Adoption is undergoing a revolution. Until recently, it has been a closely managed process, with social workers going to enormous lengths to protect children placed with adoptive families from inappropriate contact with birth relatives. The exponential growth of social networking sites such as Facebook has changed that for ever – and the consequences are far-reaching.
Last month, a collective shiver ran through the homes of adoptive parents after a flurry of newspaper and television reports about birth parents using social networking sites to make unsolicited approaches to children who, years earlier, had been removed and adopted. There is indeed an increasing number of cases of adopted young people being contacted by birth parents through Facebook. There are even more instances in which the approach is initiated by adopted young people themselves, who are curious about their birth families.
"Children tracing their birth families has been the most prevalent – we have had dozens of cases in North Yorkshire," says Joan Hunt, adoption social worker for North Yorkshire county council. Every week she hears from adoptive parents who phone up in panic, having discovered that their adopted child has been having secret contact with birth relatives.
"We have had cases of the adopted child running away from the adopted family to the birth family. Age 14 to 15 seems to be the most vulnerable time. Unfortunately, post-16 tends to go off our radar," she says. "It obviously has big repercussions for everyone involved. What I find heartbreaking is that children are seeking out their birth family and meeting them with no support from those who are closest to them. Equally, birth family members are meeting children without the support that should be in place for them."
Hunt stresses that it is important not to demonise birth parents – many of whom are vulnerable themselves. "When contact has been made, adoptive parents are scared – they feel their privacy has been invaded – but because they are feeling vulnerable, some come down very hard on their kids and try to cut off their social networking activity and remove their mobile phones. I know kids who are grounded for months on end, and parents who have even been into their local library and instructed the librarian not to let their daughter use the computer. Parents can't see a way out of it. But that's not the way to behave with kids of this age.
"We need to try to find a balance. The kids are trying to tell us something when they do this. They are not doing it to be bad. They want to know and they don't have all the answers. Ultimately, these children need us to give them a lot more information about their past."
Adoptive families often turn to social workers for help with the fallout from Facebook. But social workers themselves are finding the whole issue challenging. "When our first case hit us, a tremor went round everybody in the room. Very quickly you realise you can't control it," says one.
"I feel as though, so far, my role has been to run along behind with a mop," says another. Next Thursday, more than 100 social workers from across the UK will attend a conference in London called Facing up to Facebook. Social workers want to learn more about how to advise and support families, assess the risks, protect children and young people and manage the complex situations that often arise from unplanned and unmediated contact.
The response to the conference, organised by the British Association for Adoption & Fostering (Baaf), has been so great that it has had to move to a bigger venue, and a similar conference has already been scheduled to take place in Manchester in October.
When a child is adopted, there is now often an arrangement for continued indirect contact with the birth family, if this is in the child's interests. In a system known as "letterbox contact", letters and sometimes photographs are sent via social services, to protect the family's identity and location. Some adopted children make occasional visits to a birth brother or sister adopted into another family.
Children adopted as babies or toddlers are usually told the first names and surnames of their birth parents. This is an important part of an adopted child's "life story work". With this information, in the age of Facebook, adopted young people may be able to trace their birth parents within minutes, needing no help from parents or social workers.
Today's adopted teenagers are the first to have grown up with Facebook – and at the time of the adoptions, no one could have predicted it would be possible. By making it so easy to find people, social networking sites have blown apart all the carefully thought-out procedures for tracing, contact and reunion in adoption. Reunion would not normally take place until the adopted child is at least 18 and the procedure would involve a great deal of preparation and communication through a third party at first, to protect confidentiality; plus other safeguards for both the adopted person and their birth relatives. Making contact via Facebook circumvents all of this.
For adopted young people, going through this situation in secret and alone can be emotional dynamite – regardless of whether it is the young person, the birth parent or perhaps a birth brother or sister who makes the initial approach.
Adopted teenagers have all the usual difficulties of adolescence – and more. They may have identity issues, feel they don't "fit in" anywhere and rebel against their adoptive parents. Some fantasise about their birth parents and idealise them. Then they may find themselves in immediate and intense contact with birth relatives who are, in effect, strangers, without their adoptive parents or social workers knowing about it.
"We had a teenage girl, who had only seen her father when she was a few months old, make contact with him through Facebook – within two months she had run away to live with him in another town," says one social worker.
