Letterbox contact: ‘Don’t my birth children have a right to know I’m dying?'
A young woman whose children were adopted wants them to know that she has a terminal illness. But the rules don't permit direct contact, writes Georgina Hewes, so she cannot be sure they have been told.
In 2017, Hanna was told she had six months to live.
"When I got the news, I got straight on the phone to Social Services. I just needed to know my children were OK," she says.
At that point, 11 years after her children had been taken from her, Hanna had had no news of them for seven years.
As a teenage mum who'd been in and out of care and had no support network to speak of, Social Services had deemed Hanna unable to care for her children.
Hanna describes the moment she watched her 14-month-old twins driven away to their new family as "the worst day of my life". She was 16, and had spent more than a year fighting to keep them, while living in a mother and baby foster placement.
"Mum used to beat me up until I was black and blue. I think they worried that history would repeat itself," she says.
Like most birth parents in the UK, Hanna was granted "letterbox contact" when her children were adopted - an agreement meaning she could exchange letters with her children and their adopters until the children reached 18.
In her case, the judge extended the typical once or twice a year letterbox to three times a year, specifying that Hanna should also be allowed to send her children birthday and Christmas cards as well as receive photos from the adopters.
But making arrangements is one thing - maintaining them is something else altogether.
About a year after her children were gone, true to the "letterbox contact agreement", Hanna received the first of many letters. But rather than uplifting her, it pushed her into a "deeper depression".
"The letter was written as if it had been written by my children, saying 'Mummy and Daddy did this with us, we did that.' But my children were only two, it was clear they hadn't written it."
As time progressed, letters continued to arrive. But Hanna increasingly left them unread. "It was as if they were following a particular template - 'We went on holiday, we went horse-riding.' None of them told me anything I wanted to know, like how my children were developing or what their interests were," she says.
"In the end I'd take the photos out and not read the letters as it was too painful."
Hanna didn't write back, because her feeling of loss was too overwhelming. Then, four years after the adoption, when her life was getting back on track, she finally put pen to paper.
"I wrote and told them about my life: that I had a loving partner now, and that I was working. I told them about my job and where I lived, and how much I missed them, how hard losing them had been for me, and how I thought about them every single day and wished they were with me," Hanna says.
But some weeks later she received notification from her local authority that her letter had not been sent because some of its content was "inappropriate".
In the UK, the local authority's adoption agency acts as a middleman in the letterbox correspondence. This is partly so that names and addresses are not disclosed - but council officials also check what people write.
"Social Services told me I shouldn't say where I worked, that I shouldn't say, 'Wish you were with me.' Everything had to be positive. I phoned for help but they just kept sending me leaflets on how to write a letter that made no sense. So I gave up."
After a while, letters stopped arriving from the children too.
Helping birth mothers write these letters was Mike Hancock's job for 10 years. He works for the PAC Family First Service, which local authorities may contract to help them fulfil their statutory duty to support the birth parents of adopted children.
"We have to think about who's receiving the letter, whether the local authority will send it on, and whether the adopters will show the children," he says.
"You're not encouraged to be emotional in these letters. If the birth parent is very upset and misses the child they can't put it in, as it will upset the kids."
The first letter is the hardest, he says.
"Sometimes the parents are so cross, hurt and distressed that they don't want to write. Many of the mothers are like rabbits in the headlights. They're traumatised by their own experiences and the adoption. They've lost their kids and are grieving. Often they'll have problems with literacy."
Birth parents and adoptive families both have the right to ask for support with letter-writing, but the quality and provision is patchy, says Anna Gupta, professor of social work at Royal Holloway University. Some local authorities will have designated letterbox co-ordinators who support and facilitate contact, others will contract the service out, while others may have nothing at all.
Had Hanna had Mike Hancock's support all those years ago, things might have turned out differently. She may have succeeded in sending a letter to her children, and may have continued receiving them in reply.
Every year Hanna and her husband would celebrate her children's birthday and sing happy birthday, not knowing whether they would ever know any more about them.
"For years I worried about them and I'd have nightmares that they had been killed… I didn't know, would I be told?"
When Hanna found out her own death was imminent, her question was whether her children would be told.
She informed her local authority that she had stage four kidney failure, had been given six months to live, and wanted to get in touch with her twins. But nothing happened.
Two months later, Hanna received a bundle of 12 old letters from the adopters that the local authority had "lost" - and that was it, she says.
Then, over a year later, she was contacted by PAC for a different reason, and told them her story. The PAC worker set about co-ordinating with Social Services, who traced Hanna's children's adopters and informed them of her pressing health condition.
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In the meantime, PAC helped Hanna construct the letter to her children to re-establish contact. It was finally sent to the local authority in 2020, long after doctors had expected she would die.
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