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British Journal of Social Work (2009) 39, 5–23

doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcm087 Advance Access publication August 8, 2007

Post-Adoption Contact and Openness in Adoptive Parents’ Minds: Consequences for Children’s Development
Elsbeth Neil
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Elsbeth Neil is a senior lecturer in social work at the University of East Anglia. She has been carrying out research into adopted children’s contact with their birth relatives since 1996. She is currently directing a study investigating adoption support services for birth relatives and postadoption support for contact. Correspondence to Elsbeth Neil, BSc, MA, DipSw, Ph.D., Centre for Research on the Child and Family, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK. E-mail:

This paper explores openness in adoption on two levels: what contact children were having with their birth family (structural openness) and the openness of adoptive parents when it comes to thinking and talking about adoption (communicative openness). Children placed for adoption under the age of four years were followed up an average of six years postplacement. In-depth interviews were carried out with adoptive parents and parents completed the child behaviour checklist (CBCL). Children having face-to-face contact with their adult birth relatives were compared with those where the contact plan was letterbox contact. The communicative openness of adoptive parents was rated using a qualitative coding system. Adoptive parents involved in face-to-face contact arrangements were found to be more communicatively open than parents involved in letterbox contact. Children’s emotional and behavioural development was not related to either the type of contact that they were having with their birth families or the communicative openness of their adoptive parents. It is suggested that further follow-up of this sample in adolescence (using a range of outcomes) is required. This research suggests that social workers need to remain open-minded about the possible impact of contact on children, resisting blanket predictions of either help or harm. Keywords: adoption, families, communication, parenting, open adoption

Questions about how contact with birth relatives might affect adopted children’s development are of great concern to practitioners in social work and

© The Author 2007. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.

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law, as well as to adoptive parents and birth families. Most children now adopted in England and Wales are planned to have some form of contact with members of their birth family (Parker, 1999; Neil, 2000), although, in the majority of cases, this is likely to take the form of mediated written exchanges, as opposed to face-to-face meetings. There is some caution about face-to-face contact amongst professionals (Neil, 2002a), adoptive parents (Smith and Logan, 2004) and the general public (Miall and March, 2005). Anxieties about such contact tend fall into two main areas; first, that contact might confuse the child or stop him or her settling in their new family and, second, that it might undermine adoptive parents’ sense of entitlement. For children who have been abused or neglected, there is the additional worry about continuing to expose the child to damaging influences or further harm. The ‘deterrent’ argument, that adoptive parents do not like birth family contact and that this issue may put them off adopting altogether, is also put forward (Jolly, 1994). The results of empirical studies about the impact of contact on children are mixed (e.g. Neil and Howe, 2004a) and comparisons of different types of openness do not support a ‘one size fits all’ policy (Grotevant et al., 2005). Studies typically report satisfaction amongst those who have experience of more open arrangements, but evidence about whether or how contact influences children’s development is less clear (for reviews, see Quinton et al., 1997; Brodzinsky et al., 1998; Grotevant and McRoy, 1998; Quinton and Selwyn, 1998; Neil, 2003a; Neil and Howe, 2004a; Smith and Logan, 2004). Finding empirical answers to questions about the outcomes of contact after adoption is frustrated by significant methodological challenges (Quinton et al., 1997). To begin with, what is meant by contact after adoption? The type, frequency, duration and management of contact all need to be considered, as does the type of birth relative involved. These are all variations of what Brodzinsky (2005) calls ‘structural openness’. Looking for a relationship between contact arrangements and child outcomes is also complicated by the need to take into account all the other factors likely to affect the developmental pathway of an individual child. These include the myriad of pre-adoption risk factors including the child’s genetic heritage, pre-birth risk factors such as exposure to drugs or alcohol in the womb, experiences of early harm such as abuse, neglect or multiple placement moves. They also include post-placement factors such as family structure and size, adoptive parenting, educational opportunities and availability of specialist support services. To add further to this intricacy, Brodzinsky (2005) argues that the key consideration ought not to be structural openness, but the attitude and behaviour of adoptive parents with regards to talking and thinking about adoption—what he terms ‘communicative openness’. He suggests that communicative openness ‘reflects the general attitudes, beliefs, expectations, emotions, and behavioural inclinations that people have in relation to adoption. It includes, among other things, a willingness of individuals to consider the meaning of adoption in their lives, to share that meaning with others, to explore adoption related issues in the context of family life, to acknowledge and support the child’s dual connection

