It’s beginning to feel a lot like that festive time of year for Shi Ning, a registry administrator with the adoption and permanency team at the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Victoria.
Working diligently behind the scenes — just like one of Santa’s elves — Shi Ning ensures that the cards and parcels addressed to the ministry from birth parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles get redirected to the adoptive families and into the hands of the children they’re meant for.
This unique exchange, simply referred to as The Exchange Program (which has existed for 20 years), takes place throughout the year — with birthdays, Christmas and the end of the school year being especially popular.
Acting as an intermediary means that Shi Ning’s desk can become a bit cluttered as she aims for same-day turnaround for all the boxes and envelopes that arrive. With that kind of service, she’s giving Santa a run for his money on delivery times.
When a letter comes in, she checks the openness agreement to ensure that the person sending the gift or card has formal approval to communicate with the child. Then, she redirects as required, and the delivery is sent to the intended recipient.
Before adoptions are finalized, specific and detailed openness agreements are discussed between the ministry, the adoptive parents and the birth family. This includes discussing the nature of the birth family’s ongoing involvement. There are two main types of openness agreements: fully disclosed agreements and semi-disclosed agreements where, respectively, either all parties are known to each other or only specific parties have knowledge of one another.
“Children want to know who they are and where they come from, in terms of family,” says Trisha Myers, director of adoption services. “This program opens an avenue of communication and provides a way for adopted children and youth to feel a connection to their biological family — and vice versa.”
Every scenario is completely different, says Shi Ning. What remains constant is the sensitive nature of the interaction, and like any relationship, that can change over time. “Sometimes gifts get returned or go unacknowledged when families move or relationships, in spite of the agreement, take a turn that shuts down the willingness to communicate.”
In the happiest outcomes, Shi Ning says she’s seen letter exchanges become email or social media connections that, once trust grows, eventually lead to face-to-face meetings and stronger ongoing relationships.
This program is one small example of how the behind-the-scenes work of one ministry employee lets kids who have been adopted know that their birth families are thinking of them, care, and want to make sure they know it. And that sounds a lot like the holiday spirit.