Splitting up Siblings – Contact

This is my third and final post about sibling groups who are split up for adoption. You can read the first and second posts (why sibling groups may be split up for adoption, and explaining the decision/dealing with emotions) here andhere.

This post is about post adoption contact. I want to talk about dealing with the emotions of contact, things to consider if you are adopting or may adopt a child who has sibling contact, and I also want to address a few of the problems that can arise with contact.

This is quite a big topic, and a complex one, so forgive me for not spending long enough on each area. I am going to largely focus on direct contact. As I have maintained contact with as many of my children’s siblings as I can over many years, I have quite a lot of things to talk about! As in the last 2 posts, I will use my daughter Rhea’s story, with her permission.

Firstly, when you consider adopting a child, social services should let you know what the proposed contact plan is. It will vary, but in my experience, when siblings are split up for adoption, social services do have a starting point of contact being the best idea. It’s less common for split up siblings to not have any contact with each other. The proposed contact plan might range from one letter a year right up to say 3-4 meetings a year.

When I adopted Rhea, the plan was for ‘direct contact’ (that means all meeting up) several times a year for all the siblings. Hearing some of Rhea’s story (social services didn’t tell me anywhere near enough but I got the gist of things from them) made me determined to try my hardest to facilitate good contact. I was so sad for this girl who had been taken from the siblings who meant so much to her (not without good reason, but that doesn’t make any difference to the grief), and I was quickly thinking of places we could all go etc

Now, in the years between Rhea’s split with her siblings in late 1992, and my adoption of her in August 1996, much had happened. Siblings 2 and 3 had been split up also, again because of serious emotional/behavioural issues. Three more siblings had been born, twins and then number 6. Rhea was placed for adoption and her adoption failed. Siblings 3, 4&5, and 6 were placed for adoption successfully. By 1996, only Rhea and sibling 2 were in foster care and social services were family finding. By the way, my calling them siblings 2,3 etc, is not a reflection of my feelings towards them, but me trying to protect their identities as far as possible.

Now, as Rhea was the second last of the six to be adopted, it was for me to reach out to the other adoptive parents. Siblings 4 and 5 were the only to be placed together, so I had to coordinate contact with three sets of parents plus social services/the foster carers of sibling 2. Rhea had been told of all her siblings birth and was desperate to see them all, but especially wanted to see siblings 2 and 3. I was aiming for meetings, not just letters, and I thought that going from a starting point of 3-4 meetings a year would be best, and then we could modify if necessary. I duly wrote a letter for social services to pass to all of the adoptive parents, and they would respond through social services and then be handed my telephone number and address so we could all start arranging the first visit. Social services were already committed to 3-4 visits a year for Rhea and sibling 2 and they were keen to have them all visiting at the same time. This I did right before introductions, I assumed the first visit would be about 3-4 months into our placement. I was keen for it to be soon because since Rhea’s first attempted adoption, she had not been seeing her siblings at all, and I wanted her to know that I understood and respected her relationship with her brothers and sisters.

Now, honestly I was very naive. I was doing what I was sure was best (and yes, it was best for Rhea to meet up with her siblings) but I just hadn’t considered so many issues, and I was always being blindsided or confused by something.

To summarise the responses I recieved – of the adopters, the parents of sibling 3 were keen to have about 3 visits a year and one or two letters a year witth photos in between our visits. The parents of the twins thought 1-2 meetings a year might work with 2 letters a year and photos also being exchanged. As I said, social services wanted sibling 2 to have 3-4 visits a year and for me to pass photos and short notes to the foster carers in between.The parent of sibling 6 reponded through SS that they, having adopted a baby, thought contact was silly. Their baby now had adoptive siblings, who were the only ‘real’ siblings (i hate that word by the way), and would benefit from a permanent total split with no contact ever. It wasn’t, in their opinion, as if baby would ever need or even WANT to know anything about the birth family, they were going to be good enough parents and siblings that their baby would never want for anything else. The birth family, were redundant and in the past. My Rhea had no right to call herself the sister of baby, she couldn’t possibly be a sister. The only thing i did get, courtesy of social services, was  a surname.

So….no one gave the same answer. No one wanted the same things. Everyone who wanted visits had different ideas about the right time for a visit and the right months for letters! I quickly realised it was going to be difficult.

Now, I am going to run through a list of possible issues that might come up when having sibling contact, and how they might be dealt with. By the way, nowadays coordinating visits can be easier, since we now have fast instant email contact! If you are preparing to adopt, consider these issues.

