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Post-adoption contact: a peek through the letterbox

When a system or process has been used universally for a long period of time, it can become entrenched, meaning it can be difficult to make recommended or necessary changes. Beverley Barnett-Jones discusses the innovative and collaborative approach that Nuffield FJO took when examining potential ways to modernise the post-adoption letterbox contact system, which hasn’t changed in decades.

It is unrealistic to think that policy and practice in the family justice system can remain constant and unchallenged – yet, in some areas, the systems and processes used haven’t changed in years, even decades, despite the fact they are clearly unfit for the modern world. Transforming embedded policy and practice is not however straightforward. Nuffield FJO is committed to helping the family justice system address this challenge and unlock change. Going beyond data and evidence, we are listening to real people’s stories and experiences and are initiating pilot schemes so we can investigate, test and evaluate new approaches. A recent example is our adoption connections project, which has examined how post-adoption letterbox contact could potentially be modernised.

Over the last 20 years, ‘letterbox’ contact has become the typical way for adopted children living in England to keep in touch with their birth parents. During adoption court proceedings, a contact plan is usually made for letters to be exchanged between the adoptive parents and the child’s birth family (most commonly the birth mother, father or grandparents) on a periodic basis, with the intention that this will continue until the child is 18. Letters are generally sent once or twice a year (facilitated and mediated by the adoption agency), but this can be more frequent. In some cases, photographs, small gifts, drawings or cards are exchanged, and some adoptees might be more directly involved with the correspondence. In a small number of cases, face-to-face contact might be agreed – or letterbox contact might lead to this in the future.

When maintained, letterbox contact can help an adopted child to cope with loss and separation (and to know they have not been forgotten), navigate identity issues and make sense of the past. It can potentially help them to build or sustain direct relationships with their birth family. Equally, birth parents are helped by being informed about the progress of their ‘lost’ child, who, psychologically, can be seen as being present in their family, and not just a memory. Meanwhile, adopters can develop and share an understanding of their child’s birth family and their life story – which can be beneficial at key stages of a child’s identity formation, in particular the onset of adolescence, the development of independent peer relationships and when exploring adult relationships. For most children, the need to have an accessible, safe, secure and consistent channel of communication between their birth and adoptive parents is essential and will have benefits over the life-course.

However, while the introduction of letterbox contact signalled a more ‘open’ approach to adoption (opposed to the ‘closed’ system of the past, where adopted children and their birth families wouldn’t have any contact with each other after adoption), the current letterbox system is nonetheless riddled with problems and issues.

It is in fact a notoriously difficult way to enable rewarding and lasting contact. A range of research has found most letterbox arrangements were inactive even by middle childhood, and many had either stopped working early on, or had never even begun. For many reasons – including literacy challenges and emotional stress, and the system’s lack of flexibility and inability to effectively account for life changes – it can be hard to start the letterbox process and to sustain positive exchanges over time (these issues are explored in more detail in our recently published spotlight paper on modernising post-adoption contact.

And, in today’s world, if the letterbox system isn’t working for adoptive or birth families, they can potentially turn to social media to take contact into their own hands. From existing research and our work into post-adoption contact, we know that some adoptive and birth parents often collaborate in this way, and don’t always have contrary interests – the misplaced idea that they do has, in fact, been very much myth-busted.

The adoption connections project – innovative collaboration and piloting

With evidence clearly suggesting that post-adoption letterbox contact needs substantial change to make the system fit for the modern world, we embarked on our adoption connections project. We consulted with birth families, adoptive families, young people, adult adoptees, local authorities, and regional and voluntary adoption agencies in England. This enabled us to gather a wide range of perspectives on modernising mediated post-adoption contact, and to identify challenges and opportunities.

In particular, we explored how digital solutions could help to address some of the known difficulties of letterbox contact, and also examined, demonstrated and encouraged pilot digital products and services.

Nuffield FJO had already carried out an evidence review of digital contact and children’s well-being and had commissioned research into digital contact during lockdown (both instigated by the Covid-19 pandemic, but supplementing our ongoing research on contact). We wanted to explore the potential role for digital in managing children’s contact in adoption, and to re-imagine the letterbox system and what it might look like in the digital world.

We were helped, advised and guided throughout the project by external digital consultant Cliff Manning and Professor Elsbeth Neil from the University of East Anglia, an expert in post-adoption contact. We also liaised with other academics, such as Dr Amanda Taylor-Beswick from Queens University Belfast on data privacy and the data security implications of digital contact systems, and Mandi McDonald (also from Queen’s University Belfast) and Dr Amy Conley Wright, University of Sydney, on the approaches being taken in Ireland and Australia respectively.

Digital technology and transformative possibilities

The first stage of the project involved attending a four-day virtual workshop organised by Reason Digital, a digital design company harnessing technology for social good. Through a cost-effective, proof-of-concept design sprint, a simple paper prototype tool was created. Designed as a starting point for adoption agencies considering digitising letterbox contact, it includes a core set of features (sending and receiving messages, notifications and read receipts, and creating profiles and access levels), is mobile-friendly, has multimedia capabilities and enables inappropriate content to be managed.

Of course, any digital contact tool needs to be user-centred and accommodate the diverse real-life needs and user experience of parents and children, and provide different formats in a safe, effective and manageable way. We carried out some initial testing of the prototype with adoptive parents, birth parents, adult adoptees and young people with lived experience of adoption to obtain their reactions and views. ATD Fourth World, PAC-UK and Adoption UK helped us to convene these discussions, which were carried out in safe spaces, and, given the potential for distress, were followed up with additional support. We also engaged with Cornerstone VR about virtual reality possibilities and alternative ways to connect.

