Legislation helping descendants of adopted people trace birth relatives should be extended to Scotland, says Gary Clapton
Descendants of thousands of Scots have a problem that many of us will never even consider. They are the descendants of adopted people who have died.
This group of people has no open access to any information about their biological families.
Adopted people themselves have access to records, such as their original birth certificate and court and agency records. With such sources of information, they can search for and perhaps make contact with their families of origin. But descendants of an adopted adult who has died – sons or daughters, for example – are in a different position. They will often find it impossible to locate or obtain access to any official information about their biological grandparents or other family members. Where the deceased has previously sought out his or her birth and court records, then information in the records may become available to his or her descendants. If not, the road back up the family tree is effectively blocked for anyone else.
It is not simply a matter of genealogical curiosity. Information about biological relatives can be very important – especially in relation to medical conditions, such as a tendency to develop diabetes or early onset heart disease. Multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis may also run in families, as do some forms of cancer. Knowledge of the medical history of biological relatives can be of crucial importance in preventing or treating conditions such as these. Once the adopted person has died, those left behind will often find it impossible to trace the information that could tell them whether or not they are likely to be affected by any hereditary condition.
An example from Birthlink’s files illustrates the issue – Nicola’s father was adopted as a baby in 1941. He found out that he was adopted by chance, when he was 17 years old. Nicola was to subsequently discover that he had always wanted to trace his birth family, but life, marriage and children took over and he took no steps to do so. Tragically, at the age of 37, Gordon died in a road accident. Nicola was three years old at the time. Gordon’s family of origin was always a curiosity for Nicola. Once she was older, and had children of her own, Nicola developed a passion for finding out about her father’s family. Her first attempts to access her father’s court records was unsuccessful (such access is at the discretion of a judge) but the second time around, with Birthlink’s help, her petition was successful. Adoption court records can be central to searching for birth relatives. They usually contain the name of the adoption agency that arranged the adoption and this kind of information is one such additional detail, preserved in the court records, that is not provided on the birth certificate.
After her successful petition Nicola was provided with a copy of her father’s court process records. The information gave Birthlink vital details that eventually led to contact with two of Nicola’s aunts – both living in Australia. They told us that Gordon’s mother – Nicola’s birth grandmother – was still alive, but frail and in a nursing hospital just ten minutes drive away from Nicola.
Nicola met with her birth grandmother before she died. Since then, she has had ongoing contact with her aunts, who have written with lengthy information about the dad that she only knew for three years before he died. Without the agreement of a judge – and Nicola’s determination – this would not have happened.
The plight of those in Nicola’s position has now been recognized in England and Wales. A campaign by a lobby group, Descendants of Deceased Adopted Persons, has been successful in persuading parliamentarians to amend legislation to include descendants in adoption services. The campaign argued that descendants should be granted the same rights as birth relatives, such as birth mothers and other birth relatives, who now have access to help in making contact with adopted adults.
Earlier this month, an amendment was made to a Children and Families Bill currently going through the UK Parliament.
The effect of the amendment, when the Bill becomes law, will be to enable the Department of Education to make regulations entitling a wider group of people to have access to intermediary services and information to help them contact birth relatives.
The government has said “The intention is that the persons prescribed under these regulations would include the direct line of descendants of the adopted person (ie children, grandchildren).”
The rub is that any extended regulations would apply only in England and Wales. For the sake of every Scottish person in a position like Nicola’s, Birthlink would support any move to establish similar provision in Scotland.
• Gary Clapton is a university lecturer in social work and a consultant with Birthlink, an Edinburgh-based charity