1. When should letters be sent/meetings be set up?

With the exception of christmas and birthday cards, which I send/used to send to all siblings, I recommend setting up visits/letter dates at times which are not near emotional or stressful days. For instance, very near christmas, or in mid-late July when school breaks up if the siblings are all in school. Both of those events can really make our kids anxious and regress a bit anyway, without adding in the strong emotions surrounding contact on top of that. I have also avoided early September because of the stress and change of starting back to school. have had meetings in the middle of school holidays mostly, so April/May/August/October, beause of the convenience. Those can also be good letter months. If you are sending 2 letters a year, consider spreads like February/August, or May/November, rather than December/July which hits close to big events all families have.

2. What do I do, my child wants/needs contact but the other adoptive parents don’t want any?

From experience this is a sad situation. As is its reverse which is point 3. If this happens to you, you might feel sad, or angry at the other adoptive parents (or, if the adoptive parents stopped contact because their child doesn’t want any, you might completely understand their decision), and you will probably be worried about explainning this to your child. My approach was honesty, when discussing contact with Rhea I told her that sadly we would not be hearing from sibling 6 and when she asked ‘why?’ I said that sibling 6’s mum and dad did not want to contact us. When she said ‘why?’, I was more stumped because I refused to tell my daughter somone thinks she is superfluous. I thought she could read the letter from social services concerning contact with sibling 6, when she was say 17-18. I settled on ‘they don’t think it’s a good idea for sibling 6 to see any of her first family’. She asked ‘why?’ and I simply said, ‘I don’t know why. I think we should send letters, but it’s not up to me. I’m so sorry’. It’s hard.

Your child might grieve and show anger themselves. Validate their feelings. Rhea cried and begged me to get her some contact and when social workers visited the house she would always ask how baby 6 was doing, but never got an answer. The SW’s didn’t know. As she got older, Rhea would wonder aloud how her baby sibling, now 4, now 6, now 10, was doing. Whether they were happy. The loss was always there. We adoptive parents can’t make everything better, but we can help by being honest, kind, a listening ear and saying ‘it’s ok to feel this way’.

Social services might spend all homestudy and prep going on about contact needing to be in the best interests of the child, and so might the experts and adoption books, and so might other adoptive parents…but when two sibling want or need different things, that phrase rings hollow. I don’t fully believe in it any more. If two kids need different things, one childs needs are going to be ignored. One child will be asked to put up and shut up. And it’s nearly always the child who needs the contact.

3. My child doesn’t want contact/is being harmed by contact, but their sibling’s parents want contact

Again, it’s a sad situation. As parents, we have to act in our children’s best interests. When it comes to sibling contact, the sad truth is that sometimes two (or more) children can have different ‘best interests’ as I said.

If your child does not want to meet up, or if your child is being hurt by the meet ups, then sadly usually you need to bring them to an end. We can’t in good conscience force our children to meet up with people they don’t want to, we can’t in good conscience see our children being harmed by contact and do nothing. Likewise, if your child hates recieving letters or the recieving of letterbox is causing serious problems, letters may well have to be stopped at least one way.

However, please be sensitive about telling the other adoptive parents. They also want the best for their own innocent child. If their child wants/needs contact, they are probably shortly to be dealing with a lot of grief and fallout in their home, so forgive any short shrift you get. Even if the ceasing of contact is necessary for your child, they have the right to be angry and sad at the harm it will cause to their child. Hopefully they will not express too much of this to you personally, as pretty much every adoptive parent knows how complex contact is.

Something you might consider, is to cut all contact except for updates going from you to the siblings. So to say no to visits, and no to recieving letters, but agree to still send one or two letters a year to the other adopters yourself. That might be a compromise between the needs of your child and the needs of the other child. I know how much Rhea would have benefitted from just one letter a year about her baby sibling.

I do understand that some children however do need to not have any contact. In that case, my advice is to be honest with the other parents, but also sensitive and empathetic.

4. The other adoptive parents are changing the siblings name, what do I tell my child?

In my experience, normally siblings who are all adopted know each others adoptive first names. Sometimes older siblings in long term foster care aren’t told. If your child is older, explaining a sibling’s name change prior to contact can be tricky. For Rhea, although her name, and sibling 2 and 3’s names remained the same, the names of the twins were changed and we were meeting up once a year (then twice a year in later years), so I had to tell Rhea that her little siblings had new names. As she had never met the twins when they had their original names, it was easier to accept for her. However if your child was living with a sibling whose name has changed, your child may have conflicting feelings, probably confusion, but maybe also upset or anger.

My approach was to explain to Rhea that just like she had got a new family surname (which she was very happy about by the way), her siblings were also getting new family first names, and although their old first names were now middle names, they wouldn’t be called their middle names. I told her it was completely okay to be confused and upset, but that when we met up, she must call her siblings by their new names. I told her that because her siblings were young, if she used their old names they would get confused themselves. So it would be a kind choice to not mention their old first names to them, but only talk about it with me if she needed.

