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September/October 2012 Issue

Social Media and the Post-Adoption Experience
By Deborah H. Siegel, PhD, LICSW, DCSW, ACSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 12 No. 5 P. 22

Social networking sites have revolutionized the way we connect with people and are changing the postadoption experience in unexpected ways.

A clinical social worker in private practice sits with her clients, Mark and Charlene, who are the adoptive parents of 14-year-old Ava. As Mark and Charlene tell her the story that brings them to her office, the social worker thinks, “Uh-oh. How do I help these folks manage this novel, complex situation? What principles do I follow here? Are there any best practices?”

“When we adopted Ava at birth, we had an explicit written agreement with her birth parents that we would send them annual letters and pictures via the adoption agency and that Ava could contact her birth parents when she turned 18,” Charlene explains. But now, Ava’s biological younger sister, who’s being raised by Ava’s birth parents, has contacted Ava on Facebook. Ava’s birth parents didn’t know about this contact before it happened because Ava’s sister did it from a friend’s smartphone. Now the girls are Facebook friends.

All the ins and outs and intrigue of the girls’ communications are broadcast on their Facebook walls. As a result, Ava is now in touch with five other biological siblings, four of whom had been adopted by four other families. There is much mental illness, addiction, incarceration, and upheaval in Ava’s birth family, and it is unknown what is going on in the other four adoptive families.

Is this contact among the children safe? Should Ava’s parents stop it? Is it possible to stop it? If they can’t stop it, how do they handle it? Is there any way for the parents to monitor it so they know exactly what Ava is being exposed to and dealing with? Even if they can monitor the contact, how do they handle Ava’s questions, feelings, and behaviors stemming from it?

The Social Media Revolution
As extraordinary as this scenario may seem, it reflects a sea change in adoption today. Parents’ efforts to control adoptees’ access to birth families can be potentially futile given the electronic communication explosion. Most adoptees have a natural, understandable curiosity about their birth families and with the rising number of social networking sites it can simply be easier to find people these days, even with as little information as a unique first name. This is true in international as well as domestic adoptions.

Today, adoptive parents must anticipate and plan for the likelihood of digital contact with birth family members. The outcomes of adoptees and birth family members connecting with each other electronically can ease the anguish spawned by the secrecy and cutoffs in traditional adoption practices. At the same time, electronic communications invite complexities and issues that challenge even the hardiest, wisest, best-prepared members of the adoption circle.

Just as any extended family relationship may engender tumult, there can be intense emotional repercussions when the child is in touch with birth family members without the adoptive parents’ knowledge, guidance, or supervision. In these cases, there may be no protective emotional safety net to help the child handle confusing, overwhelming storms of feelings or make carefully considered choices about how to establish and maintain boundaries or manage complex emotional expectations and demands.

Adoptive parents are affected, too. When they learn about the electronic contact after the fact, they may experience panic, fear, uncertainty, anger, vulnerability, loss, or betrayal as well as delight, excitement, hopefulness, and curiosity. Even when adoptive parents know about the contact beforehand, they may worry about communications that occur without their oversight. They may wonder, “What if a birth family member shares feelings or information that is more than the child is emotionally prepared to process?”

New Forms of Contact
While just a few years ago adoptive and birth parents, often with social workers’ help, could aim to control a child’s contact with his or her biological families, today social networking sites, text messaging, smartphones, and the Internet have changed the landscape. Even if a child does not have his or her own cell phone or computer, these devices are readily accessible in friends’ homes and pockets and at schools and public libraries. A child curious about adoption is free to explore in new and private, unsupervised ways. The child’s developmental maturity, temperament, mental health, learning style, and family circumstances all affect how the electronic contact impacts the child.

Unanswered Questions
Families are turning to social workers for guidance when they discover that the children they adopted have been in touch electronically with birth families. Social workers, too, are unsure how to manage the situation. Parents are realizing that the toothpaste cannot be pushed back into the tube; thus, they are asking compelling questions, such as, “Is there an electronic way for us to block the contact? Will our efforts to control electronic contact just turn it into enticing forbidden fruit and drive children underground into more secrecy without our involvement and protection? Are there ways to monitor the contact so we at least can keep an eye on what’s going on? If we had known beforehand that this might happen, was there a way to avoid all this in the first place?”

Varying Issues
The issues generated by electronic communications vary depending on the electronic medium used and the type of adoption. The permutations are vast. For instance, when a birth parent’s parental rights have been involuntarily terminated by the public child welfare system due to severe abuse or neglect, a birth parent may feel angry, hurt, resentful, and disinclined to support the adoption. This birth parent might use the Internet or social networking to initiate contact with the child to convey messages that, however loving and well intended, might cause distress, such as, “You were stolen from me. If you don’t come back to me, I can’t go on.” The child may feel divided loyalties, pressured, guilty, and responsible.

Voluntary terminations of parental rights in open adoption present a different scenario. For example, even when the birth parents and adoptive parents have fully agreed to stay in touch with each other via e-mail and phone and not use Facebook, other family members may not adhere to this agreement. A birth family member may tell the child an adoption story that differs from the story the adoptive parents have shared, confusing the child.

A set of adoptive and birth parents may have agreed to hit the pause button on electronic contact for a while at the birth parents’ request, only to have the adopted child reinitiate it without the adoptive parents’ knowledge, thus unintentionally pushing their birth parents away when what the child hoped was to have more intimacy and contact.

Issues also vary based on the electronic medium used. Parents may be able to monitor some forms of electronic contact. If parents have the password to an e-mail account, they can review the child’s messages. Parents who look at the child’s cell phone may be able to examine the phone numbers dialed and received. However, a child might use Facebook privacy settings to block other parental attempts at monitoring or use a friend’s cell phone so parents are unaware that contact occurred.

