Research Team

Professor Beth Neil

Professor, School of Social Work


Professor June ThoburnProfessor June Thoburn

Emeritus Professor, School of Social Work

Funder details

The study was funded by a PhD studentship awarded to Beth Neil. Professor June Thoburn supervised the project.

Key documents: Stage 1

> 3 page summary of key findings from Stage 1

Stage 1

child-drawingThe study began in 1996 and first stage was completed in 2000.

This first study provided an important snapshot of children being adopted in England in 1996 and 1997 and revealed the plans that were being made for these children to remain in contact with members of their birth family after adoption. The workings of face-to-face contact in children’s preschool years were explored through interviews with adoptive parents and birth relatives.

The study found that less than one in five children had a plan to have contact with birth relatives. In cases where this contact have been attempted experiences had largely been positive. Feelings and attitudes of social workers, adoptive parents and birth relatives all emerged as important in shaping contact plans and influencing the experience of contact.

  • To find out what arrangements for post-adoption contact with birth relatives were being made for young children (those under age 4 at placement) in a cohort of children domestically adopted in England

  • To explore at how face-to-face contact arrangements between children and adult birth relatives were working out in the early stages of placement
  • A questionnaire survey looking at adopted children’s case histories, birth and adoptive families, and post adoption contact plans. The questionnaires were completed by the social workers of 168 children adopted through 10 different agencies in 1996-7 (the response rate to the questionnaire was 90%).
  • Face-to-face contact arrangements for 36 children in 30 adoptive families were explored through semi-structured in depth interviews with adoptive parents (30 mothers, 19 fathers) and 19 birth relatives (9 mothers, 3 fathers, 5 grandparents, 2 other relatives). At this time the children had been in placement for an average of 2.5 years and their average age was 4 years.
  • The families in the interview study broadly represented those adopted nationally in that most children were adopted from care, with a much smaller number being relinquished by parents. Twenty-five (69%) of the children had lived in their birthfamily before being adopted and the mean age at which these twenty-five children left home was 11.5 months (SD = 11.4, range = 1-35). Twenty-two children (61.4%) were reported to have experienced some maltreatment before adoption.
  • The most common form of contact planned for children was agency mediated letterbox contact. Such contact was planned for 81% of children, and usually this contact was to happen once or twice a year.
  • Only 11% of children had a “closed” adoption where no ongoing contact was planned.
  • The backgrounds of most of the children in the research were highly complex and many birth parents had many personal difficulties such as learning difficulties, mental health problems, drug and alcohol problems, and unstable housing.
  • All types of contact mainly involved birthmothers and/or and maternal grandparents. Less than 30% of children had a plan for any contact with their birth father or his relatives.
  • Face-to-face contact with adult birth relatives was planned much less frequently than letter contact – in only 17% of cases. Less than one in 10 children (9%) had a plan for face-to-face birth parent contact.
  • When face-to-face contact was planned this was usually in cases where children were adopted from care. Children relinquished as babies were highly unlikely to have this kind of open adoption, even though their birthparents had far fewer personal difficulties than the parents of children placed from care.
  • Of the children who had birth siblings outside of their adoptive family, 44% had contact plans (or the potential for contact via the contact they had with the parent/s or carer/s of such siblings) with all of their siblings, 25% had contact with only some of their siblings, and 31% had no contact with any of their siblings.
  • Children were more likely to have a plan for face-to-face contact with siblings who were also looked after or adopted, compared to siblings remaining in the birth family.
  • With regard to all forms of post-adoption contact, wide variations in practice between different agencies were noted, suggesting that decisions were often being made according to agency values or culture rather than a consideration of each case.
  • Contact arrangements were in some cases very frequent, friendly and informal and took place at the home of the adoptive parents or the birth relatives. In other cases contact meetings were as infrequent as once a year and could be quite brief and supervised by a social worker in a neutral setting. Many variations between these two ends of the spectrum were found; families were happiest when they were supported by the agency to find the form of contact that best suited their own situation.
  • Even at this early stage 42% of all contact arrangements had already altered from the original plan. As many arrangements had increased in openness or frequency as had decreased or stopped.
  • Face-to-face contact, even at high levels, was not found to get in the way of the development of the relationship between the adoptive parents and the child.
  • Because this group of children had been placed early and had often not lived at home for very long, they generally did not have close relationships with birth relatives at the time of placement. Furthermore, most children, because of their age, had only a very limited understanding of adoption. This meant that for children contact meetings were not emotionally charged and were generally accepted easily and often enjoyed by them.
  • In some cases where contact was quite frequent, a relatively close relationship with the birth relative could develop. For example, some children had regular visits with their grandparents and became very fond of them.
  • More often however, children were said to enjoy visits (especially when friendly attention and presents were involved) but their adoptive parents felt they were too young to fully understand the significance of the meetings. For example, one adoptive mother said, “He is fairly excited because he knows he is going to get a present and he is going to play in the sandpit… not necessarily because it is his birthmother but because of the whole event.”
  • Most adoptive parents showed very high levels of empathy for the child and empathy for birth relatives. This could mean that adoptive parents who have such qualities are more likely to agree to open adoption arrangements. Whilst this may be true, there was also evidence that contact itself helped adoptive parents to empathise with children and birth relatives.
  • There were a number of ways in which contact seemed to help adoptive parent develop empathy. For example negative fantasies about the birth family could be reduced by actually getting to know them. Contact could eliminate adopter’s fears that birth relatives could threaten their relationship with the child, and so free them up to feel empathy for the birth family. In some cases contact reassured adoptive parents that it was the right thing that they had adopted the child. Although some adoptive parents were quite fearful of the idea of contact with birth relatives in the beginning, when contact happened most felt there were immediate benefits for themselves, as well as the possibility of benefits for the child in the longer term.
  • An open and empathic attitude on the part of adoptive parents was the factor most closely related to whether or not contact continued or increased and the satisfaction of all parties with the arrangements.
  • lmost all birth relatives really valued being able to see the child.
  • Three-quarters of birth relatives showed acceptance and realism in their view of their relationship to the child post-adoption. This was possible when birth relatives had not agreed with or wanted the adoption. Some birth relatives did not fully understand or accept how their role differed from the adoptive parents’ role, and this group included some parents with learning difficulties.
  • This position of acceptance and support for the adoptive parents was frequently one that developed over time as relatives felt reassured that the child was OK and that the adoptive parents were nice people.

