Troubled legacy of adoption remains with us - Gary Clapton

Legal Adoption in its current form is relatively new. But every society at every time in history has children who are separated, willingly or otherwise, from their immediate parents to be brought up in another family.

Dr Gary Clapton, reader in social work and programme director for BSc (Hons) in social work, Edinburgh University.

In Scotland fostering of children is not new. However, the stigma and disapproval associated with parents whose children are adopted or fostered is relatively recent. In a history of the Scottish clans, Alan McInnes of Aberdeen University wrote that in the 17th and 18th centuries, the sons of chiefs or other leading clan gentry would bring up each other's children for a formative period of at least seven years, being responsible for their education. The child would be entitled to similar financial support, both in childhood and adulthood, to that given to the birth children of the foster father. There was no stigma attached to this practice which was designed to create bonds of loyalty within the clan.

For families fallen on hard times, informal arrangements for fostering children have always been common, as better-off relatives took in these children or those orphaned or born out of wedlock. But in the 19th Century, with thousands forced off the land into the cities, the Poor Law system of boarding out children with strangers became more common, and care by relatives fell out of favour. Families, not their circumstances, were blamed and children were to be rescued away from the negative influence of their unsuitable families.

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That Victorian disapproval and stigma affecting parents, particularly mothers, who give up or have children taken from them, continues to the present day into our care system. Legal adoption was introduced by 1930 and this allowed for the legal duties and rights of parents to be given to the adopters to bring up a child “as if born to them”. This enabled children born out of wedlock, orphaned, or abandoned, to be offered a new identity as if they were the actual child of the adoptive family.

This often led to the truth of their origins being deliberately withheld from children, who grew up believing the fiction that they were indeed born to their adoptive family. In the 1960s and 1970s this was seen as the kindest thing to do but it was to cause obvious problems when the grown-up children applied for passports or got married and their full birth certificates revealed the truth. Many children did enjoy happy childhoods in loving homes but the shock of discovering the lie would cause many of them to feel betrayed by both their birth family and their adoptive family. Sometimes children were told about their adoption in the context of kicking over the traces in adolescence, and this could be felt as rejection.

So-called troublesome adopted people often figure in fiction and films as the villainous product of the “bad seed” betraying the suspicion felt of those children. Jeanette Winterson the famous author was herself adopted and relates how when her adoptive mother was angry with her she would tell her that “the devil led us to the wrong crib”.

The troubled legacy of adoption’s ups and downs remains with us. Now that our work is returning to normal, we roll up our sleeves and look forward to providing a full service again.

Dr Gary Clapton, reader in social work and programme director for BSc (Hons) in social work, Edinburgh University.

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