Susan Ogden from Adoptions Together describes how her agency developed their response to help adoptive families and birth families navigate their relationships online, and the lessons that she and her agency have learned one family at a time. Here I pick out the main points of her talk and summarize the actions that agencies and adoptive parents can take.
Here’s my summary of the main points I’ve learned from the presentation (I’ve added some additional notes in parentheses).
Susan Ogden describes some of the specific clinical and relationship issues that can arise when social media is used to contact birth mothers and adoptees. She peppers her talk throughout with recommendations and advice regarding preparation for contact and management of the ongoing contact. The entire presentation is just over an hour long and well-worth listening to. Although the presentation is for an audience primarily of adoption practitioners, the recommendations are of equal value for adoptive parents and birth families.
Susan Ogden thinks there are probably thousands of adoptions where contact has been opened up by Facebook. many of which are probably going well and may have found their own path to grow relationship. We see the ones that are problematic and have turned to us for help. So they are probably not representative of the majority.
She uses 4 case studies, which cover typical scenarios, to illustrate her talk.
- In case 1 an adoptee (A) contacts their birth mother (BM) on Facebook and the BM contacts the agency to find out what to do.
- In case 2 a BM contacts the A via Facebook. The adoptive parent (AP) is very distressed and contacts the agency.
- In case 3 an A wrote a letter to his Birth Parent (BP). A lot of the relationship is managed via Facebook.
- In case 4 the adoptive mother (AM) declares to the agency her intention to use Facebook to find the BM.
In all 4 cases the adoptive family-birth family relationships have been compromised.
Preparation for initial contact
- Have enough real information and documented contact from the start of the adoption to create enough of a context for a relationship to occur. (This reminded me of a point made by Helen Oakwater in her book “Bubble-wrapped Children” about the need to have detailed truthful information in life story books etc.).
- It’s important for the birth mother/parents and adoptive parents to stay in alignment regarding contact goals, protocols and boundaries. Lack of alignment between the parties leads to disappointment and distress. Parent to parent management of the ongoing relationship should be promoted.
- Preparation for initial contact is all important and takes several forms.
- the agency process should include reaching out to BM and doing an assessment prior to contact to see where she is and whether she wants contact.
- It can be hard for BM to not respond to Facebook approach when they are uneasy about it because they do not want to reject the child again.
- The family history and all extended siblings and relatives should be mapped out.
- An initial face-to-face meeting between BM, AP and agency (where possible) can be positive, and preferably should be followed up with series of meetings.
- It’s important to recruit the BM as an ally in the contact process. Also to have the BM’s social worker involved in the process if possible, and to ascertain the BM’s sources of support.
- Initial plans for post-adoption contact should routinely include agreements about contact via the Internet, social media and SMS text-messaging.
- Discuss the issue of BM or others posting they are in contact on facebook. It’s best to keep the circle small to start with.
- Adoptive parents and birth parents should reflect on and perhaps rethink their own social networking behaviour prior to contact.
- It’s important for adoptive parents to learn about social media use and privacy settings for themselves, preferably before contact occurs.
- Adoptive parents should discuss contact including Internet contact with each other before it occurs.
- It’s important to see contact as the start of a long-term journey.
- Adooptive parents should recognise that the birth mother is a stranger and should not make promises to their adoptee about meeting her. The birth mother may tun out to be a negative or harmful influence on the adoptee.
- The fantasies and expectation of each contact member should be explored in initial meetings. The adoptive and birth parents may have little in common – it’s a kinship of strangers. Critical questions include what happens if you don’t like your child / birth parent? (Have a plan for limiting or terminating contact).
- It’s important to have a strong agreement in place from the start, and then to progress slowly.
- The overall goal is to normalise the relationship with BM as a new adult influence, like any other. Work out with BM what kind of relationship she can have with A. What kind of role? eg., helpful aunt, big sister, etc. Having a relationship goal is a good idea and helps to avoid negative influence. A needs to work out their relationship / role to BM. Remember that attachment with BM or a coparenting scenario are unlikely.
- It’s important to create communication protocols with the child. eg., how often to text or message. Establish rules about eg., posting photos on Facebook (who, when, what). Also how often to contact the agency etc.
- Should adoptive parent have access to child’s social media accounts. Should they monitor them. (Consider setting up a private Facebook group).
Managing the online relationship.
- Communication should begin with the adults first, and the adults should set the boundaries around the communication.
- Start small and slowly (offline as well as online). Get to know each other (like a normal acquaintanceship process). Constrain the communication to the birth mother before extending it out to other family members.
- it can take up to seven years to develop a normalized relationship with a BM if there has not been ongoing contact. so start slow and follow normal acquaintanceship process.
- Texting (instant messaging) is a potential problem because it can be hidden from the adoptive parent.
- Recognise that Facebook is a very immediate communication, that it can promote an idealized relationship.
- Have mutual respect for boundaries to the communication and relationship.
- Be prepared that the birth mother can undermine the adoptive parents, and that the adoptive parents can push away their adoptee as they push away from the birth mother.
- Explore alternative communication methods which may work better than using Facebook. eg, use email, a website or blog. (consider setting up a private Facebook group for adoption members only).
- Agencies could explore setting up their own platform/server for exchanging photos etc..
- Try to avoid spontaneous messaging.
- Be prepared for the main heat of the relationships to be with the siblings.
- Keep track of the adoptees social media accounts. Be aware of the issue of multiple social media accounts.
- If communication goes significantly outside the contact agreement, bring it back to the agreement (be open to mutually revising the terms of the communication agreement if appropriate).
- Maintain regular communication with the agency to work through the issues.
Additional notes specific for agencies
- Initial contact with social worker or agency about search and contact is often not by BM but by a relative, but BM needs to contact agency for information and preparation for contact.
- Try to advise families about contact through Internet / social media about the need to create safety and boundaries around contact. Preferably before it happens.
- Any parent will be worried about a new adult influence on their child. thatss how we normalize it to AP and BM.
- Develop questionnaires and protocols for exploring the fantasies and expectations of all parties about the relationship.
Susan Ogden (2013) “My Birth Mother Friended Me!” Adoptive Family Relationships in the Social Networking Era. 5th Rudd New Worlds of Adoption Conference: Contact between adoptive & Birth Parents – What Works? 11-12 April 2013. UMASS Amherst. Link to conference archive.
Susan Ogden is the former Director of the domestic infant adoption programme at Adoptions Together. She is an adoptive mother.