Adopted people who don’t know much about their original backgrounds can sometimes feel they don’t really know who they are and this feeling can surface at different times throughout their lives. Nowadays, appropriate contact is encouraged to mitigate this situation and most adoptive families will find this contact comes through the Letterbox system.
The Letterbox system is an exchange of information in the form of a letter and sometimes photographs that usually takes place once or twice a year between the adoptive family and the birth parent.
The arrangements for this service are agreed before the child joins you, put in writing and signed by all concerned. Most arrangements are voluntary and represent an undertaking made in good faith by the parties. Once the arrangements for news-sharing via the Letterbox Service have been agreed, a clear statement of these arrangements is sent to both or all parties for confirmation. At agreed times each year, adoptive parents send in a progress report or newsletter about their adopted child, often with a photograph, for the attention of the Letterbox service. This may be once or twice a year, occasionally more often. This news is then sent on to the agreed birth relatives. If agreed, return news from birth relatives will be sent in reply to your news.
Adopted people can also feel upset by learning much later in life that they have brothers or sisters born to their own birth parents or they can be concerned by not knowing what happened to their birth parents over the years. These factors and the knowledge that birth parents frequently feel unresolved anguish and concern have led to a belief that greater openness between birth families and adoptive families can help everyone.
In more and more cases, children adopted nowadays will have memories of their birth families and a sense of some connection to them whatever the reasons for becoming adopted. The exchange of news using the Letterbox service helps to reduce this sense of loss and confusion. It is an excellent way of helping children whose lives have been disrupted to maintain a coherent sense of themselves and to develop an integrated sense of identity which is very important to their long-term health.
This indirect written contact is now a well-established feature of adoption. At first, people who are adopting a child often feel some anxiety about their own security when considering the Letterbox service but they need to consider the potential benefits to their child in the longer term and to most adoptive parents, anything that benefits their child’s long-term sense of identity and emotional health is welcomed.
In many cases, an adopted child may have brothers and sisters living elsewhere and if direct meetings aren’t appropriate, the Letterbox service is an important way of staying in touch. It is also a source of information that can assist adoptive parents for example, if a birth parent developed a health problem that may have implications for the adopted child.
Information given to adoptive parents at the time of the adoption can quickly become out of date and they may appreciate being able to update their knowledge as time goes on using the information from Letterbox. How much information is shared with the child, and when it is shared, are decisions made by the adoptive parents. While much of the information exchanged is positive and reassuring, there may be times when the information to be exchanged is difficult, perhaps painful.
Most birth relatives, whatever their circumstances or past actions, value receiving information about the child’s progress and like to learn about how a child is progressing at school, their health and how they are developing.
Most adoptive parents find there is a great deal to say about their child. However, the areas to cover in a newsletter are whatever you think is likely to help a birth parent or relative keep in touch with your child’s progress and to help them to be reassured that the child is well cared for. Comments from birth parents show that they particularly appreciate knowing something of the following…
Will I be reminded when my letter is due?
Not unless you specifically request this to be done in the beginning. We will remind you however if an update is not received in the due month. Each case has a unique reference number and if you have been sent this it is helpful if it is quoted.
What if the birth relative doesn’t reply?
There can be many reasons why birth relatives do not write, for example, literacy skills, emotional pressures, unresolved grief or anger. They may still however value your letters. The Letterbox Administrator will let you know if there is a problem passing the letter on, for example if the birth relative has not kept us informed of a change of address. However, it is not uncommon for birth parents to get back in touch after a period of time and we can then pass on any news kept on file for them.
If unexpected or unsolicited items arrive for us, will they be kept or sent on?
We will contact you to discuss what you would like to happen, but generally unsuitable letters or unsolicited cards, photos and gifts are returned to the birth relative. However, if you do not wish to accept agreed letters, photos or cards from birth relatives these will be kept on file for the child to access if they wish to see their file post-18.
Will you read/copy our update?
All items sent in to the Letterbox Service are seen by the Letterbox Administrator to check that nothing identifying or inappropriate is written or sent on. Copies are made and kept on file. However, as there are hundreds of Letterbox agreements it is not usually possibly for the screening to take into account the child’s individual history or circumstances.
How do you explain the Letterbox contact to your child?
When your child is very young, one of the most important longer-term issues is to plan when and how you will explain to your child that you regularly send news to birth relatives. This situation is similar to explaining about adoption itself. You should have had advice on ways of doing this, including the use of storybooks which explain an adopted child’s experiences. It is a natural next step to also explain that you write regularly to let birth relatives know how they have been getting on. Some older children may like to write or send a drawing to go with the newsletter or help to choose photographs to send. They may also like to know what you are writing. Receiving news from birth relatives fits into this same pattern of sharing information with your child. Sometimes it may include news that they will find difficult, such as their birth mother having another child and being able to care for that child herself. The urge to protect an adopted child from painful news, such as the death of a close birth relative also needs your consideration. Timing can be a matter of your choice but as with other difficult news, the longer you keep it back the more it turns into a secret difficult to disclose. When children eventually find out they are not usually pleased that such news was kept from them. If you can develop openness in explaining all the facts of adoption to your child, the sharing of news of any kind becomes much more natural and less of a hurdle to overcome.
What happens if things change?
Over time things may develop and change and we recognise that your views may shift. We are able to review and revise your Letterbox arrangements for you if requested but this will need negotiating with birth relatives to everyone’s satisfaction. If they wish to propose a change, we will approach you about this. If no agreement for change is reached, it is expected that the original agreement will continue unless, following an assessment by the Adoption Support Team, this is not considered to be in the best interests of the child.