Adoption: myths and truths

I’ve embedded a recording of a webinar created by some adoptees from the UK. I think they are a new campaign group trying to reform adoption and children’s social services, or at least spark debate about it. It was referenced on a podcast I listened to recently. It is fairly unique in my experience in that they try to include the views of adoptees (older and more recent), adopters, birth parents and social work professionals. It looks to me like the organisers are fairly young too — possible mid/late-20s(?), so probably some of the first people who have experienced adoption under the modern UK system, albeit at a point where the guiding practice probably wasn’t as evolved and mature as it should be now. At the time I watched it only had about 200 views, but it deserves a lot more, especially from potential adopters. It is 90 minutes long, but there are no slides or props so you don’t need to actually view it, you can listen while you do something else and avoid eyestrain!

I have to say the title — myths and truths — probably reflects the mainstream view of adoption, which probably hasn’t moved on as much as the system itself has. I would hope that most recent adopters and social workers at least would be well aware of the issues raised here.

I thought the main useful issue that came out of this webinar were the problems of loss and identity. This seemed consistent across all ages and both adoptees and birth mums (you never hear from birth dads in this kind of conversation of course, apparently they don’t matter). None of the panelists seemed to think that adopters understood loss, which is interesting given the amount of work we have to do on it and how much it is evident in our children, whether they realise it or not. Sometimes I think that ‘lived experience’ is considered the be-all and end-all of everything nowadays. If you’ve never had something or done something then you can never empathise with those who have apparently. I don’t subscribe to that and think it is a bit patronising, but I don’t deny that is how they feel about it. It is certainly something that adopters need to remember and act on, and it can hit at any age of course. I also recommend this podcast — - (yes I do listen to a lot of podcasts!) which is a conversation between two adoptees, both well-known broadcasters in the UK, on this topic.

There was another interesting idea from one of the panel about adoption being more than adopting the child, but adopting the whole birth family. I think this was meant in a context about taking into account the history of the child from an identity point of view, and always thinking about the effect of decisions on the birth family’s relationship with the child. But the way she said it seemed to imply a mentoring or at least role-model aspect to being an adopter, i.e. helping the birth parent too. Essentially becoming volunteer guardians, support workers, and therapists to the whole family. That is quite a radical reform, and probably not something that should be left to an amateur like me who needs to work in a day job!

The birth mother’s story was interesting, both for what was said and what possibly unsaid. On the face of it a pretty horrific miscarriage of justice, where she was the victim of domestic violence and then her kids were quickly whisked away never to be seen again, apparently without even telling her. This was 17 or 18 years before the webinar, but still, not that long ago really. It shouldn’t have happened. She spoke movingly about her loss. I, like many adopters I suspect, was left with more questions than answers here, but it sounded like a sorry tale. You can’t help but feel sorry for her and think that some direct contact during the kids’ childhoods would have been appropriate.

For a webinar that sought to myth-bust it did continue to perpetuate a few, including the tired old caricature of adopters being ‘vulnerable’ and grieving the ‘loss’ of not being able to have children biologically. It was like we’d travelled back to the 70s. The main loss the adopters feel is for the loss of the child’s early years to criminal neglect, and the terrible and permanent consequences of that. Or another myth about how adopters and the system demonise birth parents. They seemed to forget that many, if not most, children do actually remember their birth parents. We don’t need to demonise even if we wanted to, and as the whole point of adoption is to help the child come to terms with what happened you don’t do that by bad-mouthing the previous parents. Another one about how people think adoption is ‘happy ever after’. No they don’t. Well OK if you believe Roald Dahl’s Matilda maybe, but that is quite old now. Plus it’s fiction. Or another about how adopters are allowed to have flaws but birth parents aren’t. Erm, really? A family member of mine is a child protection social worker, and trust me, her standards and expectations of parenting are very, very, very low. If you’re not good enough for her, then sorry, your ‘flaws’ mean you’re really not safe to be around children. By-and-large though, it did a good job of not just doing the fashionable thing and having a go at adopters just for daring to look after a child that is not biologically related.

I may have fallen asleep (sorry it was a hot day), but I didn’t hear that much about contact which surprised me. There was a bit about the inadequacy of letterbox (although not everyone was quite as negative as I’d expected), but nothing really about how you’d replace it in a safe and sensible manner for young children. There was a suggestion that physical letters aren’t as engaging as emails or messages. I respectfully suggest otherwise. They are so rare now that they are an exciting novelty, plus you have something physical to retain. They are also more inclusive — more people have access to pen and paper than they do a smartphone or laptop, and electronics are rubbish if you are disabled, like sadly a much higher proportion of adopted kids are. I think some people were speaking from a position of unrecognised privilege. But neither are a substitute for direct interaction, I agree. The question remains about how you’d do that in a way that isn’t triggering for the child. We don’t ask adult victims of abuse to regularly meet their abusers, so in my opinion we shouldn’t do that for children who won’t have the resilience to cope yet either.

Some of the points made are not really directly about adoption, but more about the child protection system in general, i.e. under what circumstances should a child actually be placed for adoption. The opinion of the panel seemed to imply (although never explicitly stated as far as I remember) that too many children were currently being placed. They were skirting round the issue a bit rather than dealing with it, but it would be interesting to find out why the panel think the children currently waiting for adoption should not be. There were a few vague references to ‘not enough support’ for birth families, but how much is ‘enough’? Maybe at the moment that decision is a subjective or biased one rather than being objective, but I doubt it, given the number of people who are involved in making it. More credibly, there might be a lack of resources, especially in the Age of Austerity. It does imply a postcode lottery if you leave the decision on funding to the council, which is never good thing. It would be interesting to find out how many decisions to place for adoption are based on the fact that they can’t fund the support for the birth family, and if that fact is ever communicated to the adopters. Would reforming the system to eliminate this really result in a large reduction in placements? Presumably the child only got to this point to start with because the birth parents had genuine choices and had taken the wrong option. The point is we don’t know, and neither did the panel. One panel member mentioned that there should be more guardian orders instead of adoption — well there are nowadays, 5300 in England alone in the last year I can find (2015) — twice the number of adoptions. Another example of the views being a little dated at times.

Although lack of resources is a valid point, and an interesting topic for the social policy wonks and anyone interested in social justice, it is not really the remit for us with our ‘adopter’ hat on though. We are just looking after the children at the end of the process, so for us we have to assume that it was properly assessed as being in the child’s best interest to do that. If you couldn’t assume that then you’d find it difficult to summon the commitment necessary to be the child’s new parent because you’d always have the nagging fear that there’d been a miscarriage of justice, that they shouldn’t be there and should have been in care instead. And of course there are plenty of people out there who use the necessary confidentiality of the family courts to cast doubt on the process, so they can deny their own culpability and portray themselves as victims.

All in all there was plenty to think about, and probably more that I missed. Good stuff, I’ll look forward to more of these!



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