Slaying some adoption myths

My first listicle, I’m really getting into this blogging thing. As adoption is expressed in many different forms throughout the world and throughout history, there is understandably a lot of confusion about what it actually entails. I thought I’d put together a few of the more common myths here and explain the reality — at least the reality for the United Kingdom in 2021.

Myth 1: An adopted child gets a new birth certificate

There is a lot of confusion here, not surprisingly given the historical legacy of forcibly relinquished babies. My grandad was one of them. But even he didn’t have a new birth certificate, and that was over 100 years ago. It did happen for some though, apparently, mainly in the 1960s and 70s. What happens today however is that the original birth certificate is declared null and void. It can’t be used to identify anyone anymore. But it doesn’t disappear. It is still available to the adopted person and indeed nowadays a copy will be included as part of the ‘life story’ documentation handed over to the adopter once the Adoption Order goes through. Everyone has a right to know their history. What replaces the birth certificate is not another birth certificate. It is an adoption certificate. It is quite clear when you read it that it is an adoption certificate. Says it in big text. Sure the short form (the one that doesn’t mention parental names and occupations) looks like a birth certificate still, as the Kafkaesque bureaucracy every country develops still sometimes demands that you need to prove that you were born (as if being alive wasn’t good enough). That’s all an employer needs though. They don’t need to know you were adopted and for some that isn’t something they’d want an employer to know anyway, for privacy reasons. But it isn’t actually a birth certificate. And the full certificate — the one you have to use to actually identify yourself when getting a passport or getting married etc — does not look like a birth certificate and isn’t one. No one is ‘falsifying’ birth records.

Myth 2: An adopted person does not know their medical history prior to adoption

This seems to be a very persistent myth. Some adopted people in the UK feel that they need to use it as an excuse to find their birth parents, to ask them stuff about their medical history. Maybe they think the birth parent won’t speak to them otherwise, or maybe they feel that they need to give a reason to their adopters, who knows? But anyway, it isn’t true and doesn’t even make sense if you think about it. As a parent you need to know your child’s medical history. This is true whether you are biologically related to them or not. How on Earth would you know whether they’d ever had a reaction to a wasp sting, or when their last tetanus vaccination was, or when that historic bone break was? If that medical history was not transferred to the child’s new NHS number then you’d never know about it for sure. Yes you get some information in the child protection report, but it isn’t a whole life history and it isn’t an official medical record.

That’s not to say it isn’t a bit of a clumsy process. A medical secretary has to go through and laboriously manually edit the records to cross out names that are not relevant to the history, for privacy reasons. It can take months because (as you can imagine) the children who are adopted nowadays have a lot of medical records. They’ll have been to the GP or hospital much more than a non-adopted kid. The process needs to be quicker. We went 2 years through placement and adoption without knowing any medical information. Not good, especially as it turned out that there was a (thankfully unusual) potential allergy in the records.

Anyway, even if it was true and adopted people don’t know their early-life records then they are hardly alone in this. I don’t have any records from before I was 6 myself as the doctor lost them all during a change of address! All those vaccinations I remember getting don’t exist at all apparently. Sometimes that’s just life and cock-ups.

Myth 3: Adopted ‘babies’ are replacement for biological babies

Sigh. Where to begin with this one? It’s like they’re stuck in the 1960s. The latest figures I can find (2019–20) say that less than 5% of children placed for adoption were under 1 year old. That’s 5% of about 3000 children, so maybe 150 in all the country. And 11 months old isn’t a baby. What’s more most of them will have been siblings of older children being placed, as the average period in care for a child prior to adoption is 2 years. You need that period in order to see if the birth family can make the necessary changes to allow them to continue to be the parents. The average age of a child at placement was about 3 and a half, which means that half were 3 and half or over. Admittedly that is a fall in the average age since the year we adopted (it was 4 then), but hardly babies. Close on a third of adopters were either same-sex couples or single adopters, meaning they wouldn’t have been able to try for a baby anyway, even if they’d wanted to.

When you adopt you have to declare that you have not been trying to conceive either naturally or via IVF for at least 3 years. If you have done that, and you are found out, then you are rejected as a potential adopter. No child should have to feel that they are second best to a biological child. That’s not to say that most adopters wouldn’t have already tried to have children, and they may already have children. It is after all a lot easier than adopting. But the point is that you should be doing it because you want to help a child, not to replace a baby you couldn’t have or lost.

Myth 4: Money changes hands for babies

That is illegal in the United Kingdom for all domestic adoption, no one can pay for child. As far as I am aware this has always been the case ever since adoption existed as a legal thing.

