Professor Beth Neil
Professor Beth Neil

Professor Beth Neil is a senior lecturer in social work at University of East Anglia in Norwich. She talked to us about her research into adoption over the last 20 years and our forthcoming conference - Contact in adoption in the digital age: Where do we go from here?

Thank you for your time today, Professor Neil. Perhaps you could tell us about your background and work in adoption and specifically your research into contact?

I have previously worked as a social worker with children and families. I returned to university (the University of East Anglia in Norwich) to study for a PhD, and this is when I began researching contact in adoption. My supervisor was Professor June Thoburn who has a long-standing interest in children in care, and birth family links in particular. She encouraged me to set up a longitudinal study to follow through a group of children being placed for adoption so we could learn about how their birth family contact arrangements unfolded over the years. So the first stage of this study was my PhD. I carried out a survey to find out what contact adopted children were having with their birth families. And then I focused on families where the adopted child was having face-to-face contact with a parent or grandparent. I interviewed adoptive parents and birth relatives, but at this stage the children were too young to be interviewed. I subsequently carried out two more stages of this study, broadening it out to include indirect contact arrangements and to include the children and young people in the research. I have carried out a range of other studies around adoption, including a study looking at how direct contact after adoption is supported by agencies, and a study exploring birth parents' experiences of the adoption process, and of birth parent support services.

The Supporting Contact study was published in 2011 and the more recent study Contact after adoption was published four years ago. What’s changed over that time, and where do you think things are going?

I think one of the key things that has changed about contact is that with the advent of social media adopted young people and their birth relatives now have more possibilities to make contact with each other directly, without going through any intermediaries. The fact that many people have taken up these possibilities is a reminder of the unmet needs that adopted young people and their birth relatives can have. But social media as a way of getting in touch carries a number of risks, particularly where adopted parents or professionals are not involved to support children. I think that initially fears about social media led some people to have a more closed attitude, for example not sharing photographs with birth family members on social media. But I think as time has gone on other people have started to recognise that it is often the lack of ongoing supported contact as the child grows up that drives either the adopted child or the birth family to make contact via social media. Hence in some quarters people are thinking again about the need to establish ongoing contact that meets the needs of children and their birth family, alongside the importance of talking openly with children about their birth family and the reasons why they needed to be adopted.

I also think that we have had a period of time where government has focused a lot on adoption, but the focus has been on recruiting adoptive parents, and post adoption support. There's been less attention on birth family contact issues, and birth parent support services as these other issues have taken precedence. But I'm hopeful that the mood may be changing, and that people in the field are willing to think again about adopted children's relationships and identity. The recent BASW enquiry into the role of social workers in adoption has highlighted some of the ethical issues surrounding adoption and has stimulated conversation about contact. I don't know where we're going, but I think questions around contact do need to be considered in the context of other important issues about the current adoption system particularly how we can truly recognise the support needs of everybody involved, and develop a system that allows children to take advantage of what is good about adoption, without experiencing unnecessary loss of relationships and their identity.

What are the main challenges and areas of controversy surrounding contact?

I think the main challenge is that there is insufficient attention paid to the individual circumstances of the child's situation when planning contact.

Contact has become largely formulaic – indirect only with birth parents. There is little distinction between, for example, a child who has experienced severe abuse and for whom contact would not be safe and a child whose parents are caring, accepting of the need for adoption, but who lack capacity to look after a child full time. There is very limited involvement of grandparents in contact, though research suggests outcomes can be particularly positive.  Many adopted children lose contact with their siblings because of fears about adult birth family contact – typically where older children remain in direct contact with parents, their adopted younger brothers or sisters are not allowed direct contact for fears that information will reach the birth parents. We need to ask actually what the risks are were this to happen, rather than assume that information getting out is in itself inherently risky. For most other children in permanent placements (eg SGOs, long term foster care) the level of risk aversion seen in adoption and contact planning is not applied, yet the children come from the same family background – the main distinction being that children who get adopted tend to enter care at younger ages.

There is, therefore, scope for adoption to be more open, though we need to look at every situation on a case-by-case basis.

We also need to think about how we can better support contact, particularly in the early stages to get everything off to a good start.

But there are controversies around contact. Traditionally adoption has been thought about as a "fresh start", and legally the child is only a member of their adoptive family. I don’t think we have really shaken off this old paradigm. A key issue of controversy is the extent to which the parental authority of adoptive parents is affected if there is a greater compulsion for birth family contact to happen. People are worried that if adoption becomes more open, this will reduce the pool of prospective adopters. But it's vital that we learn from lessons of the past, particularly the experiences of adoptees and birth parents who as a result of closed adoption have experienced lifelong loss and identity challenges. If we are to be asking something substantially different of prospective adoptive parents, we need to think about how we recruit and prepare adopters differently so they are on board with this new conception of adoption – essentially that the child remains connected to their birth family and the issues of loss and identity must be addressed. The involvement of people with direct experience (adopters, adoptees and birth relatives) can be really important here I think. And it is important that the child’s contact needs must be considered alongside their other needs, particularly the need to recover from early harm.

Can you tell us a little more about the conference? What sort of people should attend and why?

The main aim of the conference is to think about how the current approach to birth family contact could be improved. There will be input from speakers coming from a range of different perspectives. It’s wonderful that we have the country’s leading family court judge (Sir Andrew McFarlane) sharing his thoughts and ideas. I will speak about learning from research, John Simmonds will contribute a theoretical perspective. Then, most importantly, we have a range of speakers who have lived experience of contact talking about their experiences - their thoughts about how the system could be improved will be so valuable. Finally we have a contribution from some inspiring practitioners who have already tried to make changes to policy and practice.