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Contact and Openness in Adoptive Parents’ Minds 7

to two families, and perhaps to facilitate contact between these two family systems in one form or another’ (Brodzinsky, 2005, p. 149). Building on the wider research about parenting, which has generally demonstrated that family process variables are more predictive of outcomes than family structure variables, he suggests that ‘regardless of whether a child grows up in a traditionally closed or open adoption arrangement, what is primary for healthy psychological adjustment is the creation of an open, honest, nondefensive, and emotionally attuned family dialogue not only about adoption related issues but in fact about any issue that impacts on the child’s and family’s life’ (Brodzinsky, 2005, p. 151). Implicit in Brodzinsky’s theory is the suggestion that communicative openness is not an adoption specific feature of parenting, but that it is likely to be underpinned by relatively fixed personality characteristics which he summarizes as an ‘open, empathic and secure personality style’ (Brodzinsky, 2005, p. 153). To test his hypothesis that the communicative openness of parents would be linked to developmental advantages for children, Brodzinsky studied sixtyseven children (aged eight to thirteen years, mean age eleven years) who were all adopted under the age of eighteen months, with a mean age at placement of 3.65 months (Brodzinsky, 2006). Adoption communication openness was measured using a new fourteen-item child self-report questionnaire. The questionnaire looked at both the extent to which children experienced their parents as open and sensitive when talking about adoption, and the child’s own comfort when discussing adoption with their parents. Higher scores on this instrument, representing higher levels of communication openness (at least from the child’s point of view), were related to lower levels of child behaviour problems as measured using the parent report Child Behaviour Checklist (Achenbach, 1991), and higher self-esteem in children, measured using the Self-Perception Profile for Children (Harter, 1985). The Family Structural Openness Inventory—a twenty-item true/false questionnaire answered by adoptive parents—was developed to quantify structural openness. This measured the extent of contact between the adoptive family and birth family, with higher scores representing greater structural openness. Scores on this measure did not correlate with child outcomes independent of communicative openness. Brodzinsky was not surprised to find modest correlations between structural and communicative openness, arguing that structurally open placements are likely to facilitate greater communication about adoption. He also suggested the possibility that this relationship between the two variables ‘derives, in part, from a common association with parental characteristics that leads one to choose and embrace openness in adoption’ (Brodzinsky, 2006, p. 14). In discussing the limitations of his study, Brodzinsky argues that his results may not be generalizible to later placed children, especially where there is a history of abuse and neglect. He also points out that children and parents frequently differ in their views about the extent of communication in the family about adoption. Brodzinsky’s recent work reviews, builds on and draws together the work of many other authors who have commented on the importance of communication

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about adoption, beginning with the seminal work of Kirk (e.g. Kirk, 1964; McWhinnie, 1967; Jaffee and Fanshel, 1970; Triseliotis, 1973; Raynor, 1980; Stein and Hoopes, 1985; Kaye, 1990; Wrobel et al., 2003). Brodzinsky’s work fits a general move towards thinking about ‘when’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ contact might work or not work, as opposed to ‘if’ contact works, and of considering the multitude of reciprocal interpersonal processes that take place between adoptive parents, birth relatives and adopted children. As Grotevant et al. (2005, p. 182) put it, contact is ‘a complex dance in which the roles and needs of the participants change over time, affecting the kinship network as a whole’ (Grotevant et al., 2005, p. 182). Children’s needs and feelings change as they grow, and this can prompt changes in communication patterns within adoptive families (Wrobel et al., 2003). Birth relatives’ feelings about and acceptance of the child’s adoption and their need for contact can change over time and as a result of their experiences of contact (Grotevant and McRoy, 1998; Neil, 2007). In short, contact is a dynamic and transactional phenomenon (Neil and Howe, 2004b). This paper reports findings from a study of sixty-two adoptive parents and their adopted children, relating their communicative openness (as assessed by parents’ interviews) to the type of contact that they were having with their adopted children’s birth families, and to their children’s behavioural development in middle childhood. The earlier work of the author (which focused on face-to-face contact arrangements) looked at the empathy of adoptive parents for birth relatives and for their adopted child (Neil, 2003b). Adoptive parents who were highly empathic in these areas maintained contact even in complex circumstances, coping with (and feeling positive about) birth relatives who might have had difficulties accepting the adoption or who were living with serious problems such as mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction. Adoptive parents who found it harder to see adoption from the point of view of birth relatives or children were likely to give up on contact arrangements easily, even when problems were minor. This earlier paper suggested that adoptive parents’ empathic capacity might be related to underlying personality characteristics such as reflective functioning (Fonagy et al., 1991). The current study builds on this earlier work by expanding the sample to include adoptive parents where the contact plan was for agency-mediated letter contact; by using Brodzinsky’s broader, multidimensional concept of ‘communicative openness’; and by attempting to relate both structural and communicative openness to child behavioural outcomes in middle childhood.

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Ethical approval
Ethical approval for this study was sought and obtained from the relevant departmental ethics committee at the University of East Anglia. Approval for the research was also obtained from the Association of Directors of Social Services and from the individual adoption agencies taking part.

