A couple of days ago I listened to Birth Mums being interviewed on 5live, and one mentioned that in her support group, most of the Birth Mums were not receiving their Letterbox letters. All these women wanted to know was how their child was doing and in many cases, despite chasing, they had still not got the letters they were promised. Again, a few days ago I read a heartbreaking Tweet from a Birth Mum desperate for support to help write to her child and their adoptive family, but despite SW promises, she just hadn’t received that help.
I have also been on Twitter for many years now and also a sporadic member of a couple of Facebook groups. I have read the other side of the story too: Adoptive Families frustrated and upset that they and their child are not getting any replies to the letters they have sent birth family. Some Adopters feel in that situation the only option is to give up as the lack of response is having such a damaging effect on their child.
In my own family have two very different scenarios. On the one hand, I have Letterbox with one Birth Family which, whilst wobbly in the beginning, over the last three years has now played out well – the family have been supported to write letters and we have settled into a routine. It is now overwhelmingly positive. And then, I have no real Letterbox with my other child’s birth family. They moved away leaving no forwarding address and disconnected all their phones. The letters and cards and artwork meant for them will sit in a file, just in case one day they ever do decide to get back in touch or ask how their child is.
To me, its clear Letterbox is no longer working for many adoptive or birth families. Here are my own issues with it:
- Its a product of its time.
Letterbox was first set up around 20 years ago as a way of supporting adopted children to maintain links with birth family and vice versa. Twenty years ago I was at Uni and my main method of communication with friends was indeed writing letters. In the age of no texts, email, Facebook, Skype or Facetime that was what we had to resort to, and we were pretty darn good at it. I remember drawing cartoons and decorating envelopes. One friend even got a letter written on a roll of toilet paper! But I digress. We don’t do this now. One of my children’s birth mums was 3 years old when the first text message was sent and 9 years old when Facebook was created! Communication has moved on. Letterbox hasn’t. Personally I’d love to see Letterbox brought up to the modern age. How about a private site such as those used by schools and nurseries to give information to each other – where updates could be more frequent and more instant, rather than writing a huge letter every 6 months. Its been 5 weeks since I wrote to one of my children’s birthfamilies and we haven’t had a reply yet – it is an excruciating wait for me, let alone a child who knows that they have asked questions and they are waiting for a reply. It would also not be dependant on location then either – if families had a unique log in, then they could access it from anywhere, they wouldn’t need to feel that in having to update the LA on their address that tabs are being kept on them. It could be a godsend to birthfamily members who struggle with learning difficulties and can’t read or write or who would struggle putting a letter together – just writing a few lines here or there or may be even the ability to leave a video message instead of writing anything might really help.
2. It isn’t impartial/independent.
Letterbox is in the most part read and approved (or not) by SWs. If a birth family want help or support, they have to go cap in hand to the people responsible (or who they may see as responsible) for removing their child. The determination needed to ask for help therefore is immense and I am grateful to one of my children’s birth families for putting their own feelings and fears aside and taking that step to kick start the process of writing. I am pretty sure that my other child’s birth family will never get in touch with the LA for information for this very reason…and of course no one will chase or try to find them – even though they are just one click away on Facebook*. If Letterbox was truly independent then it may well encourage birth families to be more involved. As I write to my children’s birth families I am aware there will be a third party reading and judging what I write. There are, and have been, things I want to say or ask that I don’t think will get approved…if I feel that then how much more do birth family? In the early days when one of my children’s birth families was struggling, the co-ordinator would phone me up at regular intervals to ask this or that. Without fail, every single time would come the accusatory ‘And have you got your letter in yet?’ when I have never once been late with my letters or not written – in fact if anything, I send them in too early! One time she tried to say I hadn’t sent my letter in, when after a brief search she then found it on her desk…where it had sat for over ten days…and yet still somehow I felt like I had been the one in the wrong. Fortunately we have a different co-ordinator now, but still I cringe when I get the acknowledgment letter telling me what a lovely letter I’ve written, it reminds me that someone other than the intended audience has read every word. Why can’t there be a national independent body who are responsible for Letterbox who might appear less threatening than a SW to birth family and adopters alike?
3. It doesn’t get reviewed.
When a child is adopted, birth family and adopters sign a contract. We will write at this time, we will or wont send photos, we will or won’t send artwork, we will or won’t send Christmas cards. Deal done, we’re then left to get on with it for perhaps the next 18 years. That makes no allowances for change in either the childs, adopters or birth families lives. What happens when things are not going well? In my experience, adopters are told to just carry on writing, even if you feel it may be harming your child by doing so. What if its going well and is positive and you feel like you are building bridges? Well, again we’re told to just carry on with what we’re doing. That’s it?! No more? Just maintain the status quo? It seems crazy. What if Letterbox had a natural review system built in? Every five years we’re all encouraged to see what’s working well …or not. Where we’re encouraged to see how could things be improved or how things might need to be changed. I read recently that it was felt by someone that ‘a better class of adopters’ were needed as the tide is changing and more direct contact is being encouraged, if adopters aren’t up for that then tough. If that’s the case, then four/five years ago I wouldn’t have been approved as I’m not sure I could have coped with direct contact from the word go – it certainly wasn’t on my radar or something I even felt comfortable contemplating. However as my relationship with one of my children’s adoptive families is developing through Letterbox, I am now considering doing things differently. When it came to adopting my younger child as part of the process of being matched with him I automatically asked the question why direct contact wasn’t being considered for him. There could be an allowance for change built in – so that even if adopters aren’t up for direct contact from the outset, that there is a recognition that there may be the possibility for it developing in the future.
4. Its an off the peg model.
Letterbox is pretty much the only thing considered as ‘contact’. Whether Letterbox will be one letter per year or two seems to be the only main difference in contracts as far as I can tell. There seems to be little thought given to what each child might need as an individual, what might help each birth family and what each adoptive family might cope with. When my youngest was being adopted, knowing his birth mum had learning needs and was unable to read, instead of Letterbox, I volunteered to either record an audio or video message for her, or even come in to the LA office to Skype call her. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was not possible – the LA did not have the resources to make it happen. The best that my SW could come up with was telling me to just write my letter in “simple sentences”.
I do know I’m living in la-la land. I do know that, with budget cuts and a lack of human and financial resources, maintaining the status quo is easier and probably much cheaper than my suggestions here. I’d be really interested in an audit of both adopters and birth families to see how many do or don’t get the letters they were promised and for what percentage of families is Letterbox actually working?
I also know all adoptions, adoptive families and adoptees are different. Some of these suggestions would never work for some adopted children and their families – that’s why any agreement should be tailored to a child’s specific needs.
But even so, seriously, isn’t it time we came up with something better than Letterbox?
*I have considered many times setting up a fake Facebook profile and sending them a DM to let them know they have letters waiting for them in the LA office but am just not certain what the consequences would be for them or me!