When Adoption And Social Media Collide: 'Once You've Opened That Door, You Can't Close It'

It's never been easier to track down birth relatives on social media. But few are prepared for what happens next.
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When 14-year-old Sarah* reached out to her birth father James on Facebook, she had high expectations. What child wouldn’t dream of the perfect reunion with their birth parent after all these years?

But James wasn’t interested in reconnecting – and he made that very clear. The rejection stung, opening old and fresh wounds.

Sarah became extremely upset and angry. Her mental health suffered, as did her schoolwork. She dealt with all of this in secret until the burden became too much to bear and she confided in her adoptive parents, who were able to tell her more about her history and help her understand why her birth father had reacted this way.

Her case is not unusual. Since social media entered our lives in the early 2000s – particularly Facebook – it has become easier than ever for adoptees to track down their birth relatives. And it goes both ways.

In 2021, over four billion people were using social media worldwide. Social media will continue to add an extra layer of complexity to the already deeply complex area of adoption – and everyone involved is having to learn how to live with it.

Half a century ago, adoption in the UK was very much a closed door process – children were given homes with adoptive families and did not tend to have contact with their birth parents, nor did they get access to their birth records. Some didn’t even know they were adopted until they became adults – or ever.

The passing of the Adoption Act in 1976 gave adoptees the right to access their original birth certificates and other information relating to their parents. And over time, adoption services increasingly recognised that children often needed to have information about their birth families as they grow up – for the sake of their identity, and also to help them understand more about their history and why they were placed for adoption.

This was mutually beneficial, too, as birth families were able to see how their children were doing.

“Losing a child, as you can imagine, is huge – and the trauma and ongoing grief that creates for a birth family member can be huge,” says Corienne Strange, who worked as a social worker for over 30 years and is now head of policy for the National Adoption Service for Wales.

“So it was recognised that some form of contact was likely to be beneficial for all parties. As a result of that, contact was developed, but it was generally in the form of a letterbox exchange run by services with an exchange coordinator.”

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The process is relatively simple: birth families would write letters and send them to adopters. Initially, the adoptive parents would read them and write back on behalf of the child. As the child grew up, they would become involved in the exchange, too.

“There was very little in the way of direct contact for children,” says Strange. “And although, over time, services have been very much wanting to look at the individual needs of children – in terms of what might be in their best interests, not just at the time they were placed but as they grew up – it’s always been very tricky to make that leap from indirect contact to more natural direct contact.”

If it’s difficult for someone who works in adoption to coordinate this process, imagine how tricky it becomes when you take that safety net away and a child is left to contact a birth parent, or is contacted by a birth parent, on social media.

“It’s difficult for children and young people to understand sometimes that once you’ve put something out there, you’ve lost control of it,” says Strange.

Children who’ve been adopted are going through their lives processing a lot of information about themselves. “And what often happens when they make contact is that they’re not prepared for what happens next,” says Strange.

One of the issues that comes up time and time again is that everyone involved – the child, the adopters, the birth relatives – have differing perspectives about why the child was placed for adoption, she says.

“The birth parents’ perspective might be very different to the child’s and to what the adopters may understand, too,” says Strange. “So what happens is there’s a mismatch in understanding and the child is left trying to work out what is right and what is wrong.”

On top of this, they might be dealing with difficulties at school and in their personal lives. As Strange says: “There’s a lot going on for them generally and then you throw social media into the mix where they’re not prepared, they’re not supported and where somebody could literally turn up the next day.”

Adoption agencies aren’t against social media and the use of it, she adds. But they do argue it needs to be managed properly so young people can begin to, and then continue to, have a positive relationship with their birth families that’s built up over time, “rather than being thrown in at the deep end”.

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When it isn’t managed effectively, it can spell trouble. Tracey*, who had a long history of substance misuse, managed to track down the adoptive family of her daughter Laura* via Facebook. One day she simply turned up on the adopter’s doorstep – and subsequently went on to harass the family.

Laura’s adoptive parents found it very difficult to escape the harassment and eventually moved away. When their daughter turned 16, she made contact with a member of her birth family via social media, who then put her back in contact with Tracey.

Laura didn’t tell her adoptive parents that she was doing this because she thought they’d be upset and angry. About a year later, Tracey died.

When Laura learned of her birth mother’s death, she still didn’t tell her parents that she’d been back in contact. Over time her mental health deteriorated, she started to self-harm and made several attempts to take her own life.

“This is an example of where adopters need training and support to be able to encourage their children to be open with them about what they are doing on social media,” says a spokesperson for the National Adoption Service for Wales.

When people now adopt, they are trained in how to navigate social media and adopt the necessary safeguards to keep young people safe – this includes being curious about their children’s internet use and tightening privacy settings.

Some are told not to post anything on social media for a number of years while their children settle in – and so birth relatives can’t come looking for them.

It’s also important for birth parents to keep channels of communication open with their children during this time so they feel like they’ve nothing to hide.

Most adopted people use social media to get in touch in situations where they are frustrated by a lack of any other way to get in touch, suggests Professor Beth Neil, director of social work research at University of East Anglia (UEA), who conducted a study into this a decade ago.