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The sample for this study was participants in the second wave of the longitudinal ‘Contact after Adoption’ study. The study began in 1996 with a social worker-completed questionnaire survey of the situations of 168 children (from ten English adoption agencies), all of whom had been recently adopted or placed for adoption, and were less than four years old at the time of placement for adoption. Eighty-nine per cent of these children were planned to have some form of contact with their birth relatives after adoption. It is primarily from this cohort that interview respondents for the current study were recruited. In the first phase of the study (1996–2000), interview data were obtained from the adoptive parents of thirty-five children, and nineteen birth relatives of fifteen children, all of whom were involved in face-to-face contact arrangements. The second wave of the study (2000–04) sought to re-interview the sample of families having face-to-face contact and to interview for the first time a similar number of families where the contact plan at the time of placement was for agency-mediated letter contact (referred to subsequently as ‘letter contact’) between birth relatives and adoptive parents. Participants were sought from the original cohort of 168 cases, and from two additional adoption agencies (employing the original criteria of children placed for adoption under age four in the 1996–7 time period). Adoptive parents, adopted children and birth relatives were all interviewed; this paper focuses on the adoptive parent interviews. Respondents were interviewed at home, unless they preferred a different venue. One interview was conducted by telephone and all others in person. From the twelve participating agencies, 189 eligible adoptive families were identified. Adoptive parents who had previously taken part in the study were contacted directly; in all other cases, agencies were asked to pass on information from the research team. However, in twenty-six cases (all letter contact), the agency did not send on the invitation, usually because they had no current address and, in some cases, because they were aware that no post-adoption contact was taking place. Table 1 shows the response rate in the 163 cases in which invitations were sent, in total and according to whether the family was in the ‘face-to-face’ or ‘letter contact’ group. Comparing families planned to have face-to-face contact with those in which the plan was letter contact, there were striking differences both in the ability of agencies to contact families and in the responses from the families themselves.

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Table 1 Invitations sent to potential participants, and their response to these Eligible cases Face-to-face contact Letter contact 36 153 Invitation sent 36 127 Positive reply 29 (81%) 33 (26%) Negative reply 0 37 (29%) No reply 7 (19%) 57 (45%)

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These response rates suggest that the sample of adoptive parents interviewed may not be representative of the wider group of adoptive parents planned to be involved in letter contact arrangements: where agencies have no up-to-date contact details, they cannot facilitate letter contact. The sample may therefore be biased towards cases in which some form of letter contact was ongoing at the time of follow-up, as opposed to cases in which planned contact had never started, or had stopped. Of the sixty-two adoptive families that took part, fifty-four were twoparent families, and eight were headed by lone mothers (three were single mothers, three had been widowed since the adoption, and two had divorced). In about half of the two-parent families, mothers and fathers were jointly interviewed. One father took part on his own but, in all other cases, it was just the mother who was interviewed (usually because the father was at work). For the current analysis, one index child (randomly selected) per family was identified. Of these sixty-two children, thirty-nine (63 per cent) were male and twenty-three (37 per cent) were female. The mean age at placement for adoption was twenty-two months (range one to fifty-six). Seventy per cent had been adopted from public care. The rest had been placed at their parents’ request, often in complex circumstances. Some of this latter group had also been looked after in the care system. At the time of follow-up, the mean age of the children was 8.5 years (range five to thirteen), and they had lived in their adoptive family on average for six years. Three of the children were of dual heritage, each having one white parent and one parent of mixed white/ African-Caribbean origin. The remaining fifty-nine children were white, as were all the adoptive parents.

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Research questions and hypotheses
Key questions were as follows: 1 2 3 What is the relationship between structural openness and communicative openness? Does contact type (structural openness) affect adopted children’s behavioural development? Does communicative openness affect adopted children’s behavioural development?

Our hypotheses were as follows: 1 That communicative openness and structural openness could act independently, but that there was likely to be some overlap because communicatively open parents would be more likely to opt into, or readily agree to, face-to-face contact arrangements compared with parents who were less communicatively open.

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2 3

That structural openness would not affect child outcomes, independent of communicative openness. That high levels of communicative openness would lead to better child outcomes.

In forming these latter two hypotheses we also recognized the need to take into account risks in the child’s pre-placement history which may also have a bearing on their developmental outcomes.

Data collection: adoptive parent interviews
A semi-structured interview schedule was used. This invited adoptive parents to talk in as much detail as they wished about the following areas: the reasons why they adopted; their child’s pre-placement history; the child’s progress and their relationship with him or her; their feelings about postadoption contact and their experiences of such contact—including their feelings about birth relatives; and patterns of communication about adoption within the adoptive family. Most interviews lasted a minimum of two hours and all were taped and fully transcribed. The whole of the adoptive parent interview was used to rate communicative openness and structural openness (see below).
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Rating communicative openness
Starting with Brodzinsky’s (2005) definition of communicative openness, a rating scale was developed by the author, Julie Young the project research associate, and Professor Hal Grotevant from the University of Minnesota. Brodzinsky’s construct of communicative openness was broken down into five constituent dimensions. The five dimensions included are outlined below, with brief excerpts from the codebook included for illustration.
Communication with the adopted child about adoption This is about the adoptive parent’s willingness to talk about adoption related issues with their child and the extent to which they promote a climate of openness within the adoptive family about adoption related issues. It takes into account the extent to which the parent is emotionally attuned to the child as an individual who has his or her own feelings about communication about adoption. Comfort with, and promotion of, dual connection This scale has three elements: the adoptive parent’s personal comfort with the reality that the child is also connected to another family (the birth family); the value or importance they attach to the child’s connection with birth family;

