The Benefits of Birth Family Contact
Imagine that you're a child. You're taken away from the only family you've ever known, and over the next several years you're placed in one stranger's home after another.
All the while, you are anxious and confused, and wondering how your brothers, sisters, and parents are doing. You only get to see them for an hour once a week. But you always look forward to these visits. They are important moments of familiarity and connection during your sometimes bewildering journey through the foster care system.
One day you meet a kind and loving family who wants to adopt you. You feel overjoyed at first because you'll finally have a place to belong. But the family says they're not comfortable maintaining contact with your birth relatives. So you have to choose: do I accept adoption and abandon the most important relationships I have had in my life? Or do I sacrifice my best chance for a brighter future and remain loyal to my birth family?
This is the difficult choice faced by many foster youth. It would be overwhelming for any adult, let alone a young person. But choosing between birth family and adoption doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. If the adoptive parents are willing to maintain some contact with the birth family, they can spare the child this agonizing choice and preserve a critical link to the child's past.
So why don't more adoptive families choose to allow birth family contact? Many adoptive parents find the idea unsettling. It may call up fears that the birth family will try to reclaim the child, or that the child will become confused about who his or her "real" parents are.
However, research is showing that these concerns may be based on myths. One study1, which examined openness in infant adoptions, determined that: 1) birth mothers do not attempt to reclaim their children; 2) children do understand the different roles of adoptive and birth parents in their lives; 3) adoptive and birth parents are not confused about their parenting rights and responsibilities; 4) adoptive parents do not feel less in control and actually have a greater sense of permanence in their relationship with their child. Understanding these facts can make the idea of birth family contact less frightening.
Meeting the birth family can also help. "Knowing the birthparents is much better than imagining them," said Bobbi Jo, an adoptive mom. "The reality is never as threatening as what the mind can conjure up. When we met our children's birthparents, it seemed that we immediately established a rapport that was centered around the kids. It seemed right and felt natural."2
The adoptive parents should also be aware of the full range of benefits for their child. A British study3 found that birth family contact: 1) promotes the child's ability to develop a healthy sense of identity; 2) reduces the child's feelings of rejection and abandonment; and 3) helps the child integrate with the adoptive family and provides permission to attach to them. Contact can also help the child to resolve any feelings of grief about the past with truth, rather than fantasy. And it allows the ongoing exchange of important medical information. When adoptive families consider all of these advantages, they often choose to help sustain their child's birth family connections.
When an adoptive family maintains contact, they can choose the degree of openness that is most comfortable for their child, themselves and the other participants. In some cases, birth and adoptive families communicate through a mediator, such as an agency caseworker or an attorney. In other situations, families have direct contact with each other. Communication can involve letters, cards, e-mails, phone calls or face-to-face visits. The frequency of communication can be adjusted to accommodate the needs of everyone involved.
Adoptive parents should consult with a caseworker or mental health provider when making these decisions. In some instances, it may not be appropriate for the child to have a relationship with his or her birth parents. However, another birth family member may be available to provide the child with important connections to the past.
Experts recommend that the adoptive and birth families agree on clear ground rules for communication. One method of accomplishing this is a written contract, signed by both families, which specifies the frequency and kinds of contact that will occur. This can help prevent future confusion. If problems do occur, the adoptive family is the legal parent of the child and has control over birth family contact. They make the final decisions about how to regulate contact or whether to discontinue contact if it becomes detrimental to the child.
Sometimes having the ultimate responsibility for the process can be difficult for an adoptive family. Adoptive mom Connie said, "The hardest part has been trying to make sure that the visits or encounters are carried out in a safe, respectful way for all concerned. On more than one occasion, I have had to be the ‘bad cop' insisting that visits happen in a public place; that there be no overnight visits; that I or another chaperone had to be there; and that long waits were not acceptable."
She went on to say that, despite the hurdles involved with some of these visits, "The kids always want to do them whenever the opportunity presents itself, and they usually seem appreciative of the efforts involved in making them happen. They also seem to appreciate their stable life at home more after a birth family visit."
Connie's son, Jonathan, said he looks forward to the birth family meetings, which provide him with a greater sense of comfort and reassurance in his daily life: "I know that my birth mom still cares about me and that she is safe. I have a more calm life when I know that my brothers and sisters are fine."
Basilia, Bobbi Jo's daughter, agreed with Jonathan about the positive effects of birth family meetings. She said, "Being able to see my birth parents has made my life easier. And it's not just about them, it's about my brothers too. My brothers and I shouldn't have to give up seeing each other. Seeing them makes me feel great."
Jamelle, who is 15 years old, talked about the encouragement and support he feels when he has both families involved in his life: "I graduated a year ago from grammar school, and my birth mother and siblings were there to attend my graduation. It just made me feel proud to know that I have two loving families."
Adoptive parents recognize that they also benefit from the child having birth family contact. Bobbi Jo said, "Our children developed a new level of trust and bond with us that I believe would not have happened so quickly if we did not meet and accept their birth family." She added, "When you see children interact with their birth family, relatives and siblings, you begin to see their true personality and understand who they are. The birth family can help you bring out the child and blend all of the lives together."
Jamelle's mom said, "Having my children see their birth parents has helped me tremendously. I told my son's mother, as long as she's not pulling him one way and I'm pulling him another, as long as we both pull together, then we can get a good boy and we'll have peace. And that's what's happening."
Bobbi Jo, who has maintained contact with her children's birth parents for several years, provided a summary of her successful philosophy: "Our feeling is that the past cannot be changed and the future should be focused on showing love and support for the children. The birth family's support helps bring closure to the past. It subtly tells the children that it's OK for them to move on and embrace their new future."
For more information on the benefits of birth family contact, prospective adoptive parents should consider reading the book Children of Open Adoption by Kathleen Silber and Patricia Martinez Dorner (Carona Publishing, 1989).
On the Internet, adoptive parents can view a summary of the subject titled "Openness in Adoption: A Fact Sheet for Families," which is available at the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Child Welfare Information Gateway.
Adoptive parents can also click here to view a 15 minute Family Connections video featuring Connie, Bobbi Jo and Jamelle's mother.
1. Findings are from the Minnesota-Texas Adoption Research Project, an ongoing longitudinal study of openness in adoption. Visit the project's website by clicking here.
2. Many of the quotes in this article have been generously provided by the Family Connections Project, a federally funded program that is developing services and supports for youth who wish to retain family contact after adoption or after aging out of foster care. For more information on this program, please click here.
3. Lowe N, Murch M, Borkowski M, Weaver A, Beckford V with Thomas C, 1999. Supporting Adoption: Reframing the Approach. London, BAAF.
Much of this article has been adapted from the publication, "Openness in Adoption: A Bulletin for Professionals," produced in 2003 by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a service of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.