While we recognise that digital technology is not appropriate or accessible for everyone, and that letters and items sent through the post often have an intrinsic value and represent an emotional and personal connection that perhaps cannot be replicated in the digital world, our discussions identified that using digital forms of communication to modernise letterbox contact may, if implemented carefully, better meet the needs of some families and children.

Digital solutions extend the opportunity to create adaptive, flexible and accessible forms of communication that meet needs over time. Digital contact platforms could, for example, enable people to communicate in different formats or in simpler ways (including through video, voice notes, ‘likes’ and emojis). Post-adoption contact could become more fluid, with preferences (such as whether cards can be sent) being changed more easily, and smaller, granular moments could be exchanged more frequently. The insights from adult adoptees on what a digital system could bring to the process of reading adoption records and potential reunion was particularly striking. The possibility of an organised national system that could support reunion work by making use of a portal where adoption records are digitally remastered and stored was seen as a potential breakthrough.

From an adoption agency perspective, traditional letterbox contact and the mediation involved can be complex and time-consuming to manage, whereas digital platforms can reduce administration tasks, and can improve record keeping and data management and storage. This can help to free up resources that can be better used helping and supporting families.

However, the potential impact of digital technology on post-adoption contact can only be fully realised if underpinned by concrete policy that considers digital poverty and competence, and sensitively meets the different support needs of birth parents, adopters and children. For example, birth parents are likely to be at an economic disadvantage compared to adopters, and poor internet connections, limited data credit and a lack of devices are likely to affect their access to digital-based contact services. They may also have low digital skills and confidence. In particular, adoption agencies will need to ensure that birth parents in poverty, with special needs or with vulnerabilities are provided with direct and practical support to close the gap from an already existing inequality.

Supporting the development of digital platforms

The next step in our project was to engage with adoption agencies that were already thinking about digital systems, including regional adoption agency One Adoption West Yorkshire and ARC Adoption North East, a voluntary adoption agency.

One Adoption West Yorkshire had begun tentative conversations with Link Maker, a social enterprise and online service best known for family-matching in adoption with an ambition to include contact on its platform. We were invited to these discussions, and supported Link Maker to test out its digital product with adoptees, adoptive parents and birth families, and also review it against the evidence base with help from Professor Elsbeth Neil. One Adoption West Yorkshire has since agreed to pilot the Link Maker product towards the end of 2021, along with two other regional adoption agencies (Adoption Counts and Adoption@Heart). While the initial pilot will involve the exchange of traditional ‘letters’, the hope is to extend the system to perhaps include more spontaneous messaging or video calls. It is also hoped that children could become more directly involved, where appropriate and with support.

Meanwhile, ARC Adoption North East (NE) had developed its ARCBOX digital platform through a government practice and improvement grant. ARCBOX aims to engage with children and young people in care, to produce high-quality life narratives, maintain a timeline photo gallery, provide space to express feelings, worries and anxieties, celebrate successes and enjoy games and activities. Currently, ARCBOX allows for one-way contact, where birth relatives can post a contribution to their child’s life timeline safely, without having access to any other parts of the platform. ARC Adoption NE is seeking to make ARCBOX a secure two-way platform, through which letterbox contact can be facilitated, recorded and managed.

When ARC NE met developers to explain its idea for a digital contact system, we joined to provide support and insight. We also encouraged the team to apply for Nominet funding to develop the tool, which was secured. We also introduced ARC North East to Social Finance, which provided free advice and input on how to approach cost/benefit analysis and make the platform more financially attractive.

We communicated and promoted the potential for digitalised post-adoption contact systems through speaking and presenting at events – including a Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies event, an Adoption UK webinar on modernising contact in adoption, and a Research in Practice webinar – prompting interest and dialogue. Ideas have also been shared with a wide range of children’s organisations, including Barnardos, the Children’s Society and the NSPCC at a More than Robots webinar.

Digital contact and adoption standards

Our project also involved discussions on updating the adoption standards with regards to the support standards, in particular addressing digital forms of contact. Statutory guidance on adoption for local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies and adoption support agencies in England was revised in 2013, but does not reflect the full weight of the evidence as to the benefits of contact on children’s well-being. In relation to the national minimum standards of care (2011 revised 2014) ‘digital’ communication is largely constructed as a risk and threat to relationships.

It is important for Ofsted, regional and voluntary adoption agencies and the Department for Education (DfE) to give serious consideration to reviewing the minimum standards and guidance in relation to digital communication in post-adoption contact – they are currently not fit for purpose and raise (at the very least) questions about state obligations under UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) – General comment No. 25 (2021) on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment includes a specific mention of a child’s right to access digital technologies to maintain contact with family. We also suggest that best practice standards in support in this area be developed.

Moving evidence into policy and practice

Our adoption connections project aimed to bring research and lived experience evidence to professional practice and innovation – and to have a catalytic effect on the modernisation of mediated post-adoption contact.

Adoption is an area where research and the prevailing evidence are, at times, struggling to reach the practice space. The evidence suggests that an open, more flexible approach to post-adoption contact can be beneficial. However, the dominant, entrenched narrative around post-adoption contact (within social care, government and society as a whole) doesn’t yet reflect this, meaning professionals and practice continue to conform to the status quo of letter exchanges twice a year. Therefore, when reflecting on the project and our findings, we must consider how to move the research and evidence into policy and practice so that it can be transformative.

Our spotlight paper on modernising post-adoption contact provides an overview of existing research into contact, post-adoption contact and virtual contact, and outlines the learnings from our project. It aims to highlight some of the issues that adoption agencies should consider when planning to modernise their systems and approaches. It does not set out to make recommendations, but to share findings with those who are seeking to make change.