12 Elsbeth Neil and the extent to which they take steps to encourage or promote the child’s connection to birth family. Empathy for the adopted child This is about the extent to which the adoptive parent is willing to consider and is comfortable with the full range of the child’s feelings (or potential to have feelings) about being adopted, e.g. feelings of loss, rejection, love, loyalty, fear, anxiety, identity confusion, including being able to tolerate feelings in the child that are experienced as negative or threatening to the parent. Communication with the birth family This dimension looks at the adoptive parent’s attitude towards communication/contact with the birth family (regardless of whether any such communication occurs), and, in situations where there is communication, how the adoptive parent behaves and feels about this. Empathy for the birth family This dimension is about the adoptive parent’s capacity to take the perspective of the birth relative. This relates to thinking about the reasons why the child needed to be adopted as well as thinking about the birth relative’s current position and their behaviour in relation to contact.
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Written definitions for the highest and lowest anchor points for these five dimensions were drafted. Ten transcripts were then coded by each rater independently on a five-point scale (1 = low, 5 = high), after which ratings were compared and reviewed. Following this, written descriptions were written for the intermediate points on each scale. Another five cases were then rated independently by each person, and reliability was checked. Descriptions of the five points on each scale were again amended to clear up any issues causing problems with rating. This final version of the communicative openness scale was then used to code all sixty-two cases, each case having a possible score of 5–25. Half of all cases were rated independently by two people, and inter-rater reliability reached the target of 70 per cent accuracy for exact scores and 100 per cent accuracy within one point on each sub-scale. The remaining transcripts were rated by one person, with any unclear cases referred for discussion and rating by consensus. Because mothers and fathers sometimes answered questions differently, it was decided to base ratings of communicative openness on the response of just one parent—in all cases bar one, that of the mother (the exception being the father who took part by himself). The ratings were also specific only to the index child and his or her contact arrangements. When rating empathy for the birth family, it was feelings about the main birth relative involved in contact which were rated. The lowest communicative openness score was 7 and the highest was 25. The mean was 18.6 (sd = 5.63).

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Rating structural openness
Although there was a huge diversity of contact arrangements within the sample, for the purposes of this paper, a dichotomous categorization was used, based on the contact that was happening at the time of follow-up. The ‘face-to-face’ contact group were those children who had a plan to see their adult birth relative and this contact, at the time of follow-up, had included at least one meeting in the past two years. All other children were in the letter or minimal contact group. Face-to-face contact tended to involve birth parents (mothers and fathers) and birth grandparents in roughly equal measures. Letter contact was most commonly planned to take place with birth mothers. Letter contact with fathers was less frequent, and such contact with grandparents was uncommon. Of the sixty-two cases, twenty-five were in the face-to-face contact group and thirty-seven in the letter contact group. Both groups were highly heterogeneous with regards to the extent of contact experienced. Some children in the letter contact group would have had very little or no contact with any birth relatives, or would not be aware of any such contact having taken place, whilst others had an active involvement in two-way letter contact or may even have had face-to-face contact that had stopped. In the face-to-face contact group, some children saw their birth parent or grandparents quite often and a few had overnight visits with them. Other children’s contact was quite erratic or infrequent (usually because of the instability of birth parents’ lives) and, in some cases, it was hard to predict when the next meeting might take place.

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Measuring child outcomes and taking account of pre-placement risks
The child outcome measure used for this analysis was the parent report Child Behaviour Checklist (CBCL) (Achenbach, 1991). This measures children’s emotional and behavioural development and identifies whether children show clinically significant symptoms of internalizing problems, externalizing problems and total problems. Parents returned this completed measure for fiftyfour of the sixty-two children (87 per cent overall, 96 per cent of the face-to-face contact group and 81 per cent of the letter contact group). In 28 per cent of cases (n = 15), the child’s total t-score put them above the clinical cut-off point. Boys had significantly higher total t-scores than girls (60 vs 49, p < 0.001). To try and take account of other factors that might affect children’s development, a system of coding for ‘risk’ was devised. This was based on questionnaire data obtained from social workers around the time the child was placed for adoption. It took into account factors identified in the literature as being associated with poorer developmental outcomes (e.g. Howe, 1998): age at placement, the numbers of changes of main care-giver and the duration and number of types of abuse experienced. The minimum possible score was 0 and the maximum 10. The mean risk score for children in the sample was 4.5 (sd = 3.26). Correlations were carried out between risk scores and internalizing, externalizing

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and total problem t-scores. Externalizing problem t-scores were significantly correlated with risk scores (p = 0.028), but total problem scores and internalizing problem scores were not (p > 0.1).