Guidelines for Social Work Practice
The days when social workers and parents could control an adopted child’s access to contact with or information about their birth families are over. In large part, this is an improvement, as we now know that humans have a need for connection with their biological roots and information about themselves. At the same time, we also know that all children, adopted or not, do well with informed, compassionate, skilled structure and supervision, particularly when they may be at physical or emotional risk of harm. Thus, the electronic revolution in adoption presents opportunities as well as problems. Social workers need guidelines for helping families balance them.

One size does not fit all in any aspect of adoption practice. Each adoptive parent needs to determine, hopefully in cooperative collaboration with the child’s biological parents, what kinds of contact will best serve this particular child. Today, most infant adoptions in the United States involve some kind of exchange of identifying information and agreement about postadoption contact between the child’s adoptive and biological families. This is a major advance toward respecting adoptees’ human rights.

Social workers are wise to educate today’s prospective adoptive and birth parents about the likelihood of someone other than them initiating electronic contact during the adoptee’s childhood. Informed about this possibility, parents can then be guided to lay the groundwork for anticipating this and responding to it when it occurs.

Laying the groundwork has several key elements. For instance, prospective parents need pre- and postadoption information about and support in managing the normal, predictable feelings they and other participants in the adoption circle may have. They may need guidance about ways to create open communication about adoption issues within their household and extended families. They need to learn how to talk to and about all members of the extended family of adoption with compassion and respect. Social workers who find themselves counseling people whose lives are touched by adoption need high-quality continuing education in these areas so they can help parents find the words to talk about difficult adoption facts and feelings in ways that are helpful to the child.

With skilled pre- and postadoption information and support, adoptive parents can learn how to talk with their child about the child’s hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties regarding adoption in general and electronic contact with birth family members. Parents can discuss in advance how electronic contacts might be managed. Thinking ahead of time about these matters puts parents in a better position to engage in the child’s electronic communications; they can let their child know, for example, that they will occasionally monitor e-mails, Facebook messages, and cell phone records and will discuss concerns directly with the child and, if need be, with biological relatives involved in the contact. Parents must be familiar with how Facebook works. They must have their radar up for signs that their child is in contact with biological family members, especially in adoptions of children who were abused or neglected by their birth families and where there are court orders barring contact.

 Social workers are wise to help adoptive and birth parents establish open, honest, respectful, empathic communication with each other before an adoption occurs, recognizing that adoption is not an event but a lifelong journey that may require recalibration from time to time as the adults’ and child’s needs change and new issues emerge from one stage of life to another. Social workers should help prospective adoptive and birth parents understand that the adopted child’s needs may differ from their own and that the child’s needs must come first. With this groundwork laid, families are better prepared to communicate constructively.

A clinician’s first impulse upon hearing the adoptive parents’ dismay about their young child text messaging and Facebooking a biological family member may be to help the adoptive parents establish their authority by perhaps forbidding the child to use the computer or phone. However, this approach has a strong likelihood of creating a dysfunctional power struggle that cuts off effective communication within the adoptive family, driving the child underground emotionally and electronically. Parents are wiser to create within their family what’s called “communicative openness” about adoption and other emotionally laden issues so that no topic (such as sex, money, anger, etc.) is out of bounds.

Adoptive parents should be fully transparent about adoption with their child, using age-appropriate language that honors the child’s biological family. They should tell their child the true adoption story from the beginning, including the reasons for the adoption and the birth family’s attributes and challenges. Social workers can help parents practice how to tell difficult truths in words the child can understand and that convey compassion and respect for the birth parents. Clearly, children of all ages who have open, honest, straightforward communication with their adoptive parents are in a better position to use their parents as emotional allies when adoption issues emerge.

That said, even children with the best relationship with their adoptive parents might assert their autonomy and go into the digital world on their own, stepping onto emotional landmines. Given this new reality, all prospective adopters need to consider carefully whether they are willing to enter the adoption journey that lies ahead in the electronic era. Social workers should neither overdramatize nor sugarcoat this landscape; rather, they must educate honestly and thoroughly so prospective adopters are empowered to make informed choices about whether to adopt and how to respond to normal developmental crises, including electronic ones.

Caroline Peacock, LCSW, in the Spring 2011 Friends in Adoption newsletter, suggests other guidelines birth families and adoptive parents might want to consider. Possibilities include the following:

• Begin the adoption with explicit boundaries about what kinds of contact the birth family and adoptive parents will have with each other, which adoptive and birth family members will participate in the contact, and how frequently contact will occur.

• Create a separate, unique e-mail address for communication. Agree to use this instead of social networking sites so there is more privacy and so adoptive and birth parents can exercise some sort of oversight over electronic communication that may involve children.

• If using social networking sites, engage the greatest privacy settings to avoid disseminating confidential material about the child or that expands the possibility of others initiating contact.

• Be cautious about accepting friend requests on social networking sites, as these requests can open a Pandora’s box of relationships.

Research-based practice and policy guidelines to help social workers support families coping with electronic communications in adoption do not yet exist; thus, adoptive families are adventurers in a brave new world in which people are wandering without a map.

In blowing secrecy out the window, electronic communications in adoption open new possibilities as well as issues. These changes promote a new sense of extended family formed by adoption, one that involves all kin. While a generation ago social workers thought that adoption was an event that should be shrouded in secrecy, today it is clear that people’s need for connection with their biological heritage is an imperative that must be recognized and honored across the life span. Social workers have the responsibility to educate themselves about the new frontier of adoption issues so they can empower families knowledgeably.

— Deborah H. Siegel, PhD, LICSW, DCSW, ACSW, is a professor in the Rhode Island College School of Social Work, a clinician specializing in adoption issues, an adoption researcher, and an adoptive parent.