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Making contact - things to consider
Now that you have completed your search and have possible address/es for the person you are searching for, we strongly advise that you carefully consider your approach.
How do I make contact?
There are various means of making contact, however there are some issues to think about to help ensure a more positive outcome when contact is made.
- Be respectful to the other person. While you may have been thinking about making this contact for years, the person you are searching for may not have had the same time to prepare, so contact should proceed at their pace.
- Contact can be confronting for both parties when it occurs quickly and without planning, so take your time and be considerate to the feelings of both parties.
- Be mindful of a person’s privacy and confidentiality when making first contact via social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and LinkedIn.
Should I involve anyone else?
Contact attempts should be as discreet, tactful and confidential as possible. They should be made directly to the person you are trying to contact, involving others can be a breach of the person’s privacy. If you are not certain that the person you are contacting is the correct person, avoid long and detailed explanations. A simple “I am tracing my family history and need some information” is usually sufficient.
Using a friend or relative to make the contact for you may not be the most appropriate approach. Other people may not have a thorough understanding of the issues involved. They may place pressure on the other party to have contact which may result in the other party refusing contact.
Should I contact the adoptive parents first to gain their permission?
The adopted person is now an adult and should be afforded the opportunity to decide for themselves if they wish to have contact with members of their birth family. Involving a third person such as the adoptive parents may be perceived by the adopted person as a breach of their privacy.
If you think that the adopted person may not know about their adoption then we suggest you enlist the services of an intermediary service such as the Post Adoption Resource Centre (PARC), who are familiar with adoption issues, to make an approach on your behalf.
The only time you may find you need to contact the adoptive parents is if you have exhausted all other means of locating an address for the adopted person. Again we recommend you make a discreet approach, avoiding a long and detailed explanation, or seek the assistance of an intermediary service.
I found a telephone number. Should I phone them?
Although a telephone call gives the caller some immediate results, it might be intrusive to the person being contacted and does not give them an opportunity to prepare themselves. If you do decide to call and the person appears to be in shock, try to get them to write down your name and number before the call is finished.
Keep in mind that the person you wish to call may have “Caller ID” or can dial *10# which can enable them to identify the last missed call - which could be your telephone number. If you do not want your phone number to be identified, call from a phone that has a private number or from a public phone.
I found an address. Should I write to them?
A letter can be a good first approach to the other party as it is less confronting and gives them time to think about their response and work through their feelings.
A letter should be written in a sensitive and discreet manner as it may be opened by someone else in the household. An example of such a letter that the Adoption Information Unit uses is as follows:
I am trying to locate a person named Sally Mary Brown as we may be related. I have some family information to discuss with her.
I realise that you may not be the only person with this name and possibly may not be the person I am trying to find.
Would you please contact me on (phone number and address) to confirm whether or not you may be the correct person?
I look forward to hearing from you.
You may choose to vary this letter, but it is best not to mention adoption at this stage as they may not be the correct person. If you need help, please contact the Adoption Information Unit or the Post Adoption Resource Centre (PARC).
One thing to consider when writing a letter is that you may not receive an immediate response and may be left wondering what is happening. If you do not hear from the other person, it is best to wait for about a month before writing again. You may consider sending the second letter by registered mail so you can confirm it has been received.
For further information on writing first letters please contact PARC to receive a copy of publication titled “First Letters: What Do I Say?”
Should I ask an intermediary service to contact them?
Contacting someone who was involved in an adoption is an extremely delicate matter and it may be more appropriate to use the services of a skilled intermediary. You could consider using an intermediary when:
- the other person’s views about contact are not known
- you feel too nervous to explain who you are and why you want to make contact
- you are concerned that rejection is a possibility and feel that this will be difficult to cope with
- you wish to make discreet enquiries before committing to contact
- you prefer that someone else make contact on your behalf
- you feel that the assistance of an emotionally uninvolved third person would be helpful in discussing the situation
- you would like professional support and for the other party to have the same opportunity.
Some people feel they need to maintain their anonymity when they first make contact for safety reasons, fear of rejection or fear of the unknown. In these situations, the use of a mediator to make the initial contact is advisable as you can elect to exchange letters and / or photos with each other via the mediator before exchanging contact details.
If you have located an address for the person you are trying to find and would like to use an intermediary service, you might like to contact PARC. Their details are above in the Adoption support section.
What might happen after initial contact has been made
Once you have made contact with the person you are searching for, the next step is to try and negotiate how the relationship will develop. While many people involved in adoption anticipate that one day someone from their family may try to contact them, this is not always the case. There are many people who are not aware that they have other family members or never expect contact due to the length of time that has passed.
It is important to listen to how the person you have contacted is coping with the contact and let them set the pace. Contact does not necessarily mean that you have to meet soon after. There are various ways contact can occur.
Exchanging letters and photos
Many people exchange photographs and / or letters to begin with and may do this for some time before meeting. This can be a good way to get to know one another in a less confronting manner, while at the same time gaining important information about each other and also gaining a sense of each others’ expectations regarding contact.
This is also a good way to slow down so that the person you have found has time to gather their thoughts and feelings and can tell other members of their family about you before making a decision to actually meet.