Communicative openness related strongly to structural openness
Adoptive parents involved in face-to-face contact arrangements had significantly higher communicative openness scores than those involved in letter contact (21.6 vs 16.6, p < 0.001). Table 2 shows the percentage of parents in each of four bands of the communicative openness scoring range. Whilst parents having letter contact scored across the whole range in roughly equal proportions, no parents having face-to-face contact scored in the lowest band and two-thirds were in the highest band.

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Structural openness did not relate to child outcomes
Before looking at whether there was any difference in the CBCL outcomes for children according to what contact they were having, it was considered important to first consider whether the children in these two groups differed from each other in other ways likely to have a bearing on their outcomes. Hence, children in the two contact groups were compared (using t-tests) on age at placement, age at interview and number of pre-placement risks. No significant differences were found on any of these variables. There was also a roughly equal percentage of boys in each group (64 per cent in face-to-face, 62 per cent in letter). Children in the two groups were then compared on their CBCL scores (total t-scores for internalizing, externalizing and total problems). As is shown in Table 3, no significant differences were found.

Communicative openness did not relate to child outcomes
It was predicted that communicative openness would be positively related to child outcomes. However, no correlation was found between communicative
Table 2 Communicative openness scores by contact grouping Communicative openness scores 5–10 11–15 16–20 21–25 Totals Face-to-face contact n = 0 (0%) n = 3 (12%) n = 6 (24%) n = 16 (64%) N = 25 (100%) Letter contact n = 6 (16%) n = 10 (27%) n = 10 (27%) n = 11 (30%) N = 37 (100%)

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Table 3 CBCL scores by contact grouping Face-to-face contact group (N = 24) Total problems t-score (mean) Externalizing problems t-score (mean) Internalizing problems t-score (mean) *p = 0.085; ** p < 0.1. 59 58 54 Letter contact group (N = 30) 53* 54** 51**

openness scores and total problem t-scores (p > 0.1), externalizing problem t-scores (p > 0.1) or internalizing problem t-scores (p > 0.1). In other words, there was no association between the communicative openness of the adoptive parents and the children’s emotional and behavioural development (as measured by the CBCL) in middle childhood. There was no suggestion that communicative openness was having any negative effect, but neither did this aspect of parenting appear to be having the predicted developmental advantages for the children.

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The link between communicative and structural openness
Our first hypothesis was supported: adoptive parents involved in face-to-face contact arrangements had significantly higher communicative openness scores than adoptive parents involved in letter contact arrangements. This could mean that communicatively open adoptive parents opt into face-to-face arrangements, or it could be that communicative openness is promoted by greater structural openness (these explanations are not mutually exclusive). We found support for both of these effects in our interviews with adoptive parents. Although adoption agencies undoubtedly had a significant influence on contact planning, it was quite common for adoptive parents to report some level of choice with regard to the type and level of post-adoption contact that they were prepared to consider (in contrast, most birth relatives reported little choice or control over post-adoption contact plans). In the first phase of this research, two-thirds of adoptive parents involved in face-to-face contact reported either leading the way in determining a face-to-face contact plan or agreeing easily and willingly with such a proposal by the placing agency. A range of initial views about contact were also found amongst parents involved in letter contact arrangements and, again, there were examples of parents’ communicative openness affecting the contact plan that they ended up with. The majority of parents having letter contact said that they would have been, at best, reluctant to consider adopting a child where face-to-face birth family contact was the plan. There was also evidence from interview data that experiences of having contact could alter people’s feelings in relation to the five constituent dimensions

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of communicative openness, and face-to-face contact seemed to have a greater impact than letter contact. In terms of communicating with children about adoption, face-to-face meetings necessitated an open dialogue with the child. Parents needed to talk to their child before and after meetings, and children’s concrete experiences of their birth family often prompted them to ask more questions or open up discussion. Some parents did use letter contact as a platform for talking to children about adoption, but this contact type did not necessitate communication (Neil, 2004a). Some parents having letter contact with the birth family did not actively involve children in letter contact, or even (in some cases) tell them that it was happening (Neil, 2004a). The dimensions of ‘comfort with dual connection’, ‘empathy for the birth family’ and ‘communication with the birth family’ could also be affected by experiences of contact. Adoptive parents involved in face-to-face contact talked of how getting to know the birth relatives as real people had reduced their fears, and had helped them to reach a realistic and sympathetic understanding of birth relatives (Neil, 2003b, 2004b). Face-to-face contact also disconfirmed adoptive parents’ fears about the child ‘preferring’ birth relatives: contact meetings tended to confirm the child’s attachment to adoptive parents (Neil, 2002b, 2004b). In contrast, in letter contact cases, adoptive parents who feared the ‘special bond’ that might exist between a child and their birth family had no opportunity to test this against the reality of contact meetings. Letter contact clearly did, in some cases, have positive effects on adoptive parents, particularly when they had met the birth relatives face to face. In many cases, though, this form of contact was ineffective in creating a genuine communicative dialogue between parties: both adoptive parents and birth relatives talked of how hard it was to communicate in the written medium, with another person they hardly knew, about a highly emotional subject (Neil, 2004a; Young and Neil, 2004). In England and Wales, the 2002 Adoption and Children Act obliges agencies to make post-adoption support plans for every child, and gives adoptive parents, adopted children and birth relatives the right to ask for an assessment of their support needs. Providing support for post-adoption contact is an important opportunity for social workers to facilitate communication between children, adoptive parents and birth relatives, as well as helping all three parties understand and manage their own feelings with regard to adoption. This study suggests that letter contact should not be assumed to be the straightforward option; the support needs of people involved in this type of contact must be carefully considered. To begin with, adoptive parents having this type of contact may be less confident or more defended than those having face-to-face contact: not all will feel secure about and committed to this process. Furthermore, letter contact often does not go to plan, in many cases dwindling or stopping as the years go by, the cessation of contact usually (though not always) starting with the withdrawal of birth parents (Grotevant and McRoy, 1998; Logan, 1999; Neil, 2004a; Selwyn et al., 2006). In such cases, adoptive parents’ communicative openness and their willingness to take part in contact might be

