In post adoption work it is so important to take the time to genuinely engage with families from the very first contact you have with them. Respect and trust can’t be built overnight, it takes time.
Sonali, Caseworker, Adoption Information Unit, Department of Family and Community Services
Robert’s story was not uncommon to us in the Adoption Unit. Now aged 58, he was separated from his birth family in 1956 at a time in Australian society when forced adoption happened regularly. The adoption was kept a family secret for decades until his birth mother, Margot, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Realising she only had months to live, Margot wanted to connect with her son.
It was during this traumat ic t ime for the family that Margot told her daughters, Grace and Amy, that she and their father, Paul, had placed a baby boy – their full biological brother – for adopt ion five decades earlier.
Margot and Paul were young, unmarried and from different cultural backgrounds. Their parents did not approve of their mixed-race relationship and when Margot became pregnant their families gave them no options. Being so young, disempowered and without any other support they relented and placed their first-born son for adoption. A decision that impacted on every day that followed for Margot and Paul.
Grace shared with me the flood of varied emotions she felt at this revelation. She described a sense of sadness at all the years lost, empathy for her parents who were in so much pain and shock they had kept the secret for so long. Grace being Grace, as I would come to know her later, also expressed grief for her brother who had been denied this ready-made family for so many years. She is the sort of person who focuses on others and how they feel, as much as her own feelings.
With her mum’s health ailing, Grace became the family’s advocate and began a journey to find her brother and hopefully reconnect him with her mum before she died. Her first step was to contact us at the Adoption Information Unit.
She spoke with the caseworker on duty who gave her the time and space to talk through her story. Grace’s greatest fear was that her brother had already died and it was too late to find him.
I began working with Grace as her caseworker after the family made the decision to formally start the process of reunion. Given Margot was running out of time, we pulled out all stops to speed up the application process and help work through paperwork in compliance with adoption legislation.
During my first conversation with Grace I allowed her the space to share her story in her own time. The approach paid off. After that she would often call to talk and I allowed her to move at her own pace through her emotions and be the best support I could be.
In post adopt ion work it is so important to take the t ime to genuinely engage with families from the very first contact you have with them. Respect and trust can’t be built overnight, it takes t ime.
As a part of the process, I helped Grace prepare for a range of possible outcomes. Her brother may not know he was adopted or want to reunite with the family. He could be angry or, as she feared, he may not be alive.
The next step was to invite Grace to prepare a first letter. This letter allows the searcher to reality-test their readiness and prepare emotionally for the complex journey to For the person being found, this letter from the birth family offers context and information to help them come to terms with being found. I suggested she write about her current life, motivation for the reunion and hopes for the ongoing relationship.
In the end, Grace found Robert on Google but we needed to make sure it was definitely her brother, so we sent him a registered letter. At this point we still didn’t know if Robert even knew he was adopted. If he did know, how would he feel about being found? I needed to prepare Grace for whatever Robert’s reaction may be.
Fortunately, Robert was at the right time in his life to meet his birth family. He had recently retired and was living a quiet life in country NSW. His adoptive father had died and his adoptive mother was elderly. Robert had recently recovered from a near fatal illness. He didn’t share a strong sense of belonging with his adoptive family and was incredibly excited to discover he had parents and two sisters living in the same state.
He couldn’t wait to read the letter from his sister, Grace, who had written a beautiful, honest and open-hearted letter welcoming him to their family. Crucially, she left it up to him to decide if he wanted to make contact. Thankfully for everyone he did and Grace and Robert shared a beautiful reunion at his home, four hours away from where Grace lived. Grace shared with me what it meant for her to see and hold her brother for the first time. She could not believe how much he reminded her of their father.
I wasn’t there when Robert was reunited with his sister or his mum at her bedside in palliative care, but Grace shared with me that it was deeply moving. He went on to spend a week in his parent’s home with his dad, Paul, getting to know each other in their own time and visiting his mother in hospital each day.
The family is now taking their time to get to know one another and catch up on all the years lost, including connecting with cousins, aunties and uncles. At the time of writing Margot is still battling cancer, blessed with a little more time to spend with Robert.
All three siblings came to visit me here in Sydney and it was amazing to see them together. Physically they looked so similar – there was no denying they were siblings.
I can only imagine what it must have been like for them to see themselves mirrored in each other’s faces. To see such strong similarit ies in their mannerisms after almost 60 years apart was incredible. Robert has taken on the surname of his birth family as part of the process of reclaiming his sense of identity.
I am aware that families begin a complex journey post-reunion – newly found relationships have to be negotiated and defined. I am hopeful that the rapport I established with Grace and Robert will mean they will call for support as they need.
Executive Director Statewide Services, Department of Family and Community Services.
This is a lovely story which led to a great outcome for this family.
The caseworker provided patient support and guided the family to progress to a successful face-to-face meeting. This step-by-step work is necessary to help prepare the family to meet and it needs to progress at the pace required by the family.
This story illustrates why open adoption and birth family contact is included in the Safe Home for Life child protection reforms. Research indicates that understanding birth family circumstances at the time of the adopted person’s birth and providing opportunities for contact throughout their lives is beneficial in successful adoption.