Helping adopted children to understand who they are

The Letterbox scheme helps birth parents and adopted children to make contact with each other and learn about each other. But nationally, adoption figures are falling. Jeni Harvey reports.

“SOMEBODY once told me that, if you look at a picture of a child and feel nothing, then feelings won’t grow. You have to feel something for that child from the very start”, confides Jackie Lumbers.

As the co-ordinator of the “Letterbox” scheme at Doncaster Council’s adoption service, Ms Lumbers arranges for letters and photographs to be sent between birth parents and adoptive families until the children turn 18.

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She admits that the role, which she has held for the last three years, can be “emotional, but very rewarding.”

“I recently passed on a letter from adoptive parents asking if their daughter had been christened”, the 48-year-old said.

“She had been asking them and they didn’t know. Via the Letterbox scheme the birth parents soon replied to say yes, she had, and gave the details.

“The great benefit of the scheme is children don’t have to grow up wondering where they have come from.”

Like other authorities throughout the country, Doncaster is currently looking for more prospective adoptive parents to come forward.

This week is National Adoption Week, which officials at the authority say makes for a particularly apt time for people to think about whether adoption is something they could do.

Nationally, adoption figures are falling and thousands of children who long to find a home remain in local authority care.

According to the most recent figures from the charity Adoption UK there were 65,520 children in local authority care in England on March 31 this year – a two per cent increase on 2010 figures.

In the year to March 31 2011, 3,050 children in England were adopted – a decrease of five per cent on the previous year.

The average age of children at adoption was three years 10 months.

“Older children are more difficult to place”, Mrs Lumbers said.

“I think most adopters come in preferring to get a child as young as they can. That’s natural.

“Some of them might not be able to have their own babies for whatever reason, so it’s the nearest thing they’re going to get to a baby.”

There are currently 270 children registered with the Letterbox scheme in Doncaster, which has been running for the last six years.

Letters, cards, and sometimes photographs from a child’s adoptive family are sent to the Adoption Support Service and then passed on to named birth relatives.

Birth families can also send their news and photographs to the child and their adoptive family.

For each child there is an agreement that details what sort of things will be sent and how often.

Usually letters are exchanged once a year until the child is 18, at which point they can decide about any contact they want to have from then on.

Part of Mrs Lumbers’ role is to advise families, and she has helped many birth parents to establish contact.

She said: “Birth parents don’t always realise that the service is there to help them, that they are a major part of the process.

“It can take a while for birth parents to start taking part in the scheme – sometimes three to four years – as they come to terms with their child being adopted.

“It might be that something triggers their first contact such as their life moving on, finally tackling a drink or drug problem, or going on to have another child.”

Mrs Lumbers often helps birth parents to write letters, as many of them can struggle to say what they would like.

“Quite often, particularly with the popularity of email and text, people have forgotten how to write a letter”, she said.

“They’ll ring me up and ask for my help. It’s not easy for some people to put into words what they want to say to the child, but getting it right is so important to the future success of the contact.”

Mrs Lumbers reads all letters from both birth parents and adoptive parents, checking that the information contained isn’t likely to upset either family and doesn’t reveal any confidential information.

She also encourages adopters to let her know if any particular information in a letter upsets their child so she can check for anything similar next time.

Every letter – even those which have to be altered – is scanned into the system and becomes available to the child once they turn 18.

Mrs Lumbers says she believes there are great advantages of there being contact between birth and adoptive families.

“The more you don’t tell children, the more they will want to know”, she said.

“It’s best to feed them information as they are growing up rather than them having to try to absorb it all in one go when they reach 18.

“When a child doesn’t have information they can build up an image of someone and place them on a pedestal and can then be very disappointed.

“They need as true a picture as possible, without being cruel, but can’t let them have rose-tinted glasses.

“There is also the danger that they will resent their adoptive parents for hiding things.”

The Letterbox scheme also paves the way for children to decide at 18 what contact they want with their birth relatives.

“Attitudes to adoption and the secrecy that used to surround it have changed greatly over the last few years”, said Claire Holmes, adoption manager at Doncaster Council.

“From talking to adults who were adopted, we now know how important it is to be open about adoption from the start, and for there to be no surprises for adults when they grow up.

“We want children, as far as possible, to grow up with the knowledge that they are adopted and how and why they came to be adopted.”

The authority is now looking for potential adopters from across the region to get in touch.

Ms Holmes added: “We’re looking for more adoptive parents across Yorkshire – not just in Doncaster – as sometimes children need to be placed away from their birth parents or other relatives.

“Anyone who lives within a reasonable travelling distance of Doncaster can apply.”

For details call 01302 737366.

Adoption facts and figures

FIGURES from Adoption UK show that, of the 3,050 children adopted in 2010/11, just two per cent were under a year old and three per cent were aged between 10 and 15.

Eighty-four per cent of adopted children were classed as white British, while 10 per cent were mixed race, two per cent were Asian and two per cent were black.

Almost three-quarters of children were placed for adoption due to abuse or neglect.

When it comes to adoptive families, 91 per cent of children were adopted by two people and just nine per cent by a single parent.

A huge 82 per cent of adopters were married. Four per cent were adopted by gay couples.