Few children have contact with relatives from their paternal birth family: At the contact planning stage, consider fathers and paternal birth family members as well as mothers and paternal birth family members.

Very few relinquished babies had a plan for face-to-face contact even though their birth parents had far fewer problems than parents of children in care: consider this type of contact for adopted children from all backgrounds; where children are relinquished for adoption their birth relatives may have resources to participate purposefully in contact.

There are large variations in contact planning by agency: professionals need to consider their own attitudes and values towards post adoption contact. Contact plans should be based on the child’s needs rather than worker attitudes or “standard practices” within agencies.

The backgrounds of adopted children are often difficult and painful: work with adoptive parents to help them think about and process their feelings about the child’s background. Offer adoptive parents help and support around when and how to talk to the child about their background.

Many social workers reject the idea of face-to-face contact when children do not have a well-established relationship with any birth relatives; yet face-to-face contact can work well even when this is the case - in fact this made the dynamics of contact easier. Face-to-face contact can be considered for identity purposes, not just to maintain relationships.

Families are happiest with face-to-face contact where they are actively involved in constructing an arrangement appropriate for their individual situation: involve adoptive parents and birth relatives in planning the nature of the contact - explore people’s expectations, anxieties and discuss boundary issues. Offer ongoing active support where needed, but don’t assume this will be necessary in every case.

The empathy of adoptive parents towards the birth family is crucial in making contact work: try to build this empathy from the preparation stage onwards by creating an open supportive atmosphere where adoptive parents can explore their feelings about contact and the birth family. Offer adoptive parents information to help them understand the situation of birth families (positive and negative), as well as the needs of their child in the future. Help adoptive parents to be both realistic and sympathetic about birth families. Understand that the adoptive parents may be particularly anxious about the birth family at the pre-placement stage but they may feel less anxious after the child is settled with them. Reassure adoptive parents that if handled well, face-to-face contact is highly unlikely to negatively affect their relationship with the child.

The extent to which birth parents can accept the adoption is important in making contact work: the level of acceptance of birth relatives needs to be taken into account at the planning stage but remember that birth relatives’ views about adoption can change once the adversarial legal process is completed. The opportunity to have contact may bring about positive changes in their feelings.

3 page summary of key findings from Stage 1

Neil, E. (2003). Understanding other people's perspectives: tasks for adopters in open adoptions, Adoption Quarterly, 6 (3), 3-30. Understanding other people's perspectives abstract.

Neil, E. (2003). Accepting the reality of adoption: birth relative's experiences of face-to-face contact, Adoption and Fostering, 27 (2), 32-43.Accepting the reality of adoption abstract.

Neil, E. (2003). 'Contact after Adoption: A Research Review' in M. Bainham, B. Lindley, M. Richards, and L. Trinder (Eds.) Children and their families: Contact, rights and welfare. Oxford: Richard Hart. Contact after Adoption: A Research Review abstract.

Neil, E., Beek, M. and Schofield, G. (2003). Thinking about and managing contact in permanent placements: the differences and similarities between adoptive parents and foster carers, Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 8 (3), 401-418. Thinking about and managing contact abstract.

Neil, E. (2002a). Contact after Adoption: The role of agencies in making and supporting plans, Adoption and Fostering, 26 (1), 25-38. Contact after Adoption: Role of agencies abstract.

Neil, E. (2002b). 'Managing face to face contact for young adopted children' in H. Argent (Ed.) Staying Connected: Managing Contact Arrangements in Adoption, London: British Association for Adoption and Fostering. Managing face-to-face contact book chapter.

Neil, E. (2000). The reasons why young children are placed for adoption: findings from a recently placed sample and implications for future identity issues, Child and Family Social Work, 5 (4), 303-316. The reasons for adoption abstract.

Neil, E. (1999). ‘The sibling relationships of adopted children and patterns of contact after adoption' in Mullender, M. (Ed.) We are Family: Sibling Relationships in Placement and Beyond, London: British Association for Adoption and Fostering. Sibling relationships of adopted children book chapter.