Contacting people from your past
This page contains information about how to re-connect with former carers, family, friends and others from your past.
It isn’t intended for those who wish to get in touch with family members for the first time, such as a parent or sibling you’ve not yet met. If this is the case for you, it may be helpful to refer to the guidance in the searching for relatives you’ve not yet met section.
Finding family you have lost touch with
As a care leaver it is likely that you know who your family are, and you may still be in touch with some of your relatives. However, many people have lost touch with key people from their early lives. For example, you may have been separated from siblings while you were in care. You may also have lost touch with one or more of your parents, or with your grandparents, aunts and uncles. Accessing your care records may prompt you to try and find them.
This is quite different to adopted people’s search for their birth families, where they know nothing or very little to begin with. You may know a lot about your family, including their names, where they live and what has happened to them in the intervening years. This can make it much easier to find them and to reconnect. However, it can also mean that the process is complicated, especially if you are looking for parents whose actions or decisions led to you being in care.
You may have a former relationship with them, which might have been difficult or traumatic. You may have mixed feelings of love, blame, anger, sympathy and many other emotions relating to them. Reading your records may have told you things that you didn’t know before and added to this complex mix.
You should think carefully about whether you want to make contact and what might happen as a result. Be clear from the start what you want from the relationship: do you want a continuing relationship or just to ask questions? Would you like them to be more involved in your life and the lives of your family? This will help you to set boundaries for making contact.
Searching for family
It may be straightforward to find your family. They may still live in your local area, or they may be in touch with relatives that you know. These days it is often very easy to locate someone on Facebook or other social media. In fact, many care leavers find their family members are suggested to them as ‘friends’ to connect with. In other cases your care records may give you a clue, although it is likely that contact details will have been redacted. In any case they would probably be out of date.
If none of these are true of your situation, then you can use some of the same tactics used by adopted people searching for their birth relatives. If you believe a person is still alive and their name is unlikely to have changed, you can begin by searching the Electoral Registers of the place you know your relative last lived. We have a page on how to do that. If it is possible their name has changed, e.g. a person has married or remarried, then you can use the General Register Office indexes of marriages to try and locate a certificate and identify their new name. You can also use the indexes for deaths to make sure a person hasn’t passed away. We also have a page on this.
There are also other sources of potential information, including local newspapers, directories and former neighbours that you can try. See our guidance for further information on these.
Alternatively you can contact the Salvation Army’s Tracing Service, who will conduct a search on your behalf for a fee.
Making contact with family
Before you make contact with a family member you should make sure that you are emotionally ready. If there are any risks associated with getting in touch, for yourself or your relative, then you should be extra careful about initiating contact. You should also bear in mind that they may not wish to have contact from you so it’s important to prepare yourself for the possibility of rejection.
You may wish to use an intermediary or a go-between to introduce the idea of contact. Unfortunately, there are very few organisations that can help you with this. However, if you were in care with a voluntary organisation then they may be able to provide a tracing and intermediary service . The Salvation Army also provides these services, and you could also ask a family member or friend as they may be willing to write a letter or make a phone call on your behalf. You may also wish to write yourself, but only give out your address where you feel secure doing so. Writing first rather than turning up at someone’s door ensures that you both have the chance to think about what you want to say and do.
Be careful making initial contact by social media. It may be very tempting to ‘friend’ someone and send them a message, but be aware of your privacy settings and all of the information that you may be making available to them.
What happens next?
There is no road map for rebuilding relationships with family and it may not go exactly as you had imagined. You may find that it is possible to make new bonds or repair old ones, but it can take more or less time depending on the nature of your relationship. You may also find that you don’t wish to pursue further contact after all, either because you have the answer or closure you needed or because the experience is not what you wanted. This is your right and it is one of the reasons to be careful on making contact, to ensure you stay in control of what happens next and can disconnect again if you want or need to.
There is also the possibility that a family member may not want to have contact with you. Some of the reasons this can happen are:
- Pressures in their life make it difficult, e.g. finances, housing, substance use
- They are reminded of a difficult or traumatic period
- They are concerned about the feelings or responses of family or friends
- They may not be ready
This can be difficult to understand or accept, and it may bring up feelings of rejection and sadness from childhood, but unfortunately you must respect their decision.
You may find it useful to look at our pages on continuing family connections.
Former social workers, foster carers or residential carers
You may wish to contact specific people who looked after you as a child. They may be significant to you for a number of reasons, even if you didn’t know them or live with them for very long. We know that some care leavers access their records specifically to get further information about people they would like to contact. You may wish to talk to them about their memories of you, or see if they still have any photographs or objects from your childhood.
Finding former social workers, foster carers or residential carers
If your social worker or carers still work for the local authority that looked after you, or did in the recent past, it is possible that the local authority will be able to act as an intermediary and contact them on your behalf. They won’t give you a person’s contact details, but they may pass yours on with an explanation of what you are hoping for. We have heard of a number of cases where this help was given even where an organisation doesn’t offer other kinds of intermediary services.
If this doesn’t work it may also be possible to locate former carers based on clues in your care records. Although specific contact details and addresses will usually have been redacted, and in any case, will probably be out of date, there may be other useful information. Alternatively, in the case of foster carers, you may remember where they used to live. If not, you should at least have their names. These should not be redacted from your records, as people who were paid to care for you are not considered ‘third parties’ by the Data Protection Act.
The first step to locating a named person is to try to use the local Electoral Registers to trace their last known address. We have a page on how to do this. In the case of foster carers you may be able to trace them through the time from when you lived with them until the present. In the case of residential carers you may need to search the general area around the home you lived in.
However, it is possible that they have passed away or changed their name. If it is possible their name has changed, e.g. a person has married or remarried, then you can use the General Register Office indexes of marriages to try and locate a certificate and identify their new name. You can also use the indexes for deaths to check for a death certificate. We also have a page on this. If you find the trail goes cold you can write to their last known address or to their former neighbours to see if the new residents have any information about what happened to them.
You can also use the Salvation Army Tracing Service for a fee.
Making contact with former social workers, foster carers and residential carers
You should prepare yourself for a variety of outcomes to making contact with people who knew you as a child. They may immediately remember you and be keen to see you. Some care leavers become lifelong friends with their former carers, who have kept photographs and mementos from their relationship. However, others find that carers don’t remember them or don’t wish to see them. This may be for a number of reasons, including a desire to move on with their lives or a feeling of vulnerability in older age. This can be very disappointing and upsetting, and you should be prepared for it.
If you can’t use an intermediary such as the local authority, voluntary organisation or the Salvation Army to make contact, we would recommend writing to the person you have located in the first instance. This gives you both time to think about what you want to say, and allows you to preserve your privacy. If a person doesn’t want to see you they have an opportunity to make that decision. You may wish a friend or family member to make this initial approach, or you may feel able to do it for yourself.
As with making contact with family, be careful about making initial contact via social media. You may unwittingly share something with someone that you would prefer to keep confidential and vice versa.
Making contact with people who have hurt or abused you
In rare cases, you may feel you want to track down people who hurt or abused you. You may wish to question them or confront them about what they did, especially if you can find no evidence of it in your care records. We would absolutely advise against this. It is unlikely to help you with unresolved feelings about what happened and it may be dangerous. Instead, we recommend reporting the abuse to others as is appropriate. We have a page about how to do this and who can support you.