‘Voluntary’ agencies (mainly ex-church charities) can be paid by state agencies to find adopters for a child, which does raise the issue of suspicion of potential conflicts of interest. Another reason to avoid such agencies, which most people do — only 1 in 5 adoptions are via voluntary agencies these days.

A grey area is international adoption (adopting a child from another, usually much poorer, country). Although in practice it is almost impossible now due to immigration laws, and so vanishingly insignificant in terms of numbers, I think it still exists as a legal possibility. Under UK law an individual can pay for ‘reasonable expenses’ to the agency involved. This obviously creates a bit of loophole which can perpetuate some morally dubious practices in other countries. It should be banned.

Myth 5: Adoption cuts off all contact with birth families

Not really true but there is an element of truth here which stems from the historical legacy of adoption. It is true to say that the minimum that any adopter might be asked to do is an annual letter/email to the birth parents (and siblings who don’t live with them), to which the child should be allowed to contribute to if they want to. That isn’t very much, but it isn’t ‘none’. The reason for this minimum is simply because every child has different circumstances, and sometimes that one letter is all that can be done, for a variety of reasons. However just because that is the minimum doesn’t mean that most children don’t get a lot more than that. In-person contact several times a year with birth siblings who don’t live with your child is almost a certainty nowadays, plus video calls, online gaming sessions etc. My son sees his birth siblings more than his adoptive relatives at present — and that’s not just a COVID thing.

With birth parents any direct contact has to be supervised for the most part. For some reason among adoptees and birth parents, this needing this to be supervised is controversial in adoption, even though it is universally accepted for foster care and guardianship. Unsupervised contact (i.e. open adoption) is not very common in the UK and is often considered immoral by adopters themselves, after all if you don’t consider the birth parent to be a threat to the physical or psychological safety of the child then why place them for adoption in the first place? Why would you want to adopt such a child, this isn’t the Dark Ages.

It is true to say that supervised in-person meetings are still fairly rare too, but that is mainly down to lack of social services resources rather than reluctance on the part of the adopter. There just isn’t a system to facilitate it on a mass scale. Also there is simply a lack of time in which to prepare and plan it before the child grows up. You only have a 10 year window really, which sounds like a lot, but it isn’t. It is time since the London Olympics, which seems like yesterday to me. My son is already most of the way through his childhood, but it feels like it has only just begun for me. Contact will require a full therapeutic help and assessment, and is unlikely to start happening until the child is in their mid-teens, when they can consent to it. Nothing worse than forcing nonconsensual contact on a child with their abuser when they aren’t ready for it!

Myth 6: Adoptees are not full citizens and don’t have full rights

Yes they are, and yes they do.

Myth 7: Adopters can ‘resign’ from being a child’s parent

Often called disruption or more recently rehoming (the latter of which sounds like they are talking about dogs to me — a very odd choice of euphemism), it is true to say that especially during teenage years adopters will sometimes have to call on the help of social services and the care system. The child may return to foster care for a while if they are getting unmanageably violent towards siblings especially. This is not just an adoption thing of course, any parent would have to go through the same procedure regardless of biological tie or not, if they can’t guarantee the safety of themselves or other children. Children with certain additional needs are quite often very difficult for a parent to manage once they are stronger than the adult, and unfortunately adopted children are far more likely to have those additional needs. The adopter remains the legal parent though, for the rest of the child’s life, and is still responsible for them while they are under 18, even if the child is not living with them anymore. Adopters cannot become non-adopters by their own volition.

Foster carers can resign from caring for a child. They are employees and have the usual employment rights as anyone else. Special guardians can also step down from their position although this is quite a lengthy legal process. This is sometimes where the confusion with adopters lies I think.

Myth 8: Adoption Orders cannot be rescinded

Almost true. It is very rare for an adoption order to be rescinded. But if a miscarriage of justice can be proved, and the original birth parent is still alive and consents to it, then they can be reinstated as the parent of a child. A birth parent or an adopted person over the age of legal consent can initiate the legal action if they wish, however it is very rare to be successful because the Adoption Order is likely to have been made in response to the birth parent being convicted in a criminal court of a serious crime against the child. The standard of evidence required for adoption is a lot higher than I think is commonly thought.

In the UK all people over the age of 18 are considered to be emancipated nowadays, and anyone over 16 who can prove they can support themselves. In that event no one has parental responsibility for them anymore. So in practice adoption only lasts until 18 anyway, even though the adopters remain named as parents on the adoption certificate. The birth parents remain on the birth certificate too. Obviously like any parents we’d like to help our child beyond that, but there is no obligation to after emancipation, and the adopted person can walk away to be never seen again if that is what they wish, just like with any family. There is nothing different about adoptive families in that regard.

