While we need to encourage more adoptions, we should remember that this is often just the start of the story, says Richard Scott
The television programme Long Lost Families was back on our screens recently, with a third series. The show is about finding and contacting family members who have lost all contact with one another.
The first of the new series was about adults separated by adoption.
With the help of presenters Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell, aided no doubt by many others, two adopted people who had both been adopted as babies were re-united with their birth mothers. And one of them found, to his astonishment, that his birth mother and father were still together. Two sad stories, each with a happy ending.
Some time ago now, Radio 4’s Book of the Week was Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The writer had a difficult and painful childhood after being adopted. She refers to her adoptive father simply as “poor dad”; but the real villain of the piece is the adoptive mother. Winterson’s novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, was believed by many to be largely autobiographical. If so, it was an under-statement. It now turns out that her real-life experiences were considerably worse than the fictional ones.
Eventually, unsurprisingly, Jeanette Winterson went looking for her real mother.
The return of Long Lost Families has been timely. In the last couple of years, there has been a national adoption and fostering campaign. Prime Minister David Cameron has criticised local authorities for taking too long to complete adoption procedures. “We need a real culture change in this country to be more pro-adoption,” he said.
Here in Scotland, the charity Barnardo’s Scotland, which closed its adoption service in the 1990s has now reversed its policy. The charity has urged social workers to take decisions to put children up for adoption sooner. It also calls for more adults to consider giving a permanent home to children living in foster or residential care.
In the policy memorandum in support of its Children and Young Persons Bill, the Scottish Government states that it is committed to increasing the number of adoptions from care. Of course, adoption is often the only satisfactory solution to promote the best interests of a particular child. And if a child is to be adopted, the procedures should be swift and effective. But the adoption is not the end of the story. It often just the beginning.
Many adopted adults feel a need to meet their birth parents. Adopted persons often lack genetic and medical history, as well as other family information. A routine visit to the doctor may make adopted persons acutely aware of how they differ from those who were not adopted.
In the words of playwright and adopted person Edward Albee: “No matter how wonderful your parents are, what they give you and what opportunities they provide for you, they can never tell you who you really are.” For a mother, the adoption of her child can produce profound and protracted grief reactions, depression and an enduring worry about the welfare of the child.
Birth fathers may be similarly affected.
Adults who have been in local authority care may have lost all contact with their birth families. They need to know what happened to them and whether they have brothers, sisters or other surviving relatives.
The numbers of persons who are affected by adoption are greater than you might think. It has been calculated that in Scotland the number of those immediately affected, as birth parents or adopted persons, is in the region of a quarter of a million.
Add in adoptive parents and other family members, including birth relatives, and you find that maybe as many as one Scot in ten is affected by adoption.
People who are affected by adoption, or the experience of being in care, need skilled help and support in a number of ways – for example in tracing lost relatives, in helping reunions to succeed, in counselling and mediation, and in helping them to face facts that can sometimes be hard to take. There are many worthwhile organisations that carry out at least some of this work. One such is Birthlink, an Edinburgh-based Scottish charity which celebrated its centenary a couple of years ago. It offers a package of services to people affected by adoption, including its Adoption Contact Register for Scotland. Services are provided by professional social workers.
What happens after adoption is just as important as what happens before.
• Richard Scott is the chair of Birthlink, an Edinburgh-based charity with over 100 years of experience of working with families.