I may sound like a broken record, but again – honesty, validation, empathy.

5. I’m changing my childs name/they want to change their name, how do I approach this with the other parents?

My advice is to please tell the other parents well in advance of the meetings/letters. The sibling may need weeks or months to process the change and be ready to call your child by their new name, so please be sensitive to this and give the other parents as much time as possible to talk to and prepare their child. Springing the news a week or days before the contact, if it can be avoided, is unfair on the siblings.

Also, if at a meeting the sibling uses your childs original name, try to ignore it. if your child is confused, talk quietly and gently to them, and just be honest and say they sibling might need more time. Hopefully the siblings adoptive parents will also talk gently to their child and remind them to use the new name.

6. My child is experiencing fallout before or after contact

This is pretty common unfortunately. As I mentionned in post 2, contact can really amplify the emotions children feel about being split up from their siblings. Sometimes, when we tell our children about the upcoming meetings, they suddenly get anxious, hyper, get behavioural issues or regress a little. It can be hard to manage, but it’s harder for our kids who are usually suddenly experiencing a raft of emotions (see post 2) and don’t really have the coping skills to regulate themselves. My advice is to keep things low key if this happens up till the meeting and also afterwards. The same behavioural/emotional issues can happen after meetings as well, even if your child was absolutely fine beforehand. Keeping things low key and being open to conversation can be helpful.

7. If my child is experiencing fallout and issues around contact, when is it right to reduce/stop contact?

If your child is having problems before and after contact, you might question whether contact is a good idea. You have to consider what if any benefits visits are having. For us, Rhea always had issues before and after meet ups, but it was very clear that she was benefitting – she felt better about her siblings adoptions and reassured that they were okay, despite her strong emotions. If your child is expressing that they don’t like meeting up, then you have to take that seriously. If your child will talk about contact you can try aand guage how it makes them feel. I also recommend listening to you gut and instincts. But otherwise it is really very individual and situation dependent.

8. Where should we meet up?

I recommend somewhere which has some activites for them to do together, but also somewhere which isn’t too noisy and busy. We have successfully met up in places such as – a pottery painting cafe, a picnic on the grounds of a castle which had activites for kids as well, a country park, an aquarium, Pizza Hut (at a quiet time of day) and a science museum. I would personally recommend avoiding indoor soft play areas, arcades or water parks or anything else that would be very intense. Of the places we’ve been, I preferred the castle and science museum because whilst the kids were running around doing things together, I had some moments to talk to the parents. Pizza Hut was tasty and kids were happy, but I would have appreciated some time to talk privately to the parents about our kids emotions and behaviours and other things like that.

9. What problems might occur during a contact meeting?

Some of the problems I’ve had are – Rhea trying to parent her siblings a bit, the kids overeating or becoming hyper and anxious, and sibling 2 (who has a serious attachment disorder) becoming enraged or trying to manipulate the other kids or trying to steal my purse. This is another reason I recommend low key meet ups, as there might be issues even without the added stress of an intense environment. You may have to spend some time redirecting your children or giving them a few minutes out with you alone etc

That concludes my list, but that isn’t an exhautive list by any means

The other contact issue Rhea has experienced is the Facebook kind. I’m not going to address that in this post as well, but I will let you know what happened for Rhea.

She, me and her siblings, who are all in contact as adults, discovered the profile of a 16 year old (nearing 17) on Facebook, with the right surname, the birth first name as a middle name, and also looking identical to the older siblings.

It was indeed “baby” 6. Sibling 2 (who was adopted after my Rhea was) made the initial contact, and within a couple of weeks, everyone had met up. I met sibling 6 shortly after. Lovely person. Clever, done well, kind, opinionated but not rude. I wondered if my Rhea would be like that if she hadn’t been left with the after effects of severe neglect and abuse? :( Now, well over 2 years later, they all remain in contact. Not without issue, especially when it comes to sibling 2, and Rhea is learning to carefully control their contact.

But still, the 6 are all happy (I think) to call themselves brothers and sisters. Real brothers and sisters who are important to each other. Sibling 6 has never told their parents about the contact. The parents wouldn’t understand, they would have no understanding of her contact/reunion needs at all. Their attitude has not changed from what it was all those years ago.

I on the other hand, have met all the siblings as adults, because I have always supported contact. My relationship with my daughter is better as  a result, and she is, as far as I know, not afraid to talk to me about anything relating to contact. She does talk about her siblings and her meet ups and letters even now, filling me in on all their lives. And I also remain in contact with most of the adoptive parents too, we have become friends ourselves.

Anyway, I hope that this series of posts was helpful and informative. Let me know what you thought :)

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