It isn't really possible for me to offer clear cut advice to adopters as to whether contact should take place, or exactly how or when, as each situation is so different. I know that relationships between adopters and foster carers can vary from warm and supportive to contentious and downright damaging, with every shade in between. Other complicating factors in the decision might include the length of time the child has stayed with the carer, how many placements they have had, whether there were other children in the placement, the age of the child, the physical distance between foster carers and adopters.
As a foster carer, I am not aware of any existing protocol on continuing contact. I have simply been told that contact is entirely at the discretion of the adopters. To be honest, I am mostly comfortable with that as I think adopters are best placed to know whether and when contact might be in the best interest of the child and their family, although it does sadden me to think that I might never hear again about a child I have loved and cared for over many months. However, I do think it places a lot of responsibility on the adoptive family as there is so much to be considered, especially when some adopted children have spent the majority of their early lives with their foster carers rather than their birth parents. Perhaps I can offer these suggestions as things to consider when thinking about continuing contact:
- Be careful of decisions made during introductions. Intros are a very emotional time for both foster carers and adopters, whether they go well or badly, and it is easy in the heat of the moment to make decisions or promises that may be harder to stick to later on. When adopters have said to me during intros that they will definitely keep in touch, or have talked about meeting up soon, I try to be encouraging without pressuring them, but I don't raise my expectations too much as I know that, once they are away and building their new family life, contact with foster carers might slip down the priority list.
- The timing of first contact is important. Imagine moving to a new school or job. If you were happy at your old place, you may experience a period when you wish you could just go back. Eventually, as you settle in and begin to 'belong' in your new place, you may find that while you think of your old place fondly and with affection, given the choice, you'd stay where you are. Personally, I'd say that is when it's time to consider direct contact. It will still stir up emotions for a child, but hopefully not rekindle any longing to return. Adoptive parents are best placed to know when the time is right.
- The place chosen for first contact is also worth some consideration. Perhaps a neutral location, or, if the adopters choose, a place they frequent as a family or even their own home. I personally would have concerns about contact at the foster carer's home too early, but would be interested to hear from anybody who has made it work for them.
- The frequency of direct contact will depend on many factors. It may be that one or two visits will be enough to reassure the child that the foster carers have not abandoned them or forgotten about them, but in some cases a longer-term relationship could develop with regular meetings. All of this doesn't need to be decided early on. Nobody should feel pressured into long-term commitments, and everyone needs to be aware that arrangements can and will change as the child grows and their needs change.
- It is likely that your child's foster carers had a significantly different parenting style to your own. In any room filled with parents, there is likely to be a range of very differing opinions on any number of issues. This can make transition more complicated for adopters as they initially try to stick to routines established by foster carers that might not fit with their parenting styles or that they might not even agree with. It's frustrating - believe me, a foster carer knows what it's like to try to parent a child in these circumstances! When thinking about continuing contact, consider whether these difficulties should be a factor in your decision. While an adoptive parent might not agree with the approach a foster carer has previously taken, it might still be in the child's best interests to establish some sort of continuing contact. Obviously if there have been welfare or safeguarding issues, or the relationship has seriously and dangerously broken down, then it is a different matter.
- If direct contact is not appropriate for your child, or simply not possible, is there any possibility of maintaining some level of indirect contact, however small? While foster carers don't provide the sort of information that only a birth family knows (like medical history, etc.) it is likely that they will be the people with the anecdotes, milestone memories and early history of the child, especially if a child has spent most of their life living in the foster placement. Continuing contact, even by occasional letters or Christmas cards, can keep lines of communication open for both adoptive parents and the adoptee to access that information. I know some situations where skype (or similar) has been used very effectively.
- If no form of contact is possible or appropriate, or if contact is planned but with a long delay after introductions, a child may find it helpful to look at photographs and talk about their carers with their adoptive parents as part of lifestory work. Their memories of their carers are likely to be much more immediate than those of their birth family, and knowing that foster carers and adopters mutually 'approve' of each other supports transition. Even if the relationship has been difficult, talking can help a child work through their loyalties and give them 'permission' to grieve their loss and settle into their new families.
Foster caring is a lot more than a job. The children we care for mean much more to us than that and, yes, it is hard to let them go, knowing that we might never know their futures. In the hothouse of introductions, adoptive parents rarely get to experience the full extent of the community within which a child has grown and been nurtured. I still get asked by all sorts of people how former charges of mine are getting on years after they have been adopted - friends, family, nursery staff, swimming teachers, local shop keepers, neighbours, playmates - all have included these children into their circles, and all feel their disappearance to a greater or lesser extent.
However, the role of the foster carer is to love and let go. That much should be clear. A foster carer should never make an adoptive family feel under pressure to maintain contact, and I hope this post does not give anyone that impression. But when the guidelines are so vague, sharing our experiences is a good place to start. Please feel free to share yours in the comments!