Some people have difficulty in expressing their thoughts and feelings in a letter and feel they are able to better portray these over the phone. While this is a more direct form of contact, it is still less confronting than an actual meeting while you are in the process of getting to know each other.
The phone provides a more immediate response and allows you to gather more detailed information about each other while also gaining a sense of how each of you feel about meeting and continued contact. You should not feel obliged to make a time to meet when you first speak over the phone. You can suggest further calls or the exchange of letters and photos.
Many people are connected to the internet now and find this an easier and more immediate way of corresponding with others. Email also allows you to learn more about each other and exchange photographs while maintaining some level of privacy until you are ready to exchange addresses and telephone numbers.
The first meeting
You have located a member of your family, you may have exchanged letters or emails, talked on the phone once or many times and now you both decide it’s time to meet. The first meeting may take place after one phone call or after a longer period of communication. Below are some of the key things to consider when planning the first meeting.
Where will the meeting occur?
It is best to meet somewhere neutral, a coffee shop or a quiet area of a public park, and preferably not at someone’s house. It is vital that this be a place where both parties feel comfortable.
In many cases the first meeting can be very emotional for one or both of you, so try to meet at a location that is not overcrowded.
Who should be present at the first meeting?
While having a support person may seem like a good idea, often it is best to meet alone due to the special nature of the initial meeting. This meeting has been a long-awaited moment and should be enjoyed by the people who are directly involved.
Experience shows people can be overwhelmed when too many people are involved in the first meeting, other family members can meet later on. You may want someone to drive you to the first meeting and pick you up so that you can “de-brief” afterwards.
How long should the meeting be?
As this is usually a very emotional time, often people cope better if the first meeting is no more than a couple of hours. This provides time to adjust to the initial emotions and start to feel comfortable with one another.
Experience shows that in cases where the initial meeting was lengthy, those involved came away feeling exhausted, emotionally drained and unable to remember in detail what was said.
How might I feel after the first meeting?
After the first meeting it is normal to feel a range of emotions, from joy to sadness or even anger. It is important to acknowledge your feelings and to be clear about future contact and wishes. Misunderstandings can easily occur in such an emotionally charged environment.
You may feel happiness and joy at the outcome of the meeting. You may have felt an instant connection to the other person, interacted easily and shared your life stories. You may feel rejection. Maybe the other person didn’t have time to prepare themselves for the meeting, or they might have spent many years trying to forget the adoption and couldn’t deal with the reality of the meeting. Others may find it difficult to cope with the disruption to their lives. Some people may not feel any connection, as they may just be too different from one another.
You may have found out some unusual or shocking information during the first meeting. For some people searching involves learning about some very distressing situations. Some adopted children are conceived of rape or incest; others find parents with extensive criminal histories, severe disabilities or mental illnesses. For birth parents, it can be very distressing to find out about a grown-up child being in jail or severely disabled.
You may have found that you were comparing yourselves with one another. Some people feel very surprised to find someone that they look like. Research has found that some people even feel sexually attracted to one another. Comparing looks, touching and hugging is normal and healthy. People experiencing a sexual attraction to one another should seek assistance in dealing with these feelings.
Developing an ongoing relationship after the first meeting
The first meeting between the two parties often forces people to confront their fantasies. Sometimes the “real” person may be disappointing compared to the fantasy.
Try to develop a relationship which is based on mutual respect, trust and honesty. It is important to work at a slow pace and build the relationship with thought and care. Just because you are biologically related does not mean you instantly have a relationship. Take some time to think about a relationship you have with a close family member or friend and how this relationship developed over a period of time.
All relationships require work to continue developing. You may meet your birth relative on a regular basis, occasionally, or you may just meet once. There is no “correct” path to take and you and the other person will need to work out what is best for you both.
What can I do to have a better reunion?
Take time to get to know the person. Take time to work out roles and future expectations. For example, if you are an adult, your birth mother may not want to be called “mum”. A parent may also have difficulties in calling their adopted child by name, especially if they gave the child a different name at birth and had thought of that child by their original name for many years.
What about extended family members?
Adoption reunions often involve other people as well. Try to be aware that the person you have found probably has to come to terms with explaining the reunion to other family members and friends. In addition, you may find that you now have a whole new family. This can take a great deal of patience, tolerance and understanding.
When the “honeymoon is over”
Don’t forget reunions are about real people. The initial period after meeting is a time of great excitement, growth and change. Some people have likened this phase to a “honeymoon” in that once you get home from your honeymoon, the real work of the marriage begins. Adoption reunions are often like this. Once the new exciting beginning is over, the hard work and reality begins. It is not always easy to continue a relationship if there are large differences in lifestyle, education, finances, moral values, life expectations, hobbies and interests.
Getting on with life
For a large majority, even those who find out distressing information, the “not knowing” of the past is over and they can now move on with their own lives. Some people involved in adoption have likened adoption to “holding their breath”. Once the reunion is over and people have information about themselves they can “go on breathing”, which means getting on with their lives.
Further down the track
For more information about adoption reunion, you may like to read some of the personal stories recorded in the book ‘Further Down the Track’, which can be purchased through the Post Adoption Resource Centre (PARC). In addition, PARC have a library of resources and books in relation to the adoption experience.