Later Life Letters

1. Introduction

The provision of a Later Life letter is a statutory requirement for all children placed with adoptive parents. They are written by the child's Social Worker in conjunction with the adopters' Social Worker and are given to prospective adopters. If it is deemed appropriate, the child's birth family could be asked to write either their own letters to the child or make contributions to the Social Worker's letter.

The expectation is that the letter will be addressed to the child, but given to the adoptive parents for safe keeping. The adoptive parents should receive the letter after the Adoption Order is made and no later than 10 working days after the adoption ceremony, i.e. the ceremony to celebrate the making of the Adoption Order. The precise timing of this will be considered at the placement planning stage and at subsequent Adoption Reviews.

2. Purpose of the Later Life Letter

The Later Life letter has two purposes: the first is as a letter to be read by the child when deemed appropriate by the adoptive parents; the second is as a tool to be used by the adopters when talking to the child about their background and history. The term "telling" is often used as convenient short-hand for this. It is important to recognise that telling is not a one-off event, but an on-going and incremental process whereby the child is helped to learn about and understand their past.

The Later Life letter gives the child an explanation of why he/she was adopted and the reasons and actions that led up to this decision being made. This should include, whenever possible, the people involved in this decision, and the facts at that time. You must be aware of the mixed emotions, including sadness and anger that may have been around then, and this needs to be reflected in the letter.

The child is the focus of the letter and it must be remembered when writing the letter that the child has a need to know why he/she was placed for adoption. This is important information and it must be a true account of the process.

If birth parents were involved in the choice of adoptive parents, the letter should include reasons why they chose their child's adoptive parents. This may seem simplistic - e.g. "they live in the country"- but it needs to be stated (in contested situations this information may not be available). If the child's birth parent expressed any wishes about the choice of adoptive parents these should be included, e.g. would like him/her to have a sibling.

Remember that every child will see the letter at a different age, but this is likely to be during adolescent years, and so the letter needs to be written using language appropriate for the young person.

The decision on actual timing of this letter being shared is at the discretion of the adoptive parents. They will be in the best position to know when the young person will be ready to read the letter.

The letter is in addition to the child's Life Story book and should build on the information already contained in the book and should never be a substitute for the book - see Life Story Books Guidance.

3. What is Important? Everything!

As well as being a detailed and honest account of events, the letters could contain some 'soft' information, descriptions and anecdotes, but the basic information should not be sanitised. The letters should provide sufficient detail to give the young people a clear understanding of their early experiences, why they came into care and should enable them to dispel any fantasies they may have and should alert them to any risks should they wish to trace their birth family.

The information may be lost if not gathered together now. Experience shows that adult adoptees are eager for information collected at this time, even if it is painful.

The letter can be personalised by the Social Worker who knew the birth parents and the child at the time of the placement.

Be confident - don't be intimidated by the task. It is difficult but not impossible.

You have all the information you need. Think of yourself as an adopted person, what information would you want, what questions would you ask your birth parents?

4. There is No Right or Wrong Way to do This

The attached are only to be used as examples (see Section 7, Example Letter for an Adopted Child) - to give you ideas. What you produce will have to be something that you feel comfortable in producing, in each case the written style of the Social Worker and the information available will be different.

It is a good idea to write the letter in sections, for instance the legal situation could be separate from the more personal information. Initially adopters and the adopted child will need a simple explanation, this can then be developed into a more detailed account. In very difficult situations for example incest or sexual abuse, writing in sections can be helpful so that the story unfolds in manageable parts. Some social workers may prefer to write two letters to be given at different ages. This practice can also work well where there are difficult messages to communicate.

5. What Information Should be Included?

With the rise in social networking sites, and to protect young children, most agencies now agree that copies of original birth certificates, full names, dates of birth, addresses and other identifying information should not be included in the child's Life Story book. Such details are usually included in the Later Life letter, although some agencies are now also questioning the wisdom of sharing these details during adolescence. Our duty of care does not end with the Adoption Order and we need to be mindful of any potential safeguarding issues, should the young person use these details to initiate contact with birth family members, before they fully understand the risks.

Birth parents - as much information as possible should be included. Information should also be given about the extended family (i.e. grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles). Sometimes information on the birth father is limited. Whatever is available should be provided. If the identity of the birth father is not confirmed by him, only non-identifying information about him should be included.