Myth 9: Adopters can change the first name and adopted people cannot change it back, or change their family name

Not entirely true, but as usual understanding gets a bit confused because of some rare exceptions. When you adopt a child you are asked what the new family name is. You are not asked what the new first name is unless there are very special circumstances which are for the court to decide, not the adopter. For instance I know of one case where a boy was named after a well-known female pornstar ‘for a joke’ by the birth parents. His first name was changed slightly. You can split a hyphenated first name into a first name and middle name if you want (i.e. lose the hyphen — Billy-Bob Jones becomes Billy Bob Jones), but both parts still have to be there. So the adoption process itself doesn’t usually change the first name. Like any parent you have the right once the Adoption Order goes through to change the first name if you want, at any point in childhood. It is drummed into us not to do that, but we can. If we did it then the adopted person would know that we had done it both from their birth certificate and from their contact with their birth family, so we’d need a pretty good explanation if that wasn’t to damage the relationship.

An adopted person, like anyone else, can change their name once they are over 18 (16 with parental permission), to anything they want.

Myth 10: Adopted people cannot inherit from birth parents

It is true that it is not an automatic process. But then as any parent knows it wouldn’t be anyway. Nowadays you have to explicitly name a beneficiary, regardless of family tie, in order to be sure that they will inherit. You do that by creating a Will. If you die intestate there is no guarantee the money will go to a child automatically anymore although the default is to divide an estate between all children (biological or adopted) equally. A birth parent can validly name their birth child in their Will and the child will inherit. An adopter can explicitly name their adopted child too.

Adoptive parents will inherit from the person they adopted if that person dies first, unless the child expresses otherwise in their Will.

Note that even biological children are not necessarily guaranteed inheritance if they’ve become estranged from the birth parents. You have to demonstrate that you’ve a significant relationship with that parent.

So the lesson is, write a Will and keep in contact if inheritance is really that important to you!

Myth 11: Adopters deliberately avoid telling their children about the current circumstances of the birth family

Well obviously some might, we’re not all angels. But this spin seems to originate from a newspaper article this year when a birth mother was dying and felt the adopters were blocking that news from their kids. However the first question would be, ‘how would we know?’ The only method of contact we have with birth parents is the actual mandated contact letter/message/email/video etc. So if the birth parents don’t tell us or the child anything how can we pass it on or act on it?

You might argue that social services should provide us with a status report when anything significant changes, but that isn’t their call. They can’t do that without the birth parents’ permission, it would breach their right to privacy. If the birth parent hasn’t told them they can pass it on then it won’t happen. And of course social services themselves might not know about the birth parents or have up to date contact details for the adopters — people do drop off the radar, it is easy to forget things when moving house for instance.

Of course when such news as the above dying birth mother arrives adopters are just left to it to try and decide how to tell this to the child. What is that child supposed to make of this? Are they feeling grief stricken but then guilty about that because society in its wisdom tells them they shouldn’t be? Are they feeling angry or relieved about it, but then feeling guilty about that? A child has a right to hear about this but what right does the birth parent themselves have to inflict that emotional conflict on a child? Is a ‘last goodbye’ with the birth mother something that will benefit the child at all, or something that will mainly benefit the birth mother? No easy answers here, but plenty of emotional support needed.

It is worth pointing out here that a substantial number of birth parents die while the adopted child is still a child or young adult. The same is the case with those children in care. The usual cause is drug overdose. In the care system there is a plan and a neutral social worker is chosen to give the news, so that the carer and child’s social worker can help with the support. I know this from personal experience. Nothing like that for adoption.

Myth 12: Adopters are all rich well-educated people

As far as I could tell when I adopted by far the most common profile for adopters was that at least one of the couple was a teacher, foster carer or social worker. They are chosen as potential adopters mainly for their understanding of children or the circumstances under which they have lived. I can remember feeling frustrated when waiting to adopt as we were often shortlisted for a child but then didn’t get the final nod as a teacher had more ‘points’ than us. Which is fair enough but still bloody irritating. We encountered potential adopters from all walks of life really. Many were educated to degree level but it wasn’t as many as seems to be commonly thought. And now that I am an adopter I can see why the most common profiles are teacher, social worker or foster carer.

As for being rich, nah, but as I said in a previous post be prepared for a lot of unexpected expenses that wouldn’t happen with most birth children. I reckon £3–4k more per year, per child. You’ve never lived until you’ve gone through 6 printers in a year cos they like the sensory stimulation of the noise and lights when they power cycle it. And, no, that wasn’t as a toddler.

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