How social networking sites threaten the security of adopted children

When Poppy Adams was asked by a therapist to pick from a pile of toys the character she felt best represented her birth mother, the 12-year-old chose a Disney princess. Asked the same about her social worker, she selected a snake. “She should not have taken me away from my mother,” said Poppy, who had always idolised her birth mother, from whom she was removed at five years old because of neglect and abuse.

So a year later, when Poppy found her birth mother on Facebook, she wasted no time in secretly making contact. A few weeks later, unknown to her adoptive mother, Sue, the two met up. Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, it was not the fairytale reunion Poppy had envisaged.

The Facebook contact also led Poppy to the man who had been her stepfather before the adoption and this too went badly. “This was not a man to be treated lightly,” says Sue. “He had been in and out of prison for grievous bodily harm and had threatened Poppy’s social worker, as well as saying that when he tracked me down, he would kill me with a gun.”

Finally, Poppy’s adoption placement itself broke down. “While I tried to pick up the pieces, the damage was done and Poppy started running away until eventually, she went back into foster care,” says Sue.

Social media is the latest threat to adoption, with adoption agencies reporting a marked growth in cases of an adopted child – typically a disaffected teenager – finding their birth family in just a few clicks. Birth parents are also using sites such as Facebook and Twitter to try to make contact with offspring taken years before.

“Given that children are only adopted when they come from the most extreme of circumstances, nearly always involving neglect and abuse, this is a concern,” says Frances Coller, from After Adoption, a voluntary agency working in England and Wales to help anyone affected by adoption. She points out that, commonly, the adopted person runs headfirst into an unsupported and often risky relationship, and meanwhile relationships in the adoptive family become strained. In the worst case scenario, like Poppy’s, the adoption breaks down.

Not only is it a growing problem, but there is no road map, adds Coller. “This is the first generation to grow up with social media.”

It’s not as if Poppy had forgotten the horrors of her early years – having to walk over broken glass in the kitchen in bare feet, for instance, and seeing her mother’s head banged so hard against a door by her stepfather that she was hospitalised. “But her memories became tainted by the Life Story Book that her social worker compiled for her during her two-and-a-half years in foster care [before the adoption]. If Poppy’s mum brought her gifts during this time, pictures of her holding them were stuck in the book,” explains Sue. “What actually happened, was that she often didn’t turn up to visits at all.”

The adoption, when Poppy was seven, seemed to go well. “But while Poppy was very happy and content on the surface, underneath was a mass of worry about what would happen next and insecurity that sooner or later, she’d be rejected again,” says Sue.

Given children are only adopted from circumstances nearly always involving neglect and abuse, this is a concern
Poppy started to talk about her birth family daily and it was increasingly glossy. “Facebook did worry me, particularly when I managed to find Poppy’s birth mother in two clicks, with the pictures of Poppy that I’d sent her annually posted all over her page. When I asked social workers for advice, they just said to monitor her. But it’s unrealistic to think that teenagers won’t go on Facebook – if only on a friend’s phone – in the end, that is exactly what happened.”

Like many adopted children, Poppy’s mental age lagged behind her physical age, says Sue, which didn’t help the situation. “This was a girl who was still having temper tantrums and wetting the bed. She was really disturbed. I had various visits from social workers in the weeks after the contact, but they kept changing, and in light of Poppy not knowing what to do with this awful realisation that her birth family wasn’t what she had thought – and with nobody seeming able to help her or me – we hit crisis point. Although I’m still in touch with Poppy, who is now 15, and we meet sometimes, she won’t ever come home now.”

Sue believes it might have helped had there been more honesty about Poppy’s past. “The reason adopted children take to Facebook is usually because they get a diluted version of what happened to them,” says Helen Oakwater, author of Bubble Wrapped Children: How Social Networking is Tranforming the Face of 21st Century Adoption. “Motivated by curiosity, they are searching for answers, because the story they have been told doesn’t match their experience and memories. That is why I believe the solution is 100% truth-telling in an age-appropriate way, facilitated by an expert in childhood trauma. For too many years we have tried to protect children by keeping difficult information from them, but in a digital age, this sets them up to unsafeguarded reconnection with the very people who hurt them.”

Professor Julie Selwyn, head of the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies at the University of Bristol, confirms that in her recent research, many young people reported that they hadn’t felt prepared for adoption and as they had grown older and asked more questions, nobody seemed to have the answers. “Being told at four, for instance, that you can’t live with your mum because she’s sick isn’t enough when actually she’s a heroin addict and neglected you for long periods. Young people need to get information about the reality of why they were removed,” she says.

Others argue that change must come from the social media sites, notably Facebook. “I was always honest about the bad bits of my two adoptive daughters’ pasts,” says Laura Walker.