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Contact and Openness in Adoptive Parents’ Minds 17

undermined. Adoptive parents may well value ongoing advice about when and how to involve their child in letter contact, focusing on using contact as a resource for helping the child think and talk about adoption. They may also value advice and support in knowing what to write in letters to the birth family. Supporting birth relatives to stay involved in letter contact should also be a priority.

Contact type and child outcomes
As expected, we did not find that any significant differences in CBCL scores between children having face-to-face contact and those having letter contact; no clear advantages or disadvantages could be seen between these two contact types in terms of the effects on children’s CBCL scores. Whether or not children were emotionally and behaviourally well adjusted was somewhat predicted by their pre-placement experiences but the correlation between risks scores and CBCL outcomes was only statistically significant for externalizing behaviour problems; outcomes were highly heterogeneous and, in many cases, the children’s development defied obvious explanation. This highlights the immense complexity of understanding outcomes in adoption. Children’s development cannot be fully understood by focusing on just one area of influence (in this case, the type of contact arrangement): development is affected by many interrelated biological and environmental factors and an ecological perspective is warranted (Palacios, 2006). A particular challenge in understanding the development of adopted children is the lack of accurate and detailed information about all the possible risk and protective factors. In the current study, social workers frequently indicated that they did not have full or accurate information about whether birth parents (especially birth fathers) had specific mental health problems, learning disabilities or substance misuse problems, and these parental characteristics, which could pose potential genetic risks to children’s development, were not included in the measure of risk. The risk measure also did not take account of possible pre or peri-natal influences on development (e.g. maternal substance misuse or birth complications), as information about these factors was missing for many children. The information about the care that a child received before placement for adoption was limited to the number changes in main carer and presence or absence of abuse or neglect, and these are, at best, crude indicators of the quality of care that a child experienced. Even if more detailed and accurate background information was known, a larger sample may be required to control for all these different variables. What the results of this study do suggest is that general (as opposed to casespecific) fears about face-to-face contact having a detrimental effect on children’s emotional and behavioural development need to be queried, especially for children placed in early childhood. Adoptive parents and children themselves mostly reported face-to-face contact to be a positive or benign experience

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(Neil, 2004b), and such contact appeared to have a positive effect on the ability of birth relatives to adjust to and accept the child’s adoption (Neil, 2007). Faceto-face contact is clearly not advisable for all children: care must be taken in cases in which children have been seriously abused (Macaskill, 2002; Howe and Steele, 2004; Selwyn, 2004; Wilson and Sinclair, 2004). The need to balance security and risk for children is undeniable (Beek and Schofield, 2004), but over-estimating risks may deny children (and the birth family and adoptive parents) a satisfying and valuable experience.

Child outcomes and communicative openness
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The predicted relationship between adoptive parents’ communicative openness and better child adjustment was not found. Although this finding is at odds with Brodzinsky’s results, it is important to remember that whilst this study uses and applies Brodzinsky’s concept of communicative openness, it is not a replication of his empirical work. There are important methodological differences between the two studies in terms of how communicative openness was measured, and a closer look at these differences raises interesting questions. The use of child self-report versus parental interview might account for differences in results. Brodzinsky’s child self-report measure looked at what children say their parents do, and how they feel about this; the scale used in the current study attempted to measure what parents say they do and feel about various aspects of adoption communication. Both of these ways of measuring communicative openness could be criticized for the fact that they do not objectively measure what adoptive parents actually do—only what either the child or the parent says the parents do. Leaving this aside, it is possible that children’s reports of family communication about adoption are more reliable than parents’ reports of their own behaviour: adoptive parents might feel that to be ‘open’ is likely to be seen as ‘better’ and this might have affected their responses to questions. However, this type of defensive responding is arguably more likely when people are asked direct questions with fixed responses, as opposed to the very open and lengthy interviews conducted with parents in this study, in which the whole interview was used to code communicative openness. Even if the rating of communicative openness in this study was influenced by some level of defensive responding, large differences in overall scores between people were found (the range was 7–25), suggesting that the scale does pick up differences in behaviour and attitudes. If it were to be accepted that the rating scale used in this research is measuring real differences between adoptive parents, why do these differences not predict child outcomes in the way that Brodzinsky’s child-based rating did? It could be simply that it is the child’s perception of parental openness that is important, not the parents’ views of their own openness, or even what openness actually occurs. Or, less simply, it might be that it is the fit between what the parents do and what the child wants and needs that is important. It was

