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Understanding Contact with Birth Parents: Truth and Meaning. Contact. Consider the contact that occurs between the child in a permanent placement and the birth parents from whom he/she was compulsorily removed because of maltreatment. Is the orthodox position on contact based on a mistake?.

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Consider the contact that occurs between the child in a permanent placement and the birth parents from whom he/she was compulsorily removed because of maltreatment.

Is the orthodox position on contact based on a mistake?

contact and harm
Contact and harm

Contact can be harmful to the child even when it appears to be going well or well enough, and even when the child wants it and wants more of it.

Apparently good contact can be harmful.



'There is, as yet, no evidence that lack of contact has inevitable negative consequences for children or that its presence usually brings benefits.'

David Quinton & Julie Selwyn (2006), 'Adoption: Research, Policy and Practice', Child and Family Law Quarterly, 18(4), pp. 459-77.

open closed











open adoption

Open adoption means either:

1. The child knows that he is adopted, and usually knows some facts about birth parents, birth family and about the reasons for removal from them.

2. In addition to 1, the child has indirect or direct contact with birth parents or other birth relatives.

Open Adoption
why contact

“ . . . Contact, particularly face-to-face contact, provides children and families with the chance to share information, keep up-to-date, gain knowledge, and hear feelings without the filter of time or third parties. The more people know about each other, the greater their understanding, tolerance and compassion is likely to be. This is fertile ground for the growth of strong, young minds and well-adjusted adults.”

Neil and Howe (2004) Contact in Adoption and Permanent Foster Care: Research, Theory, Practice, pp. 252-3.

Why contact?
preparing and assessing prospective adopters dept for education and skills 2006 practice guidance

33:Generally, prospective adopters find contact difficult, especially if they associate the child's neglect or harm with the child's birth family. If contact is explained and they come to see it from the child's perspective, they are more likely to cope with some form of contact.

Preparing and Assessing Prospective Adopters, Dept. for Education and Skills, 2006.Practice Guidance
practice guidance cont

35: A prospective adopter's anxieties about contact and reluctance to support it could motivate them to deny the significance of the child's past. The practitioner should decide whether this view might change with the help of further preparation. This might include talking to adopted adults and to experienced adopters about the value of contact. Where fears relate instead to the practicalities of contact, then the practitioner should explain how these can be managed and supported by the prospective adopter and the agency.

Practice Guidance cont.

Macaskill: Safe Contact? Children in permanent placement and contact with their birth relatives. 2002.

Argent, ed.: Staying Connected: Managing Contact Arrangements in Adoption. 2002. BAAF

Neil & Howe, eds.: Contact in Adoption and Permanent foster Care: Research, Theory and Practice. 2004. BAAF

arguments for contact
Arguments for Contact



Loss and emotional well-being

Prevention of later shocks


The biological connection that the adopted person has with the birth family is unalterable. And knowing who one is involves much more than knowing about one's genetic heritage. As identity consists in a sense of belonging, so the adopted person has a complex identity problem: to identify with two families. To deprive the adopted person of enough information about, as well as enough experience of, the birth parents and birth family, in order to achieve a sense of belonging with them, is to deprive the adopted person of that which is necessary to become a well-rounded adult with a secure self-respect.


The later adopted child will inevitably have strong feelings about members of the birth family and will long for some or many of them. These longings will interfere with the forming of secure relationships with the adoptive parents and family. Regular contact, especially face-to-face meetings, will give the child a realistic explanation of what has happened, and will help resolve any difficulties with the birth parents. The child will then be able to come to terms with the past and so be able to make good relationships in the new family.

loss and emotional well being
Loss and Emotional Well-Being

As every child should be raised by the birth parents, children in permanent placements experience a pervasive sense of loss. Contact can ameliorate the loss by degrees, and face-to-face meetings are the most powerful means of gradually reducing the painful feelings of loss. The child in regular contact will not have to feel rejected or abandoned by the birth parents but rather know that he is still loved by them – all important for the child's self-esteem.

prevention of later shocks
Prevention of Later Shocks

The child who has little information about the birth parents will likely form inaccurate, idealised pictures of them. Many adopted persons search for their birth parents, often in late adolescence. This can lead to disturbing experiences when the hopes of the adopted person are not realised. So the adopted person who has a sense of connection with the birth parents, who has adequate knowledge of them, who – best of all – remains acquainted with them will be protected from suffering the the effects of traumatic revelations.

the assumption
The Assumption

“Unless adoptive parents can find ways to help their children feel positive about their origins, these youngsters are likely to have more problems with self-esteem and identity.”

the assumption cont
The Assumption cont.

“Parents must always remember that to feel worthy as a human being, their child needs to feel valued – even by the birth parents who did not want or could not care for them . . . Translating a child's adverse history into information that is supportive of positive self-esteem and psychological growth can be a challenging task for adoptive parents.”

David M. Brodzinsky (2005), 'Reconceptualizing Openness in Adoption: Implications for Theory, Research, and Practice' in D. Brodzinsky & J. Palacios (Eds.) Psychological Issues in Adoption: Research and Practice, London: Praeger, pp. 145-66.

the mistake
The Mistake

The assumption that healthy, secure identity consists in positive regard is a mistake. Certainly, aspects of identity are derived from what one is positive about, what one values. But, equally, aspects of identity are also derived from what one is negative about, from what one finds objectionable, contemptible, hateful, disgusting, or simply alien.

meaning of contact
Meaning of contact

Life-story books


Letters, cards


Social meetings

secondary harm
Secondary harm

The conviction that identity and self-esteem consist in positive regard determines contact of a certain kind. Accordingly, contact should be positive, help the child to feel positive about the birth parents guilty of maltreatment. So how can the child not help but think that he was removed from birth parents because he himself was at fault, or that he was not good enough. The consequence is that the child is led to have profoundly disturbing, erroneous beliefs about himself and his central relationships, which are bound to have pervasive, detrimental effects on emotional development and on making a good attachment to the new parents and family.


What I am claiming:

The conviction that healthy identity and self-esteem depend on the child having a positive view of birth parents guilty of maltreatment promotes contact that is mendacious.

the arguments reconsidered
The Arguments Reconsidered



Loss and emotional well-being

Prevention of later shocks


In cases of early maltreatment, contact – the very thing that is meant to diminish the effects of harm – can be the cause of harm whenever it is mendacious.

Contact can be a good thing only if it aims at the truth.

leloxterkamp@aol com

Lorne Loxterkamp (2009), 'Contact and Truth:The Unfolding Predicament in Adoption and Fostering', Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 423-35.