ResearchersDr Mary Beek
Visiting Fellow, School of Social Work
Senior Research Associate, School of Social Work
Professor, School of Social Work
This stage of the project was funded by The Nuffield Foundation. The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social well-being in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research.
The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at www.nuffieldfoundation.org.
Key documents: Stage 3
This stage of the project was carried out in 2012 to 2013.
The key aim was to follow up for the third time the adopted young people (aged 14 to 21, mean age 18) as they transitioned into adulthood, exploring the impact of different contact arrangements on the young people and their adoptive parents and birth relatives.
The findings underline the need for long-term support services from adoptive families and reinforce messages from earlier stages about the need for individualised contact planning and support. The study has helped to illuminate the ways that openness in adoption can support the identity development of adopted young people.
The research explored the following seven questions:
- How were the adopted young people getting on in adolescence in terms of their emotional and behavioural development, perceived wellbeing, and relationships with adoptive parents?
- What types of openness have adopted young people, adoptive parents and birth relatives experienced since the last follow up at Time 2?
- What are the views of adopted young people, adoptive parents and birth relatives about the contact plans they have experienced?
- How were the adopted young people making sense of their adoptive identity?
- How open were adoptive parents in talking and thinking about adoption with their child?
- How well were birth relatives doing in terms of their mental health and their acceptance of adoption?
- What are the implications for practice that can be drawn from this longitudinal study?
- Forty-five adoptive families (with 65 adopted young people) took part in the study. Forty adopted young people took part themselves, 32 of whom were interviewed.
- Twenty-eight birth families also took part in the study - 37 birth relatives in total took part in interviews.
- Compared to families who were in the study at earlier stages, but who dropped out, these adoptive families were more open in their communication about adoption, and birth relatives were more accepting of the adoption.
- The study methods included in-depth interviews and the use of psychological measures.
- Adopted young people filled questionnaires looking at their adoption communication (Brodzinsky, 2006), life satisfaction (Cantrell, 1965), general health (Goldberg & Williams, 1988), parent attachment (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987) and self-liking/self-competence (Tafarodi & Swann, 2001).
- Adoptive parents filled in a questionnaire about young people’s behavioural and emotional development (Achenbach & Rescourla, 2001, 2003).
- Birth relatives filled in the Brief Symptom Inventory (Derogatis 1993) looking at their mental distress.
- About half of young people were doing really well in terms of their overall development; the remainder had some problems and in some cases these were very worrying. Whether or not young people were doing well was affected by range of factors, but contact with birth relatives did not seem to be an important factor in determining overall development.
- Overall contact had continued to diminish over time, and one third of young people were no longer in contact with any birth relatives. But in some cases contact had increased in late adolescence, usually at the young person’s instigation. Direct contact arrangements were more enduring over time than indirect contact arrangements.
- The use of social networking for birth families and adoptive families to find out about or communicate with each other had emerged. This was sometimes positive, but in others 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.
- Views of contact varied from person to person, but 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. The main challenges were dealing with emotional strain; managing feelings of loss; not getting full or accurate information about their birth family.
- For contact to work, it was important that adoptive parents and birth relatives respected each other’s roles and family boundaries, focused on the needs of the adopted young person. Successful contact is a relational process rather than a series of meetings or letters.
- 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.
- Many birth relatives had high levels of mental distress, and ongoing issues in coming to terms with the child’s adoption. Positive experiences of contact with the adopted child were felt by birth parents to mitigate their loss to some extent. Being able to have an ongoing role (the clarity of which seemed just as important as the nature or extent) in the child’s life was something that birth relatives valued.
The need for adoption support. Although adoption can provide stability and a loving family base for children who have experienced early adversity in life, nevertheless many children are likely to have ongoing support needs that must be addressed. Early intervention/preventative adoption support services should be considered and services aimed at adopted teenagers and their families need to be available.
Planning contact. The purpose and goals of contact should be clear and agreed by all relevant parties. Contact plans should be sensitive to the individual wishes, feelings, and strengths and difficulties of all parties.
Planning support for contact. When planning what support (if any) is needed to help make contact a success consider the following factors: risks to the child; relationships between the different parties and any support needed to facilitate these; support needed by adoptive parents and birth relatives to understand their role in contact; the management of boundaries in contact; the child’s involvement in contact and how to make contact relevant and positive for the child; dealing with the emotions of contact; managing practical issues. Consider using the contact planning and support model [link to this on resources page].
Reviewing contact. The child’s needs, wishes and feelings (and those of adoptive parents and birth relatives) are likely to alter over time and variations in contact to reflect this may be needed. A planned review of contact at intervals is likely to be beneficial to ensure that the contact is continuing to meet the child’s needs.
Meeting children’s needs when contact is not possible. Were no contact is possible with certain key birth relatives (for example birth fathers) consideration should be given to how the child can access information about this birth relative.
Managing social media. Preparation and support should be available to adoptive and birth families in managing the issue of unplanned contact via social media. The possible positive role of social media in supplementing other forms of post-adoption contact could be considered.
Review contact arrangements once the young person has reached the age of 18. Although legally adults, some adopted young people may not yet be ready to take on full responsibility for managing birth family contact themselves. Clarity about what will happen when the young person reaches 18 is important for all parties.
Neil, E., Beek, M. & Ward, E. (2013) Contact after adoption: a follow up in late adolescence. (research report), Norwich, UEA. This report on the research was completed in December 2013 – click HERE to access the full report.
Download the following summary leaflets:
In 2014 we launched the study at the CRCF annual conference on 15th July. Conference presentations are available to download here:
> session 1: Introduction to the study and its key findings
> session 2: Young people's views of contact
> session 3: Openness in adoption and its impact on adoptive identity
> session 4: Adoptive parents' and birth relatives' views of contact
> session 5: Physical and psychological presence and boundary ambiguity for all parties to adoption
A summary version of the report aimed at practitioners has been published by BAAF:
Neil, E., Beek, M. & Ward, E. (2014) Contact after adoption: a longitudinal study of adopted young people and their adoptive parents and birth relatives. London: Coram BAAF.
Coram BAAF have also published a full report, which can be accessed here.
Here is an article about the project: Neil, B. (2018). Rethinking adoption and birth family contact: is there a role for the law?, Family Law