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.

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.

“In fact, they came to us at one and two years old with injuries inflicted by their birth father – one with a lifelong head injury – so they lived with the negatives every day. It’s not as if we were closed to contact either, having written to the birth family annually with news of the girls. But none of this stopped Facebook intruding on their adoption.”

It all started four months ago when Laura learned about a Facebook plea that had gone viral. “It came from another daughter of their birth father, who sent a post saying she was helping her dad to find two of his long-lost daughters. There was a big photo of my daughters, along with a lot of very personal details, and it had been shared by thousands of Facebook users.”

Although the girls were 21 and 22 when it happened, it caused untold damage, says Laura. “They were frightened that it was only a matter of time before he found them and although he didn’t discover where we live, he did find them online, even sending them a friend request on Facebook. The experience also brought up lots of feelings about their past. As for me, I felt physically sick about it all. It was hugely stressful.”

The police said they couldn’t help because the girls were over 18, and Facebook refused to take the post down, despite Laura explaining the situation. “In the end, my husband set up a bogus Facebook account to contact the birth father’s brother to ask for his help in taking it down. We felt he might be understanding, and he was. Having only been 16 when the injuries happened to our girls at the hands of his brother, he had no idea about it and was shocked.”

Thankfully, the adoption is solid enough for it not to have broken down, says Laura – although the same cannot be said for Philippa Morton, whose 17-year-old daughter was contacted, along with her two older sisters, by their birth mother on Facebook. “The girls had arrived with me aged two, four and five, having been sexually and physically abused, and it wasn’t long before I realised the extent of the damage this had done,” she says. “I did everything I could, including researching attachment issues, taking them to meet old foster carers and paying for years of therapy. We met their birth mother once but they didn’t want to do it again.”

In fact, Philippa’s youngest daughter was always afraid of bumping into her birth mother. “So when her birth mother appeared ‘virtually’ [on a social networking site] in her bedroom, it hit her hard. She disappeared into a vodka bottle and six years later, she hasn’t come out. She dropped out of education, the adoption broke down completely and she has depression.”

Such tales are familiar to Frances Coller. “While social media does not cause these kinds of problems in most adoptions, – and I do think it’s important to stress that – it is our job to pick up the pieces when it does cause a crisis. This usually involves assessing risk, trying to give the young person back some of the control and putting boundaries in place for contact moving forward. Often, this means setting up the first meeting with the young person, birth parents and adoptive parents. Thankfully, many birth parents behave responsibly and, in fact, it’s often they who contact us saying their child has been in touch and they are not sure how to handle it.”

At least there is new legislation, which means adopters can apply for a no-contact order if they feel inappropriate contact is taking place, says Elaine Dibben, adoption development consultant at the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (Baaf). “This protection mechanism was set up specifically with social media in mind.”

Also good news, she says, is the current push to achieve greater consistency in terms of information put together to help adopted children with their past, present and future: Life Story Work and Later Life Letters, the first of which is written for younger children to help them understand their past, while the second is written by social workers for older children. “Although both have been enshrined in good practice for 20 years, we know that sometimes they are not handed over or the quality just isn’t good,” says Dibben.

Support for families looks set to improve, too, since the government’s announcement that it is rolling out £19m of new funding into post-adoption from May, although BAAF points out that it remains unclear what the long-term status of this funding is.

“If this does translate to better ongoing support for adopters, then that’s excellent news,” says Sue, who adds that the other big change she would like to see is adopters given more training in social media and the specific risks it poses to adoption.

“In my experience, social workers just aren’t technologically savvy and so their advice is basic and unhelpful,” she says. “As for therapeutic help, I asked for it time and time again, but was constantly met with ‘Sorry, we don’t have the skills,’” she says.

“It felt a bit like calling the AA man when your car breaks down, only to be greeted with the words, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you today because my bag is empty.’ By the time we did eventually get help, it was too little too late and so when I think back, it’s no wonder that social media caused the harm it did to our family.”

Some names have been changed

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