Why is this needed?

  • Indirect contact between adopted children and birth parents is a feature in many adoption support plans and is often appreciated by adopted children as they enter adolescence
  • However, the success of this contact varies significantly depending on how well it is set up and supported
  • Many adopted children loose contact with significant birth family members after adoption

Government perspective

NMS Standard 8 – Contact Outcome

Contact with birth parents, siblings, other members of the birth family and significant others is arranged and maintained when it is beneficial to the child.

8.1 Initial contact arrangements are focused on the child’s needs with the views of the prospective adopters and birth family members taken into account. The arrangements are reviewed in accordance with the adoption support plan.

8.2 Where siblings cannot be placed together with the same prospective adopters or adopters, contact arrangements with other siblings are made when it is in the best interests of each of the children.

8.3 Prospective adopters are helped through training and support to understand the importance for the child of contact with birth parents, siblings, members of the birth family and significant others.

8.4 The adoption agency helps individuals comply with the agreed contact arrangements through practical support, and helps manage any difficult emotional or other issues they may have because of contact. In so doing, the agency takes full account of the child’s age and level of understanding, and the individual capacities of all other parties.

The ASGLB favours a broader approach based on the notion of relationships with birth parents and birth family members rather than on the narrower focus on contact.

Adopted Children and young people’s perspective

Research with adopted children and young people indicates a range of benefits when contact is well planned and managed. Neil et al have observed that:

  • Where contact had been stable and reliable, satisfaction was usually high. This stability and predictability of contact seem more important than the amount or type of contact.
  • The main benefits of contact identified by young people were getting information about their birth family; building relationships with birth relatives; being able to talk openly with their adoptive parents about their background and birth family.
  • Young people varied in terms of how they were making sense of their adoptive identity, but few young people were uninterested in adoption as a feature of their lives.
  • Higher levels of birth family contact were linked to high levels of communication about adoption between adoptive parents and young people, as each promoted the other.
  • Birth family contact had a role in promoting identity development both because it exposed the adoptive parents and child to information about the birth family, but also because it facilitated communication between the adopted young people and their adoptive parents, allowing young people to process their thoughts and feelings about the adoption.

Exemplar Approaches

Letterbox services

All LAs/RAAs deliver a Letterbox service. However, agencies did not provide details of this service as part of the survey. This may confirm the observation of some practitioners working in this area that their role is not fully understood by others in the system. There is no statutory guidance on the operation of such services, but the following elements are fundamental to the approach taken by Adoption Counts:

  • Adopters are given preparation and training to understand the importance and advantage of letterbox and other contact

  • The adopters’ attitude to contact needs to be described in the Prospective Adopters’ Report and the child’s need for contact set out in the Child Permanence Report so that contact requirements are adequately discussed and planned for at the linking and matching stage

  • Independent Reviewing Officers need a good level of awareness to ensure that contact issues have been fully explored

  • Adoption Counts (and no doubt others) has a number of information sheets for adopters and birth parents setting out the advantages of ongoing letterbox contact, some operating rules and guidance on tone and content

  • Time taken to build communication and trust between worker and birth parent is crucial

  • The letterbox process can be an opportunity to link birth parents into birth support provision

  • Support to birth parents in writing and reading letters is very important

Other important factors include:

  • It has been observed that letterbox contact is a much easier and more meaningful process if the adopters have met the birth parent(s) or relatives

  • Some birth parents need help to understand that court pronouncements about ongoing contact are not legally binding and that arrangements need to be reviewed and adjusted as circumstances change

  • The amount of administrative support to a Letterbox service is often underestimated

  • There is a lack of training and development opportunities for letterbox staff in some areas of the country

AdoptionPlus describe their service to birth parents as a relationship-based, trauma- and attachment-informed approach to therapeutic support to birth relatives. The model places great emphasis on the provision of a flexible, non-shaming service that encourages and promotes improved reflective functioning and understanding. This work has been evaluated by Hertfordshire University and is summarised in the publication 'Supporting Birth Parents Whose Children Have Been Adopted' (Alper 2019).

North Lincolnshire has developed the Holding On programme of support for birth parents which includes allocating a practitioner to support specific birth families to pull together existing support and resources in the county to increase their resilience.

Possible future developments

Contact plans for a child should be part of the tracking process which most LA/RAAs undertake with children who are likely to require an adoptive placement, in much the same way as Life Story Books and Later Life Letters.

Contact between adopters and birth parents is a developing area stimulated by considerable research over more than a decade which has, in many areas, yet to find its way into practice. E.g.

Child placement research - The Centre for Research on Children at the University of East Anglia

Contact after adoption - Research in Practice

As the benefits of contact with birth family and siblings have been recognised, tools have been developed to assist in the planning of ongoing contact. Recent collaboration between Research in Practice and the University of East Anglia may be about to usher in a new approach to practice. E.g. Adoption Counts is developing a revised approach to contact based on the expectation that all adopters and birth families will have a one-off meeting unless there is good reason not to, in the expectation that this will promote future indirect contact.

  • A Skype meeting may take place if the risk of a face-to-face meeting is felt to be too great

  • A meeting with the wider family will be explored if birth parents cannot attend

  • The agency will seek to challenge children’s Social Workers’ perception of the risks of contact taking place, where necessary

  • The issue will be profiled at adoption summits within each LA, in order to promote a culture change. This will also cover the importance of sibling contact

  • The issue of contact will be raised sooner in the adopter recruitment process – e.g. as part of information evenings or on initial visits

  • Adopters’ willingness to participate in direct contact with birth parents will be taken into account as part of their assessment process

  • Preparation training for adopters will include more information about contact, including videos of adopters, young people and birth parents talking about their experience

  • A contact workshop will be introduced as part of post approval training. This will include feedback to adopters on why birth families sometimes stop using the letterbox system

  • The ‘no photos’ rule in letterbox contact is being reconsidered

  • Wider thinking will be encouraged to identify other significant people with whom contact would be helpful for the child(ren) E.g. grandparents and siblings – where the possibility of direct contact will be explored fully

  • Consideration is being given to whether the RAA needs to play an intermediary role in all letterbox contact, or whether adopters and birth parents can be left to manage this themselves in many cases


The use of social networking for birth families and adoptive families to find out about or communicate with each other is now common place. The UEA research identified that this was sometimes positive, but in other cases could be unhelpful. Where adoptive parents maintained an open communication about adoption and social networking, young people were better prepared to deal with any contact via social media. (Neil et al 2013)


Next: Support to Birth Parents