Flickr: Kat Grigg

Flicker: Kat Grigg

How should an adopted child maintain a relationship with their birth family?

Karen* was 17, homeless and engaged in sex work, when she found out she was pregnant.

She got clean and moved in with her boyfriend's family but the relationship ended soon after the baby was born.

Karen resumed taking drugs with a new boyfriend. Worried things had got out of control, she called the NSW Child Protection Helpline.

The Children's Court made an interim order for her child to be placed in care while she underwent drug rehabilitation but instead her drug use increased to cope with her sorrow and shame.

Contact visits were held in a small and sterile room. Karen more often than not missed visits but when she did go, she got high beforehand to cope.

A year after she made the call for help, final orders were made for her child to remain in care until 18. Karen was not in court to hear the decision.

An unlikely family

Mary* and Bill* became long-term foster carers for Karen's child, but did not meet her for more than a year.

At first, paid workers took the child to supervised contact. Even after Mary and Bill started going, only other birth relatives attended. Karen stayed away.

The caseworker kept in touch with Karen and helped Mary and Bill understand that Karen had tried to get help for herself and her child.

The caseworker encouraged Mary to send photos and updates on her child to Karen and they began corresponding by text message.

When she was ready to meet Mary and Bill, there was an instant connection.

Mary told Karen she admired her courage and strength and promised to make space for her in their lives.

She showed genuine compassion and care for a young woman who had been let down by the people she should have been able to turn to for help.

A year ago, Mary and Bill lodged an adoption application in the Supreme Court.

Motivated to ensure her child's security and accepting that reunification was not realistic, Karen decided not to contest the adoption. She is cautiously optimistic that adoption will help them behave more like a normal blended family.

Mary and Bill still seek caseworker advice to reassure Karen they are committed to her relationship with her child while respectfully communicating their own boundaries.

Connections with birth families are important, but also contentious.

Karen's story is just one of many we encountered when undertaking research on how foster carers experience agency support for birth family contact.

Current Australian reforms in out-of-home care emphasise permanency and lifelong connections with birth families, including when courts decide a child will not return to their families.

The disproportionate removal of Indigenous children and evidence about the ongoing adverse effects of the Stolen Generations on children make it critical to maintain connections to kin and country for this group.

Direct or face-to-face contact is the main way that children's relationships with birth relatives are maintained in Australia.

While it is accepted that regular contact between children and parents supports reunification, direct contact in permanent care is much more contentious.

In fact, most other countries avoid direct contact in permanent care and sustaining contact over time creates is hard for families already dealing with relationship dynamics and complicated emotions.

Our research shows that long-term foster carers find it a challenge to manage contact arrangements. When agencies take control of contact it can create a welcome buffer between themselves and birth relatives.

Yet, when carers commit to providing legal permanency through guardianship or open adoption, they are expected to be responsible for contact without agency support.

We and others have argued that Australia needs a consistent approach to building relationships between carer and birth families in permanent care.

Birth parents have themselves called for a more relational approach to contact.

Practices that are grounded in empathy, warmth and open communication are associated with stronger parent-worker relationships.

A trauma-informed approach to contact — one that takes account of a child's needs for emotional and relational safety and the impact of parental complex trauma on their behaviour at contact — is urgently needed.

Finding the balance

We conducted a qualitative study in NSW to explore views of contact with 57 children and young people, birth parents and permanent carers.

Children and young people told us they wanted more say in what form contact took, including keeping in touch between visits.

The pain and grief felt by birth parents persisted, with profound flow-on effects for relationships with children, carers and caseworkers.

Carers who pursued open adoption or guardianship were offered agency support to play a more active role in contact, gradually strengthening relationships with birth relatives.

This didn't happen when agencies continued to supervise contact.

Our study suggests that agencies need to recruit carers who are predisposed to display empathy and compassion for birth parents and help carers to understand the impacts of complex trauma on children and birth families so they are equipped to foster family connections.

Our ARC funded Linkage project involves collaborating with agencies and families experienced in the care system to trial and evaluate relationship-building practices that will provide a sense of belonging and relational security for children in care in New South Wales.

This project will have significant implications for state and national permanency policy.

Dr Susan Collings is a research fellow and Amy Conley Wright is an associate professor at the Institute of Open Adoption Studies at the University of Sydney.

*Identifying details have been changed.

(This article first appeared on ABC News Online)

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