There may be a "honeymoon period" when the young person is thrilled to have found their birth family and believes they are the answer to all their problems, but it rarely lasts. Sometimes the relative passes on the young person's details to other family members, who also start phoning and sending messages, making them feel bombarded and pressurised. Young people may discover upsetting facts, be told a misleading version of events, or find that the contact stirs up memories of earlier abuse. And if they haven't told anyone, they have to go through any resulting confusion, anger, distress, rejection or disappointment without support. "I would usually plan reunions with the birth families for young adopted adults with great care. Unpicking contact made through Facebook can be more complex," says Norma Sargent, senior post-adoption practitioner with the Coram Adoption Service in London.
Katie Smith was six months old when she was placed for adoption by her birth parents. At 14, she secretly made contact with her birth family on the internet. She was excited at first but the contact with her birth father and one of her older birth sisters has turned out to be the opposite of what she had hoped.
"My birth sister used to email me every morning, saying I was dirt and I should die," she says. "Once, my birth father said to me on the phone: 'I know everything that's going on in your life. I've got Facebook right here in front of me', and he started reading out things from my mum's profile too. And they have tried to manipulate me, making me believe things that aren't true."
It was three months before her parents found out what had happened. Katie's birth father has been imprisoned at least twice for violence and drug-related offences, and, not surprisingly, Katie's mother, Lorna, was alarmed. "We didn't know if they would turn up here or what they might do to us. We were in a state of panic," she says.
There has been one positive outcome, however. Katie was contacted on Facebook by her older sister, Amy, who – like everyone else in the extended family – had been told that Katie had died. Amy had run away from the family to a refuge at 15 to escape abuse at home. The sisters have met up several times and become friends, talking every night on the phone. Katie has struggled with the impact of two years of damaging contact. A post-adoption support worker has advised measures such as blocking the contact, changing her mobile phone number and contacting the police. But Katie can also be determined, and at the moment she won't do it, even though she recognises that every phone call, every email and text "destroys me a little bit".
Her adoptive family has had to come to terms with what has happened. "When we adopted Katie, there was no talk about continuing contact with the birth family at all – it just wasn't on the agenda," says Lorna. "My view now is that these people are part of Katie's life, and she has to find a way of coping with it. It's really hard for us and Katie, but that's how it's got to be."
The social networking revolution has raised pressing questions for everyone involved in, or touched by, adoption. Some social workers are wondering whether it will fundamentally change the nature of adoption. "There has already been a metamorphosis in terms of training and preparation of adopters and what they should expect," says Hunt. "I think that in future it will also change the nature of the type of person who adopts."
Prospective adopters will have to be prepared to be even more open with their adopted children and to take an empathetic view of the birth parents, she believes. "Otherwise they are not going to make it when the crap hits the fan when the child is 15. We don't always know what will be dished up to us. But the important thing to remember is that we are caring parents and have responsibilities and duties to our children, but we don't own them. And quite often this feeling of ownership really trips us up."
Not all birth relatives represent a risk and the risks need to be carefully assessed in each individual case. In some cases, meeting birth parents can be helpful for a young person and enable him to accept the reality of his birth family and move on.
"Some adoptive parents are defensive – they see the birth parents as bad and say, 'Why would you want to let them see your child?' But the fact is, it doesn't matter what you as parents want. If the child wants it, it will happen and it won't be your decision," says Hunt. "At 15 he can take a bus and meet up with them, and no one will be any the wiser."
An alternative is for adoptive parents to get involved and help their children find answers to their questions. It helps if they can show their children that they are open to talking about the adoption and birth family – that way, if the child needs to know more or if he or she is contacted by a birth relative, he may be more likely to tell them. In some cases, working with adoption support services, they may even be able to support them in eventually meeting birth relatives, if they decide they want to.
"Parents are scared – they don't know how to do it," says Hunt. They are worried about the impact on their own relationship with their child. "But if you are an adopted young person and your parents are open with you and help you find out what you need to know, that has to be the strongest message of all."
Some names have been changed.
UPDATE: Social Worker responds:
"My own view is that the greater openness which social networking is forcing upon adoption is on the whole a good thing. The old secrecy, a relic of the days when it was mostly illegitimate babies who were adopted which had to be kept a guilty secret because of the shame associated with having conceived outside wedlock, is finally being swept away."