Contact and Openness in Adoptive Parents’ Minds 19

clear from our interview data (from both adoptive parents and children) that there are large individual differences between children in terms of their interest in adoption, their feelings about adoption and about members of their birth family, and their wishes and feelings about talking about adoption (Neil, 2006). Endless combinations of parent and child are possible—and child and parents may ‘match’ each other or not: for example, a curious child with open parents may feel that their parents have got openness just right, whereas a child who is angry with their birth parents may feel misunderstood if their adoptive parents keep trying to ‘understand’ or ‘explain’ their birth parents’ actions. Of course, children’s views and feelings about adoption may in part be shaped by their adoptive parents, especially when children are placed at a young age. Similarly, parents’ views and behaviours may be shaped by children, especially when children are placed at older ages and already have strong views about adoption or their birth family. If parents and children mutually influence each other, and these interactions are part of a wider system which includes the whole adoptive family (both parents, siblings and the extended family), the adoption agency and the birth family, then what has been measured in the current research (adoptive parents’ feelings and behaviours at a certain point in time) is not a pure measure of adoptive parents’ underlying psychological characteristics, but the product of how any underlying characteristics of parents have been influenced by those of other relevant people and events. It would be useful for future research to seek empirical evidence of any association between adoptive parent communicative openness and other broader characteristics (e.g. reflective function, attachment security, personality traits), and the scale reported in this paper provides a means for people to do this. It also needs to be remembered that the children in Brodzinsky’s study were on average about three years older than in the current research; for the older group, communication about adoption may have taken on greater interest and significance. Many parents in the current study expressed the view that openness in adoption was not yet affecting their children. Instead, they viewed their current promotion of communication about adoption and their contact with the birth family as an ‘investment’ that would pay dividends in the future. Most children in the study were in the seven-to-nine-year age range and were just beginning to ask rudimentary questions about their adoption: serious identity issues were not being tackled but parents anticipated that they lay in ahead in the teenage years. Child outcomes need to be reconsidered at a later stage in these children’s development. Another key difference between this sample of children and Brodzinsky’s sample is that this sample contained a majority of children who were adopted from care after experiencing abuse and neglect. It could be that some dynamics of openness within adoptive kinship networks operate somewhat differently with children who have experienced trauma in their past. Perhaps, for some children, in order to feel safe and feel that they belong in their adoptive family, they need their adoptive parents to draw a clear, impermeable boundary between the adoptive family and the birth family. There were some examples

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20 Elsbeth Neil

in our study in which children found it very difficult to even think, let alone talk, about their birth parents: they wanted to draw a very firm line between the past and the present. To have an adoptive parent who wholly claims you as theirs and reinforces your view that your birth family have nothing to do with you anymore could feel reassuring for some children, at least in the short term. However, children are likely to have different feelings about and needs to talk about their adoption at different stages in their development (Brodzinsky et al., 1984; Wrobel et al., 2003). A ‘split’ psychological position of seeing the adoptive family as all good and the birth family all bad may prove to be a brittle strategy in the long term. Thoburn (2004) reports how some children in her study had little contact with their birth families and appeared to be well settled for a number of years. However, some of these children underwent dramatic changes in their attitudes towards their birth and adoptive families in adolescence, ‘bursting out’ of their adoptive home and seeking their birth parents. In contrast, children who had explored both positive and negative feelings about their birth family over a number of years had often reached a position of greater equilibrium by adolescence. When considering the finding that neither structural nor communicative openness had an effect on children’s CBCL scores, it is also possible that this was the wrong outcome to measure and that more adoption-specific and qualitative outcomes should be examined. For example, it may be more telling to look at children’s feelings about adoption, their satisfaction with the level of openness in their adoption, their self-esteem in relation to their adoptive status, or their adoptive identity development. Qualitative interview data were collected from forty-three adopted children in this study, and children’s feelings about adoption were examined. The relationship between this coding and adoptive parents’ communicative openness is undergoing further analysis. Another reason why the current study failed to find any correlation between communicative openness and child outcomes could be that the range of parents included in the study was too small. In Brodzinsky’s study, 45 per cent of the adoptive parents had never met the child’s birth parents and had never had any type of contact with them (Brodzinsky, 2006). His data on openness were collected as part of a larger study about adoption adjustment. In contrast, the current study was specifically about post-adoption contact; cases of closed adoption were excluded, and cases in which letter contact was planned but was not taking place were under-represented. Furthermore, adoptive parents may have opted into (or out of) the research on the basis of their communicative openness. It is possible, indeed likely, that an adoptive parent has to be at a certain level in terms of communicative openness before he or she will agree to take part in a research study about openness in adoption. It is possible that all or most of the adoptive parents who took part in the study were communicatively open to a ‘good enough’ extent: the range was simply too limited to demonstrate any effect. Although differences in communicative openness scores between the two groups were significant, the average score of each group was at least moderately high.

