Podcast Episode: Birth family contact. Continuity or contamination?
Category: Child protection
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
MM - Mary McKenna
BG - Barbara Godden
Conversation between Mary McKenna and Barbara Godden about contact with birth parents. Recorded at a meeting of Scottish Attachment in Action in March 2012.
MM Barbara has given permission to share some information about her family in relation to contact, so I am going to do a conversation, a Michael Parkinson conversation [laughter]. Barbara, you and your husband adopted 2 girls?
BG That's right.
MM Can you tell us a wee bit about the age that they came to join your family and tell us then what age they are now, so that we have got an idea of what time period we are reflecting on?
BG Yes, they joined our family when the youngest was 16 months and the oldest was 2 years and 9 months, and they are now 17 and nearly 16.
MM Okay, and they are sisters, but had they lived together before they came to you? What was the ...
BG They were in separate foster homes before they came to us. The idea was that it was to be a respite weekend and it ended up being longer. So the youngest was taken into care at 6 weeks and came to us at 16 months.
MM Right, okay, and when the girls were placed and the plan was adoption, can you tell us what the discussion was and what agreements were made about contact?
BG The agreement was made that there would be no direct birth family contact, but they would have letterbox contact once a year with their grannie ...
BG ... which we agreed to, which seemed reasonable, and the contact would be at Christmastime.
MM Okay, that's the bit that we really want to kind of explore a wee bit further today. What has that meant? Just give us an idea: over the years, what that contact has meant for you and what impact has it had on the girls?
BG For me, for the first couple of years, I was just dreading that Christmas card coming through the letterbox, because I was going to have to be the brave mum who shared what was in the letter, which was something we are always quite open and prepared to do, and we both realised, both my husband and I realised how important it was that the girls did have this contact. But it didn't ... I didn't feel like their mum - it was that once a year reminder where the girls' weren't mine. Christmas time was really bad timing for contact - when all the planning meetings happened before the girls came to us, it seemed logical it would be Christmas time, but actually it was a really bad time of year. I mean my youngest daughter used to run home from school for four weeks during December "has the Christmas card come, has the Christmas card come"? And some years no contact letters came, so Christmas was a really bad time.
MM Okay, so the girls knew ... it was very significant to them that they got this card from their gran.
MM What was the content? What was the nature of that exchange or that card ...
BG I had ... I think I had written to her first, so it was the usual "the girls are, what they are up to, what their activities were, how they were good at this and what they enjoyed doing and where we had been on holiday", and I think there was probably a response to my letter, the one that came back from the granny, and it was sort of general "I am pleased to hear you are doing well in swimming", or "I am pleased to hear how well you are doing", but it was all very positive. But as the exchanges have, over the years have changed in the respect of the girls will now write their own letters and ask for more information. So when the letters come back from the granny there is more information than there ever was at the very start.
MM What has been the value of that, those letters, for the girls?
BG Having the tie to where they came from I think.
MM Tell us a wee bit more - what does it mean, what's ...
BG That they are not forgotten about, that there is someone within their birth family who thinks enough of them to write once a year.
MM Okay, and what does it feel like for you now, once a year having this exchange of letters?
BG Now it's fine, because I feel the girls are mine and I don't feel threatened by the letter coming in, whereas the first couple of years it was just that horrible dread of having to share the information, whereas now ... and I think because the girls are older, they can ask questions, and I am in a place where I can say to them "well we don't know the answers, we can try and find it out for you".
MM Okay, and how has it helped them understand their story over the years?
BG Especially my younger daughter - in her letters she will be very direct in what she wants to know. My eldest daughter will be a bit more sort of general about what she has been doing, whereas my younger daughter will ask for more information, and it has meant a great deal that the granny writes back and answers these questions for her.
MM Right, and as the letters have come, has there been more information about their birth mother, about her circumstances and has that been important to the girls?
BG Yes, and there has also been information about siblings.
BG So the girls are now actually writing to siblings, which we never ... obviously the girls were the oldest in the family when they came to live with us, so we didn't imagine ever writing to brothers or sisters.
MM Okay, so what that has meant is that that information has trickled through over the years, there has been no surprises when they are 17 and 18. So on reflection, what is the value of that contact with the gran been for the girls, do you think?
BG It's just knowing, like I said earlier, there is somebody there that thinks enough of them to answer their questions, and now the girls are older, the granny is very honest about what happened and is very honest in her answer to those questions. And I think the honesty thing is really important for them - it's not a fairy tale - The honesty within those letters is really, really good for them.
MM And does that support you in the task that you have undertaken in terms of ...
BG But the granny has always been very supportive of my husband and I and she has always said, you know, how fantastic we are, which has ... helped the girls to sort of move on from this fantasy of the birth family and the adoptive family. You know, they have moved on from ... they have been allowed to move on ... to feel something for us.
MM Okay, and have you any idea of how hard that has been for granny? You said earlier that sometimes letters didn't come ...
BG Uh huh.
MM ... so how has it happened that gran has actually managed to retain that commitment to writing a letter?
BG Our social worker has been really good at following it up, and if letters didn't come through she would go and try and find out, or she would visit granny or she would write to granny, or she would phone granny and she would try and get it back on track again.
MM Okay, so could ...
BG She has had some help to write the letters, so ...
MM It could have fallen by the wayside if somebody hadn't recognised that this was important?
BG The importance of it, yes.
MM Okay, I think that's probably some of the critical messages that we wanted to kind of outline at this point in time before we go onto the next stage. Is there anything else that you think we need to know at this point in terms of about the importance of that contact?
BG I just think it is really important, especially when the kids hit teenage years, when they are trying to figure out where they are in the world - I think it is really important that they have got that contact from their previous life.
MM Okay, thank you very much.
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