Letterbox contact is a very common form of post-adoption contact with a child’s birth families. Usually there is an agreement signed by the adoptive parent(s) and birth parent(s) or sometimes other members of the birth family, that outlines the plan for how the parties will write to one another. The following is usually set out in the letterbox agreement, but can be changed at any time if the parties or the child request a change:
Contact details to be used. Typically this will be the email/postal address of the post-adoption support team at the adoption agency.
How often the contact will take place (usually every 6 or 12 months) and when the contact is due. Social workers may choose to avoid months that are particularly emotional for the birth parents already, such as the birth month or anniversary of the child being removed or formally adopted.
The form of the contact, e.g. a letter, perhaps photographs or videos (which may be provided for birth family to keep or may be provided for viewing in the adoption agency offices only) and artwork created by the child.
How adoptive and birth family members will refer to themselves (typically by first name or initials).
Even with clear guidelines in place, writing a contact letter can be daunting.
Tips for Writing a Settling In / Contact Letter
Check, check and check again that it doesn’t include any identifying information, such as the name of specific playgroups or soft play that you visit.
Check the photos
Ensure that any photos do not include school logos or any identifying information in the background of the photo.
Try also to avoid photos of your child where they are clearly wearing clothing that could rub salt in the wound, such as t-shirts that say “Mummy’s little poppet,” “I’ve got the best Daddy in the world,” etc.
If you have items of clothing from birth family that still fit, you could make a conscious effort to take some photos on days when the child is wearing those, so that you can share those photos with the birth family. Similarly, you could share photos of the child playing with toys that the birth family gave them, or even looking at photos of birth parents. It’s a small gesture, but shows that you’re not trying to cut out all traces of your child’s birth parents, which is one of the biggest fears that the birth parents I have spoken to had.
Use appropriate language. Try to avoid emotive words, such as “our boy/girl,” “Mummy/Daddy,” etc. If you have been advised that your child’s birth parents have learning difficulties, try to use less complex language, e.g. “very” instead of “extraordinarily.” Use a simple, easy-to-read font, so that you don’t alienate birth parents with dyslexia.
Include an update on health and development. Remember that birth parents will want to know that the child is safe, healthy and happy. If your child has had no health issues, you can explicitly mention that they have been healthy, rather than leave that to the imagination! Cover social development too – e.g. you could mention that little one is a happy child, who makes friends easily / has some strong friendships. Things may not always be rosy, but try to find some positive news to share.
Talk about hobbies and interests, likes and dislikes, and any major achievements.
Include anecdotes – funny things they have said, words that were adorably mispronounced, etc. Be sure to mention that you find it adorable, so that it’s clear you’re delighted by the child and not mocking them.
Remember that this is the only information the birth family will have about the child until the next letter, and they will likely read it many, many times and try to understand everything you have written. If you write “jokey” comments, be mindful of how these could be misinterpreted. One birth mother I spoke to was distraught to receive a letter that joked about the “terrible twos” and felt that this indicated that her child’s adoptive parents didn’t really appreciate the child’s personality. Another spoke of how her letters mentioned the child’s “scrawl” and was saddened that the adoptive parents mocked the child’s writing abilities.
Ask questions! Writing back is daunting for birth parents too. Give them something to respond to. When your child is old enough to ask questions about their birth parents, you may find it easier to come up with a list of questions, but make sure you include some even if your child is too young to participate yet. If you’ve mentioned that your little one enjoyed a football class, ask if anyone in the birth family is sporty. If your little one draws or sings a lot, ask if they are artistic or musical.
Don’t be late! Some birth family members can’t wait to receive the letters and will contact the post-adoption support team on the first day of the month that the letter is due.
Keep it up! Even if you don’t receive any responses, keep writing. Your letters will be kept on file and can be responded to later, plus your child will see that you did everything you could to maintain that link.