Try and give a descriptive picture of the birth parents. This should include details about their first names, ages, physical characteristics, their personality, academic and employment history, health, their interests and skills. Also with whom they were living at the time of placement. If the child has brothers and sisters, similar information should be given. Are they adopted? If they live with birth parents, explain why. The child needs to know what happened to their brothers and sisters, who cares for them, and if relevant, why there is no contact. Be careful to give only first names for all birth relatives and do not use addresses or other identifying information.

Information needs to be given about the child's birth including weight, time, day, any complications or health issues. Also include the name of the hospital, who was present, what happened next? Who cared for the child after his/her birth?

Include comments by the Social Worker on any contact between the child and his or her birth parents and any information about any events that relate to the child around this time. Do not include the child's original surname. The child's original first name would usually be included in the Life Story book, unless there was a clear reason not to in which case it would then go into the Later Life letter.

Talk to the adopters about the letter. When telling the story, try to be balanced about the strengths and the difficulties and acknowledge that possible negative issues around the events leading up to a child's birth and subsequent placement may be difficult to convey. The adopters have to tell this story, and they may need ongoing support from the Post Adoption Support Service to enable them to do this. Acknowledge that we rely on the adopters passing on this information, so we want to involve them. Ask if you can talk about their hopes, fears and feelings at the time of the introductory meetings and placements. Can you include the reason why they wanted to adopt?

Give details of how any agreed contact was decided - whether it is "face to face" or Letter Box. The child needs to know that birth parents and other relatives want to hear about their progress, and that the adoptive parents agreed to the contact arrangements prior to placement.

When you have drafted the letter in consultation with the adopters' Social Worker you should show it to the adopters; they may have extra information that needs to be added. They may also wish to ask for some amendments/different wording. They need to feel comfortable with the content as this will inform the way they help their child to process the letter. Adopters should be reminded that they need to share and build on the information in the child's Life Story book. They should be able to answer the child's questions as they arise, so that by the time the letter is given to the child, there will be no new significant information for the child to process.

In the letter, the birth parents should be called by their first names and the adopters referred to as "your parents" or "mum and dad".

6. How? Write it to the Child

Have a look at the Section 7, Example Letter for an Adopted Child, and then be creative and imaginative.

You can write the letter in sections.

Remember the age at which you want the child to get this information and write it to the child at that age.

Brothers and sisters must have separate letters even when placed together, and this includes twins.

You should give the date the Adoption Order was granted, the name of the court, and you could include the names and office bases of all the Social Workers involved, although in each case care should be taken to ensure Social Workers are not exposed to any risk; first names may be preferable rather than full names.

Date and sign the letter. Keep a copy on adoption file and send the letter to the adopters' Social Worker who will give it to the adopters and explain their responsibilities in sharing the information with the child at a later date, i.e. that the information should be made available to the child at a time the adopters consider is appropriate, but before the child's 18th birthday, as at this stage the young person has the right to apply for access to the adoption records, and the information in the Later Life letter will prepare him/her for this.

The adopters should be asked for written confirmation of receipt of the letter and intention to share the information with the child.

7. Example Letter For an Adopted Child

As a general guide the letter should start like this:

I doubt that you will actually remember me, but your parents might have told you something about my involvement with you, before your adoption. I was a Social Worker with this authority in the 'Looked After Team', when you born, when you moved to your foster carers and when you first went to live with your mum and dad. This team was responsible for trying to find permanent substitute families for children who were unable to stay with their birth families. I first met you in your foster home, very shortly after your birth.

You will probably have read your Life Story book many times when you were younger, so you will already know quite a lot about your history and over the years your parents will have been able to share more information with you, and I hope that they have been able to answer most of your questions as they arose. As I knew you, when you were a baby and I met your birth mother and birth father, I also want to tell you something of my memories of them and of you and about what happened before you came to live with your mum and dad.

(And end with)

I think that you would have already known most of the information in this letter, but seeing some of this written down may still have been difficult for you to read and you may now have some more questions. Your parents may be able to answer any other questions you may have, or you may find it helpful to talk to someone outside of your family. There will be an Adoption Support Service in this authority, and you can contact this service at any time in the future if you would like to find out more about any of this information, or you could contact your local Adoption Service. After the age of 18, you could also ask for access to your adoption records. If this is something you would like to do before you are 18 years old, then you will need to discuss this with your adoptive parents first.

As I finish this letter, you are still only 3 years old and I can't help wondering what you will look like by the time you read this. I imagine you are a tall, fine young man and you may even still have those thick dark curls. I have often thought about you over the years, and I hope that all has gone well for you and that you have had a happy and secure childhood.

I wish you the very best for your future.

Example 1 - Joy Rees Letter

Click here to view the Example of a Later Life Letter.