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Contact and Openness in Adoptive Parents’ Minds 21

Post-adoption contact, be it by letter or face-to-face meetings, is more than a series of events taking place at intervals. It is a nexus of interconnected processes that take place both within and between individuals, in which how each person feels and behaves can have an impact on how others feel and behave. The research reported in this paper cannot fully capture the complexity of these processes, but does contribute a much needed detailed examination of one part of this system: the adoptive parent perspective on communicative openness. Understanding the contribution that adoptive parents make to these processes can help to elucidate the qualities of contact that might have a bearing on children’s development. The research reported in this paper raises interesting questions for practitioners about recruiting and supporting adoptive parents and supporting post-adoption contact. For researchers, it highlights some of the methodological complexities of trying to examine the relationship between children’s development and post-adoption contact. Accepted: June 2007

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22 Elsbeth Neil Howe, D. (1998) Patterns of Adoption: Nature, Nurture and Psychosocial Development, Oxford, Blackwell Science. Howe, D. and Steele, M. (2004) ‘Contact in cases in which children have been traumatically abused or neglected by their birth parents’, in Neil, E. and Howe, D. (eds), Contact in Adoption and Permanent Foster Care: Research, Theory and Practice, London, British Association for Adoption and Fostering. Jaffee, B. and Fanshel, D. (1970) How They Fared in Adoption: A Follow-Up Study, New York, Colombia University Press. Jolly, S. C. (1994) ‘Cutting the ties: The termination of contact in care’, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 3, pp. 299–311. Kaye, K. (1990) ‘Acknowledgement or Rejection of Difference?’, in Brodzinsky, D. M. and Schechter, M. D. (eds), The Psychology of Adoption, New York, Oxford University Press. Kirk, H. D. (1964) Shared Fate, New York, Free Press. Logan, J. (1999) ‘Exchanging information post-adoption: Views of adoptive parents and birth parents’, Adoption and Fostering, 23(3), pp. 27–37. Macaskill, C. (2002) Safe Contact? Children in Permanent Placement and Contact with their Birth Relatives, Lyme Regis, Russell House Publishing. McWhinnie, A. M. (1967) Adopted Children: How They Grow Up, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul. Miall, C. E. and March, K. (2005) ‘Open adoption as a family form: Community assessments and social support’, Journal of Family Issues, 26, pp. 380–410. Neil, E. (2000) ‘The reasons why young children are placed for adoption: Findings from a recently placed sample and a discussion of implications for subsequent identity development’, Child and Family Social Work, 5(4), pp. 303–16. Neil, E. (2002a) ‘Contact after adoption: The role of agencies in making and supporting plans’, Adoption and Fostering, 26, pp. 25–38. Neil, E. (2002b) ‘Managing face to face contact for young adopted children’, in H. Argent (ed.), Staying Connected: Managing Contact in Adoption, London, British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. Neil, E. (2003a) ‘Adoption and contact: A research review’, in Bainham, A., Lindley, B., Richards, M. and Trinder, L. (eds), Children and their Families: Contact, Rights and Welfare, Oxford, Hart Publishing. Neil, E. (2003b) ‘Understanding other people’s perspectives: Tasks for adopters in open adoptions’, Adoption Quarterly, 6, pp. 3–30. Neil, E. (2004a) ‘The “Contact after Adoption” study: Indirect contact and adoptive parents’ communication about adoption’, in Neil, E. and Howe, D. (eds), Contact in Adoption and Permanent Foster Care: Research, Theory and Practice, London, British Association for Adoption and Fostering. Neil, E. (2004b) ‘The “Contact after Adoption” study: Face-to-face contact’, in Neil, E. and Howe, D. (eds), Contact in Adoption and Permanent Foster Care: Research, Theory and Practice, London, British Association for Adoption and Fostering. Neil, E. (2006) Final Project Report for Nuffield Foundation: Contact with Adult Birth Relatives after Adoption: A Longitudinal Study of Children Aged Under 4 at Placement, Norwich, University of East Anglia. Neil, E. (2007) ‘Coming to terms with the loss of a child: The feelings of birth parents and grandparents about adoption and post-adoption contact’, Adoption Quarterly, 10, pp. 1–23. Neil, E. and Howe, D. (eds) (2004a) Contact in Adoption and Permanent Foster Care: Research, Theory and Practice, London, British Association for Adoption and Fostering.

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This research was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, London.