Do you wonder about the options available for keeping contact with your child's birth family and what you can realistically expect?
Many adoptive families do.
Logistics, privacy concerns, language and cultural differences all combine to make contact challenging -- but not impossible.
I’ve put together this quick guide to contact options which I hope you will find useful. Let me know what you think.
Options for Maintaining Contact
Note: In late August 2016, shortly before this article was first posted, the Guatemalan postal service suspended operations. As of February 2017 the post office remains closed and packages sent to Guatemala are being returned to sender.
Relying on the post office
The first question many families ask after receiving a search report is if they can send mail to the address in the report. The post Why Having an Address for Your Birth Family May Not Be as Important as You Think provides some background on how addresses work in Guatemala. But if sending letters, cards and photos to your birth family sounds appealing, here are some things to consider first:
Can the birth family receive mail? Not all addresses in Guatemala are serviced by mail delivery so check with your searcher first.
Is it safe for the birth mother to receive mail? It is unusual for most people in rural areas of Guatemala to receive mail. If the adoption has been kept a secret, a letter arriving (especially one with foreign stamps and return address) could create an uncomfortable situation for the birth mom.
Do you have someone who can translate your letters into Spanish if you are not fluent? It is rare to find a birth family with members who can read and write English, so it is best to send your letter in Spanish. By the same token, you’d need to have someone on hand to translate any letters you receive. Google translate may be able to help you get the jist of a letter, but I’ve seen it result in some crazy talk as well. So it may be fine for translating a letter you receive but I would not use it to translate a letter that you are sending.
Is the birth mother literate in Spanish or does she have someone she trusts to read her your letters or translate them for her if needed? Many birth mothers cannot read or write Spanish and many do not speak Spanish. If this is the case for your birth mother, you’d want to make sure that she has a trusted family member or friend who could read her your letter.
Are you really patient? Mail delivery is notoriously slow in Guatemala and it can take months for a letter to arrive -- if it arrives at all.
Do you want to send anything of value to the family? Do you envision sending a photo album, clothing your child has outgrown, an afghan you knitted last winter? Keep in mind that items such as these may not arrive. It is not uncommon for packages to be opened and pillaged in route. You should also be aware that when packages do arrive the family may need to pay an import tax that will likely be beyond their means.
If you are very patient, only foresee one or two communications a year, have access to translation services and don’t envision sending anything other than a letter or card with a photo or two, using the postal service is worth a try. You will want to have a way to verify your letters are being received and have a backup plan if not.
Using an express service
Both DHL and Federal Express service Guatemala, as does King Express (http://www.shippingtoguatemala.com/) which specializes in deliveries to Guatemala. These services are much more reliable but can be expensive. When I fostered my daughter in 2003, I would have my business send me a monthly packet of documents via FedEx which cost around $40. I always got these packages (in Antigua) and the delivery guy even got to know me and one day tracked me down in the Central Park to give me my package! The downside to these services (besides cost) is that import taxes are often charged on anything other than a letter or document and the families rarely have the funds to pay these. You’ll want to check with the carrier before sending anything of value.
Making phone calls
Being in touch by phone is, of course, the most immediate form of birth family contact. I know a few adoptive families who manage to make phone calls work, so it is definitely possible, though not always easy. Here are things to think about if you want to try phone contact:
Does the birth mother speak Spanish? If she only speaks a Mayan language it may be tough to find someone who can translate for you, though she may be able to get someone to translate on her end. That could however involve your every word being translated from English to Spanish to the Mayan language and then back again which would be incredibly cumbersome and prone to miscommunications.
Do you have a Spanish translator available to be on the call? I’d recommend using a native speaker or someone who is very comfortable with Spanish and phone conversations.
Do you have a backup means of communication? Cell phones are frequently lost, stolen, sold or lent in Guatemala. Which means your birth family may not be the person who answers when you call. Most birth families pay for minutes as they go and if they do not have money for “saldo,” as it is called, for an extended time the phone company will take back the phone number. Also, many families don’t have electricity in the home to charge their phones so need to carry it to a store or neighbor to be charged which results in stretches of time when the phone is “out of service” and they cannot be reached.
Do you have an international calling plan? Maybe obvious, but otherwise you’ll spend a fortune. Prepaid cards that you buy in local convenience stores are also an option but those can be cumbersome to use.
You will also want to consider setting up a time to call the family rather than calling out of the blue in order to coordinate with work schedules. And finally, expect the calls to not always go through, especially if your family lives in a remote area and during the rainy season - cellphone coverage can be very spotty in Guatemala.
Exchanging email addresses
Many families don’t live near an Internet cafe or don’t have money to pay for one if they do. But if your family is lucky enough to have access to the internet and has a member who can manage an email account, this can be an easy and inexpensive way to maintain contact. The main drawback is language, but the nature of email does give you time to have your correspondence translated and for you to think through how to respond to requests.
Not all, but most families do have access to a cell phone which can make texting a possibility. I know a few families who do keep in touch this way. The thing to keep in mind is that while the family may have a cell phone, it is most likely not a smartphone but rather one that requires the old fashioned way of entering letters by pressing the corresponding number on the keyboard the correct number of times. This can hamper their ability to reply and sometimes garble the message you get. So not only will you have to deal with the same translation issues as with email, you may need to decipher the text, all while they are most likely expecting a quicker response. Before texting you’ll also want to find out if the birth family is charged for incoming texts.
Sharing on Facebook
Recently I have come across more families who are maintaining contact with birth family via Facebook posts and Facebook messaging. If your birth family has a Facebook account here are some things to think about if you are considering contact via Facebook:
Are you comfortable with the birth family seeing everything you post? While some adoptive families cite privacy concerns (not wanting the birth family to see where they live) others are uncomfortable knowing that the birth family’s living conditions are so drastically different from their own and how much more obvious this will be to the birth family who has Facebook access. Most adoptive families I know put Facebook privacy filters in place to manage exactly what birth family members see.
Are you comfortable with birth family members reaching out directly to your child if she has a Facebook account now or in the future when she is likely to have one? Having access to your account and seeing photos of your family will make it easier for birth family to track down your child and make contact. Many families are fine with this but not all.
Do you have a plan on how you would handle seeing or learning anything disturbing about the birth family? I was recently contacted by an friend seeking my advice as he became concerned after seeing his son’s birth brother posting pictures indicating he had joined a gang. My advice to him was to contact his searcher (he was working with someone else) and provide her with the information he had so she could take appropriate precautions in her interactions with the family.
Hiring someone to do it for you
While some adoptive families relish direct contact with birth families, others are more comfortable having someone to guide them in the relationship and to handle the logistics. If you have the resources, using an intermediary to manage contact with your child’s birth family could be a good solution. My recommendation is to start with the person who did your search as she will have the information needed and a head start on forming the trusting relationship. While it is possible to switch searchers/intermediaries read the post on Switching Searchers for more insight on what is involved.
What works for you
I don’t believe there is one best way to maintain contact with your birth family and what works for you may be some combination of what I’ve covered here or something else all together. I’d love your feedback on what works for you either in the comments or in the survey I posted a few weeks ago which is still open and you can find here: www.surveymonkey.com/r/DM6N7FZ