“We found ... that people use social media sometimes just to find out about the other person and see what they look like, or what they are doing now – but with no intention of getting in touch,” she explains.

“Some other people use social media as a way of staying in touch when they already have a relationship – for example, brothers and sisters separated by adoption might contact each other on Snapchat or Instagram or play online games together.”

According to Prof Neil, the people who use social media to make contact with the other person are those who have an unmet need – often because more formal routes for contact, such as planned meet-ups after adoption or exchanges of letters, have not been put in place or have failed.

“This can be challenging, particularly when adopted young people don’t involve their adoptive parents in what is going on,” she adds.

For potential adopters then, the thought of birth relatives getting in touch on social media – or their children hiding contact from them – can be a worry.

Clare, from south Wales, knows this all too well. She adopted with her husband after they met in their 40s. The couple knew they wanted a large family, so they welcomed a sibling group of three – a son and two daughters – into their home.

But it soon became apparent that the children’s other birth siblings, who were much older, were trying to track the family down.

“As worrying as we found that, you can understand it from their perspective,” says Clare. “They’re just frightened kids, aren’t they? They’re worried about their siblings, they want to make sure they’re safe, they want to see them.

“We could see it for what it was, but we could also understand why the social workers and the legal team said we must cut all physical contact with the siblings.”

The family were advised by services to keep in touch by letter, rather than in person, to give the three children the best chance of settling into their new home.

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Clare’s children are all of primary school age, however she is aware that one day they’ll be using social media – and has spent a long time preparing for when that happens.

One of the things the parents have been keen to do is provide their children with as much of their family history as possible, in an age appropriate way, so they don’t feel the need to go filling in the blanks as soon as they start using social media.

“Because once you’ve opened that door, it’s something you can’t close again if you decide it’s not for you,” says Clare. “We’ve given it quite a bit of thought. It does worry me, I’ve got to be honest, but I think a lot of that is because I’m just not a big fan of social media.

“I don’t want to terrify them because I don’t like it – and that’s really difficult because the overwhelming urge is to protect your kids at all costs.”

She is hoping they are satisfying their children’s curiosity by giving them as much information now as possible. So, if they do decide to track down their birth siblings on social media, it’ll be more to see what they look like, or what they’re doing.

“But if they do, they do,” she adds. “They know their names already so it would be their choice. But we’ve always said to them, when they ask if they can see them, we say: ‘Yes, when you’re 18, you can get in contact with them.’

“We’re setting up those channels already – who you’d contact, how you’d go about it – we’re giving them the pathway to do it safely ... so they can do it in steps, so they can fall back at any time if they’re not sure.”

Parents should speak to their children about the possibility that they might be contacted by their birth family on social media, and discuss what to do if this happens, UEA’s Prof Neil suggests.

“It’s also crucial to keep asking young people if their needs to know about their birth family are actually being met,” she adds. “That way, adoptive parents can help young people to find out the information and make the connections that they want to make.”

Sometimes social media can be a force for good. Birth families have been reunited with positive consequences – or at the very least, contact has been maintained safely. For adults who’ve spent years trying to piece together missing parts of a larger puzzle, tracking relatives down on the likes of Facebook has given them answers – and, to some degree, peace.

One adoptive family supported direct contact with their child’s birth family from the get go – and, when the children were in their early teens, the two families felt able to manage the contact without professional involvement.

They set up a specific email account to keep in touch in between meeting up. A few years later, the adopted children made contact with birth family members through social media without their parents’ knowledge.

But rather than hide what they’d done – and because of the open relationship between both families – they told the adoptive parents immediately and their parents were able to reinforce with the teenagers the need to take care with what they shared on social media and tighten up their privacy settings.

For those working in adoption, the use of technology and social media more widely in our lives is something they simply cannot ignore. Especially as adoption is seeing something of a downward trend.

In 2021, only 2,870 children had been adopted in England, down 18% from the year before. In fact, adoption rates have been falling steadily since 2015. The pandemic has certainly had an impact, as have delays in the courts. The cost of living crisis is not making matters easier with families tightening their belts.

Social media could be another deterrent for prospective parents, but it doesn’t have to be. For agencies, it’s an ongoing process of figuring out how it can be best used – and cases like the above show it can work when children aren’t afraid to speak to their parents about it, and their curiosity is quenched by knowing their family history.

Adoption services are now working to try and make the channels of contact more fluid – so what might start as an exchange of letters can move to digital dialogue and physical contact over time, if it’s safe to do so. Considerations are also being made over how platforms like Zoom can be brought into the mix to facilitate communication.

“Social media is here to stay, so it’s not something we want adopters to shy away from,” says Strange, “we need them to be armed to have conversations so it can be used positively instead of something that can happen quickly.

“There have been cases where the situation has run away very fast and adopted young people have been put at risk through trying to manage complex relationships with their birth family without support.

“But for other people, when there are simply no easy routes to find their birth family, social media has been a godsend in enabling adopted them to connect with birth relatives, and find out more about their history and their identity.”

* Some names have been changed to protect identities