent(s) and the adopted infant was totally severed). It is now generally recognised that such practice was psychologically misguided, and across decades commentators have questioned the maladaptive effects on the development of individual identity of adopted children/adults who did not have full information about their family, and genetic and cultural backgrounds. Concerns about the consequences of such ‘genealogical bewilderment’ were raised. Extensive research in the 1980s and 1990s raised further doubts about the social transplantation model of closed adoption in respect of healthy identity formation and stability of placements.” (Dale et al. 2005 p. 200-1)


Within the large body of adoption outcomes research, there is very little research that has focused specifically on long-term outcomes for children who were adopted without the consent of their parents. These children are a different group from those who have been the subject of most adoption research (i.e. those who were voluntarily relinquished by their parents).

Research on post-adoption direct contact has noted a history of somewhat polarised views within the professional community about the benefits and drawbacks of post-adoption contact (and these debates continue in the present day). However, there is developing a general consensus in modern post-adoption research that some level of on-going direct contact between the adopted child and his/her natural family is either a beneficial factor, or a neutral factor in relation to the success of adoptive placements.

Follow up research has highlighted that adoptive placements are by no means always entirely successful. Approximately 20% break down at some stage (more likely the older the age of the child at placement); and significant proportions of adopted adults report various degrees of dissatisfaction with their experience of having been adopted. Often such dissatisfaction stems from a sense of confusion about identity and the need to search, discover and reconnect with their genetic and cultural identity and origins. Such searching and reconnecting is a more problematic and poignant experience for adopted adults who were not enabled to maintain direct links with their natural families during their childhoods. One of the benefits of ‘openness’ in adoptions is to minimise the lifelong impact of disconnection from genealogical knowledge and identity (Owusu-Bempah 2007).

It must also be noted that a non-trivial proportion of adoption placements are not successful and either break down completely; or result in the adopted person when adult feeling significantly unhappy about their adoption experiences. In my past as an NSPCC children’s therapeutic services manager, and as a counsellor, I have witnessed far too many situations where adopted children have been returned from adoptive placements back into the care system. There are few situations more distressing in childcare practice than to witness the breakdown of an adoptive placement for a child who has also lost all contact with natural family members.

Also, adoptive families – even when the placements are apparently successful as many appear – can suffer the same unexpected adverse life events as families in general. Adoptive families can become disrupted due to marital breakdown, serious illness, premature deaths, and other unpredictable tragic events. The point of this observation is that (unless there are serious reasons to the contrary) one further benefit of direct post-adoption contact for a parent who has come to accept the nature of the adoption, is that they remain as a supportive and reassuring resource for their child in the event of any such unexpected event occurring.

On the basis of this discussion, there is not a strong research base to sustain professional views that some level of on-going direct contact will be harmful to a child or to an adoptive placement (except in the rare situations where a natural parent might pose a threat of serious harm to the adoptive household). The benefits of post-adoption contact include:

•           Short term: Avoiding the potential disadvantages from total separation and loss of a significant current attachment figure.

•           Long term: Facilitating the maintenance of a distant but a meaningful relationship with the natural parent during childhood, as the basis for free choice in later life (later childhood and adulthood) as to what form of lifelong relationship should exist with the natural parent (and any further siblings that may arrive).

Neil & Howe (2004) summarise the benefits of post-adoption direct contact as being:

“…to help children meet their three basic developmental needs of attaining good mental health (achieved in the context of a secure relationship with sensitive carers); resolving issues of loss and trauma; and achieving a strong sense of personal identity and genealogical connectedness.” (p. 239).


The Family Rights Group produced a useful research-based summary of the main benefits to children of direct post-adoption along the following lines:

•           It enables children to sustain established relationships and to avoid experiences of separation and loss, which can be damaging.

•           It enables children to stay in touch with important people which can help children settle into their new families.

•           It helps children to understand their ‘roots’ – the ‘Who am I?’, ‘Where do I come from?’ and ‘Why was I adopted?’ difficult (and sometimes disruptive) questions that often arise for adopted people.

•           It provides an input of continuing thought and care from birth family members (research indicates that a non-trivial proportion of adopted children grow up feeling rejected and unloved).

•           It helps children feel positive about their own family backgrounds, and reduces the disruptive potential for extreme positive or negative fantasises.


Direct contact also helps adoptive parents to help their adopted child by:

•           Helping adoptive parents to empathise with the birth family and to answer questions raised by the child in a sensitive way

•           Enhancing the adoptive parents’ sense of ‘entitlement’ to the child

•           Providing on-going information about the child’s genetic inheritance

•           Facilitating a climate of open communication in the adoptive home about the adoption.


