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Fear of Facebook
February 11, 2013 permalink
Social workers exercise control over their wards in part by keeping them igorant of their birth family. Today's technology is allowing parents and children to find each other, thwarting control by the social services system. Social worker Sue Kent writes in the Guardian of the new technology of Facebook, every paragraph oozing with fear, purportedly for the children, really for her own profession.
In real life, most adoptees are curious about their birth families, and it is rare for a birth mother to spurn her child. The so-called letterbox contact mentioned by Kent is a sham. Link for example.
Tracing birth families on Facebook can have a devastating impact all round
A Coronation Street storyline is highlighting a serious issue for adopted children and their families in the age of social media
Coronation Street's storyline of adopted child Faye Windass using Facebook to reunite with her birth father highlights a serious child-protection issue that can sometimes perplex social workers.
These days, it is likely there will be some form of agreed contact between adopted children and birth families, if it is in the child's best interests. That might be "letterbox" contact (where cards, letters or pictures can be sent via social services between birth parents and adopted children), or visits between birth siblings.
Adopted children are usually told the names of their birth parents, as an intrinsic aspect of "life story" work, where a social worker will help them to understand their past and their identity.
While letterbox contact ensures protection of the adopted family's identity and location, Facebook offers no such guarantee. Even with only minimal information, such as a name, it is not difficult to trace someone on Facebook. With a click of the mouse, an emotional hand grenade can be lobbed right into the middle of a family's life, and the fall-out can be devastating for all parties.
Contact may be initiated by either the birth parent or the adopted child, and both Adoption UK and the British Association for Adoption & Fostering have voiced concerns about how Facebook is increasingly being used for unplanned and unsupported communication and reunions between adoptive and birth families.
This is an extremely sensitive subject and there are many issues to consider. Some children may welcome contact, but some may be extremely disturbed by their birth families finding them, and may find that it resurrects frightening and upsetting memories. Depending on the details of the case, there may be solid reasons why an adoption is "closed" and no contact retained with the birth parent. Some adopted children run away to be with their newly discovered birth parents, placing them in some instances at risk of harm.
The British Association of Social Workers is seeing increasing numbers of social workers asking for advice on similar social-media-related issues, and has responded to this emerging space by launching a social media policy (pdf).
Only legislators have the power to review and decide on issues such as the long-term impact of Facebook and how it affects adoption arrangements, yet as the professional association for social work, BASW can still offer advice to members on how to deal with the impact of unsolicited contact on adopted children.
The rule of thumb is that the social work Code of Ethics must underpin all our practice, even when new technology questions accepted norms. The principles of communicating with children and young people remain the same; forging good relationships must be at the heart of everything we do.
As social workers know, and as adoptive mother Anna Windass in Coronation Street no doubt will discover, simply banning a young person from using the internet, or monitoring their usage, is akin to putting your finger in a dam.
Social workers and adoptive parents should instead focus on helping children and young people to understand why contact arrangements are in place, and help them to come to terms with the reality of their birth family and their past, without sugar-coating the truth or unfairly demonising people.
What all adoption organisations and social work professionals stress is the importance of the development of a relationship between adopter and child, which gives the child information rather than leaving them forced to dig for bits and pieces wherever they can and coming up with only a part of a complex jigsaw.
It will be interesting to see whether Coronation Street will go on to explore the thorny issue of adoption breakdown.
Research indicates that a failure to offer a child accurate and appropriate information about their past is a major contributor to adoption breakdown. Adopters, perhaps understandably, can still struggle with this, wanting to make the child "theirs" by erasing the past. Many adopters take a more empathetic view of birth families, but would still want any contact to be properly arranged and not to come out of the blue.
Any reunion between birth parent and adopted child would not normally take place until the child is at least 18, and involves a lot of preparation and communication. Today's generation of adopted teens are the first to grow up with Facebook, and they are frequently more familiar with using it than the adults around them. Initial contact made via Facebook is far from ideal, but it can't be stopped.
Social workers can't afford to be oblivious to or ignorant of social media.
But while some social work employers have embraced social media in some areas of their work many approach it cautiously in other areas.
This is why social workers may have to challenge employers to see social media as an opportunity rather than a threat for both professionals and service users. Local authorities and other adoption organisations need to be prepared to engage in this debate and provide training to support social workers, or they risk placing adoptive families under additional strain.
Sue Kent is professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers
Source: Guardian (UK)