By Liz Hobday
January 11, 2011 / abc.net.au
Hundreds of adopted children in the United Kingdom have been contacted by their birth parents, who used social media sites like Facebook to track them down.
One adoption support group in Victoria says the process can be illegal, and a mother of three adopted children in the UK says it can be highly traumatic.
Adopted children can sometimes spend their whole lives wondering about their birth parents because the search process through official channels can take years.
One adopted teenager in the UK received a message on Facebook saying "Hello, I am your father. I have been searching for you ever since you were stolen by social services. You look beautiful. I love you so much."
The father who wrote the message is a registered paedophile, whose children were removed by social services and later adopted.
"Actually it's an enormous surprise - it's hijacking, it's an ambush when it - just an email, arrives via Facebook or some other social networking site that says, 'hello do you remember me? I think I am your birth mum,'" says British author Helen Oakwater, a mother of three adopted children.
One of Ms Oakwater's children was contacted by a birth parent through Facebook.
She says the consequences were devastating and has written a book about the experience called Bubble Wrapped Children.
The book says unexpected contact with birth relatives has re-traumatised children, and she has seen some run away from home and others drop out of school.
"Facebook allows access from the age of 13," Ms Oakwater said.
"And I certainly know of cases where people have been contacted within a year or two of that, certainly 15 year olds."
The manager at Victorian adoption support group VANISH, Colleen Clare, says she is aware of dozens of cases in Australia where parents have contacted children through Facebook and vice versa.
She says unplanned contact is a problem for children who already know their birth families, as well as children adopted at birth who are desperate for more information about their birth relatives.
"The problem with that is that it can lead you down a lot of false trails or it could expose somebody who is not prepared for that," Ms Clare said.
"I mean some people, as an example, may never have told their partner or their children that they have given up a child for adoption.
"Information comes out in a haphazard way and that can be very hurtful and damaging."
Ms Clare says the relevant legislation is outdated and support groups are under-resourced.
She also says birth relatives who make contact through Facebook may not know they could be breaking the law.
"Personally I think if you were to do it publicly, in a way that was not acceptable to the person, then they probably do have protections that they could call upon under the privacy laws," she said.
The Department of Family and Community Services in New South Wales says it has seen isolated cases.
But the chief executive of adoption agency Barnados in NSW, Louise Voigt, says the laws in her state mean contact with birth relatives is much more open than in other states, so Facebook is less of a problem.
"In New South Wales we have a system of open adoption, that is children that are adopted have opportunity to see their parents, or their parents have opportunity to see them," Ms Voigt said.
The Department of Human Services in Victoria says it has had no reported cases of children being contacted via Facebook.