The frequency of contact (after an initial staring point) is best negotiated (or mediated) between the natural and adoptive families in the context of acceptance of the need for flexibility and evolution over time. When openness in adoption works well, it is in the context of individual agreements emerging that are suitable to the adoptive and natural parents (so long as both maintain the child’s best interests as their priority). A recent American book: [‘Making Room in Our Hearts: Keeping Family Ties Through Open Adoption’ Duxbury, M. 2007] provides many good example of this.

Given the current government promoted ‘rush’ for forced adoption, it is of great concern that:

a) Adoptive parents often are refused vital therapeutic resources by local authorities for difficulties that arise as their adopted child(ren) struggle to adjust to their losses, past hurts and damage, transition into new identities/family cultures, and divided loyalties.

b) Local authority social workers continue to simply ‘paste in’ formulaic indirect “letterbox contact” arrangements into Care Plans, ignoring the recognised benefits of carefully negotiated direct post-adoption contact that is possible in many cases (if suitable efforts are made).

c) The current UK ‘rush’ for increased forced closed adoptions has no basis in outcomes research, or practice wisdom. There is no research in the UK that examines the long-term outcomes for children who have been subject to forced closed adoption.

d) The current UK ‘rush’ for forced adoption ignores the disastrous UK history of ‘Child Migrants’ where many thousands of children from Children’s Homes were forcibly migrated to UK colonies – particularly during the 1950s–1970s. Read the astonishing dedication of Margaret Humphreys (supported by Leicester Social Services Department) in bringing this to public attention (Humphreys 1996).

e) The current UK ‘rush’ for forced adoption ignores the Australian/New Zealand Aborigine/Maori formal government apologies: The ‘Stolen Generations’ involved approximately 100,000 children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families (between 1909 and the early 1970s) by Australian government and church agencies to be raised with white families. The Australian Prime Minister (Kevin Rudd) delivered a formal apology to the federal parliament for this history on 13th February 2008.

f) The current UK ‘rush’ for forced adoption ignores the formal apologies that were made in each Australian state parliament in 2012 concerning the widespread past practices of forced adoption of babies of young unmarried mothers over many past decades (Kenny et al. 2012). A further formal apology for past practices of forced adoption was made to the Australian Federal Parliament in March 2013, by Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Past practices of forced adoption are also currently a matter of great public concern in Spain (‘ninos robados’) and Ireland.

In an increasingly social networked world, it is inconceivable that forced closed adoptions will sustain in practice in the UK. The internet will facilitate forcibly adopted children finding their natural families and vice versa. Forcibly adopted children will discover that their histories are often rather different than they have been brought up to believe. They will learn in many cases how hard their natural parents fought to keep them – and, that natural family members not ogres as they have been portrayed.

Many will become angry with their adoptive parents, and vote with their feet; returning to live within their natural families (this has already started to happen). Adoptive parents will be left feeling abandoned, rejected, bewildered and deeply hurt. It is my experience that very few prospective adoptive parents are warned about these risks that stem from closed adoptionis.


Dale, P. and Davies, M.  (1985). ‘A model of intervention in child abusing families: A wider systems view’.  Child Abuse & Neglect, 9, 4, 16-21.

Dale, P. & Fellows, R. (1999). ‘Independent child protection assessments: Incorporating a therapeutic focus from an integrated service context’. Child Abuse Review, 8, 4-14.

Dale, P., Green, R. & Fellows, R. (2005) Child Protection Assessment Following Serious Injuries to Infants: Fine Judgments. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Duxbury, M. (2007) Making Room in Our Hearts: Keeping Family Ties Through Open Adoption. New York: Routledge.

Humphreys, M (1996) Empty Cradles. London: Corgi Books

Kenny, P., Higgins, D., Soloff, C. & Sweid, R. (2012) Past Adoption Experiences – National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices: Final report, Australian Government: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Monck, E. (2004). Concurrent planning: meeting the needs of younger looked after children. ChildRight, April 9-11.

Neil, E. & Howe, D. (eds) 2004. Contact in Adoption and Permanent Foster Care: Research, Theory and Practice. London: BAAF.

Owusu-Bempah, K. (2007). Children and Separation: Socio-genealogical Connectedness Perspective. London: Routledge.


One thought on “An argument for direct post-adoption contact (“letterbox” is useless)

  1. I believe there is very little room for post-adoption contacts in the world of forced adoption. To put it simply, people adopt (mostly) because they have difficulty conceiving and want a child “as if borne into”. Few will want to adopt if told they have to keep in touch with the birth family.

    I agree with your critique of forced adoptions though.

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