Time to deliver on ‘letterbox’ contact

Jules Hillier, chief executive, Pause
Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Pause works with women who have had, or are at risk of having, multiple children removed from their care.

Jules Hillier: "Good-quality contact arrangements between children and their birth families can be vital to children’s wellbeing"
Jules Hillier: "Good-quality contact arrangements between children and their birth families can be vital to children’s wellbeing"

The circumstances under which this happens are unique to each family and are generally complex and difficult. So, the way children and families are supported after the event is important. For many who experience adoption, the only contact between the child and their birth parents is via letterbox contact: a post-adoption contact system that has been in place for decades, in which birth families and adoptive families exchange letters usually once or twice a year. Despite the changing nature of communication and legislation during this time there has been little change in the system, to the point that it is now painfully out-of-date and no longer fit for purpose.

We know that the festive season and the start of a new year can be particularly difficult for all women and birth families who do not have their children in their care. This is exacerbated for those who only have letterbox contact with their children, particularly if they are not certain that their letters are being read. That’s why we have launched a renewed call to action around our Time to Deliver campaign on letterbox contact.

Our Time to Deliver report heard from birth families, adopted families and professionals about their experiences of the system. They all said the same thing: the letterbox contact system no longer works. Our research, which is echoed by many across the sector, found a system that is badly administered, lacking support and communication, and beset by confusion, delays and poor organisation. Women working with Pause told us that they receive insufficient support and guidance throughout the process, and so are left uncertain as to what they can and cannot write in their letters. This only serves to frustrate and disappoint children and both birth and adoptive families and adds to the impact of past trauma.

We know that good-quality contact arrangements between children and their birth families can be vital to children’s wellbeing. At its best, letterbox contact provides an opportunity for children and families to learn more about each other and themselves, to answer questions and to provide reassurance that a child hasn’t been abandoned or forgotten. Contact and meaningful relationships with children can also be crucial to birth parents’ future personal development.

In order to develop a system that better meets the needs of everyone, we have recommended the following changes:

  • More support for women and birth families to write these difficult communications.

  • Regular reviews – something that works once, might not work every time; it’s important to discuss what might work best.

  • Better use of technology – when was the last time you sat down and actually wrote a letter with pen on paper?

  • A letterbox co-ordinator for all local areas – having a dedicated, impartial professional to support the process and provide clarity when needed, makes significant difference.

  • Better administration and communications – it’s vital that people know their letters have been received and that things don’t get stuck at the bottom of a full to-do list.

As with so many services provided by overwhelmed and underfunded systems, enabling professionals to think about how to nurture a relationship – rather than how to implement an administrative process – is a small shift in thinking that could create a huge change in the effectiveness of letterbox contact. Alongside our recommended changes, this shift in thinking would contribute to creating more compassionate and consistent contact and to preventing some of the misery caused by the current system. We must find a way to make letterbox contact deliver.

*Time to Deliver report and campaign from www.pause.org.uk/letterbox-contact/ and enquiries to communications@pause.org.uk

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