#youcanadopt, but that doesn’t mean you should

National Adoption Week begins in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Monday 18 October. In the past, this week has largely taken the form of a recruitment drive for prospective adopters, and while this year’s event is giving more space to the voices of adopted adults and birth parents, the event’s web address – https://www.youcanadopt.co.uk/NAW/ – still places the emphasis on persuading people to make that initial contact and take the first steps on the road to becoming an adoptive parent. Photos of angelic-looking children, soft-focus film footage of happy families on the beach, the occasional celebrity wheeled on to talk about their experiences: it’s the starting-point for countless rescue fantasies, a sugar-coated vision of a beautiful, unproblematic future.

I did wonder, a few days ago, whether I should write about National Adoption Week at all. I am an adoptive parent, but National Adoption Week shouldn’t be about adoptive parents. How To Be Adopted has written very powerfully about what it’s like to experience National Adoption Week as an adopted person, and to realise that National Adoption Week isn’t actually about you at all. I am very aware of the feelings that many adopted people have about adoptive parents taking up more room than is really theirs in public discussions about adoption. Shut up, Atherton! Equally, though, I think it’s important to point out that we don’t all support the view that adoption is a beautiful way of providing children with loving families and seeing them all live happily ever after. There’s a stereotype of adoptive parents as starry-eyed and naïve, all in favour of closed adoption and perpetually threatened by the thought of our children’s birth families. I have no doubt whatsoever that many adopters fit this stereotype. But lots of us don’t, and I think it’s important that we stand up and shout about it, as an act of consciousness-raising for adopters who buy into the myth and to show our solidarity for adopted people. Is there an equivalent of ‘fogged’ and ‘unfogged’ for adoptive parents? There should be. Blimey, this is complicated.

In fact, complication is going to be the theme of this post. I’ve been involved in adoption for over seventeen years now, most of them as an adoptive parent but also, latterly, as a writer and researcher looking at the history of adoption in the UK and at the way adoption is portrayed in fiction and popular culture. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that adoption is not one simple thing. I’ve started dividing it into three broad areas. There’s the general concept of adoption, the placing of children into alternative families to whom they are not directly related, which has happened since time immemorial, often on an informal basis unregulated by any kind of legal framework. There are the individual adoption systems, often very different from each other, that exist and have existed in different countries around the world. Finally, there are the millions of adoptions that have taken place as a result of these systems, and the people affected by them: birth parents and extended families, adoptive parents, and most importantly, the children whose lives are changed irrevocably by what they experience.

Adoption is a murky business. I think all prospective adopters should know something about this, because it highlights our responsibility to be aware of the traumas that lie at the heart of adoption (and, depending on where we are in the world and what kind of system we’re adopting through, our complicity in perpetuating some of these traumas). Many of the adoption systems that have existed around the world have been grounded in practices that are corrupt and coercive, guilty of perpetrating widespread generational trauma and abuse. The thousands of Native American children placed with white adopters in the name of ‘assimilation’; the unmarried mothers pressurised into giving up their children in the so-called ‘baby scoop’ era; the babies who are trafficked, placed in orphanages and adopted by people in distant countries who think that they are giving them an unproblematic chance of a better life. In some countries, apologies have been issued to recognise the wrongs of the past. In February 2008, the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to the ‘Stolen Generation’, the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage removed from their families, although this came after a decade of resistance by the previous Australian government. The Irish Taoiseach Mícheál Martin apologised in January 2021 for the appalling treatment of unmarried women and their children in the country’s mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998. In the UK, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has launched an inquiry into the experiences of unmarried women whose children were adopted between 1949 and 1976 in England and Wales. These injustices haven’t gone away. Many adopted people around the world are still denied access to the most basic of information about themselves: their original birth certificates and medical records, details of their life stories and birth families. And in some adoption systems, an awful lot of money changes hands. Researching this post, I googled ‘US Adoption Agency’ to see what came up. The first hit, for the private adoption agency American Adoptions, told me that a typical domestic adoption would cost between $60,000 and $70,000. (One agency offers ‘credit repair services’ for prospective adopters whose credit rating might be ‘below standard’, and invites people to get a ‘no-obligation quote’, as if they’re thinking about getting their double glazing replaced. Another offers helpful ideas for funding your adoption, like holding a bake sale or car wash, or starting a crowdfunder.)

The stigma and coercion that caused so many women to lose their babies to adoption is now, thankfully, a thing of the past in the UK, although I know that this is not the case elsewhere in the world. We are told, though, that forced adoptions still exist in this country, in the form of those children who are removed from their birth parents by order of the courts, because – under Section 31 of the 1989 Children Act – the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, as a result of the parents’ lack of care. ‘Significant’, in this case, is defined as ‘ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development, including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another’.

I’m uncomfortable with using the term ‘forced adoption’ to describe this situation. There, I’ve said it. Yes, it involves the removal of a child against the birth parents’ wishes, and the permanent severing of the legal tie between parent and child. But there’s a world of difference between coercing a scared young woman into giving up her baby on the pretext that it’s the best solution for everyone, with the threat of family estrangement and ostracism in the background, and removing a child from a situation of neglect or abuse. If you go on BAILII, the website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, and browse the Family Court Decisions, you can see the records of cases where children have been removed, and where judges have decided that adoption is the most appropriate way forward. Sometimes, this is a straightforward decision. Think of the child protection cases we hear about in the news, when sadly, it’s too late. At other times, it’s much more complex. Judges have to balance the capacity of a parent to make necessary changes with the needs of a child for stability and security. Many cases involve birth parents whose own lives have been desperately difficult. The message we received when we did our prep course, almost seventeen years ago now, was that birth parents are, overwhelmingly, ‘sad, not bad’. But there will always be situations where it is not safe for children to remain with their families of origin. How do we give these children the nurturing and support and love they need, in order for them to grow and flourish? How do we, as a society, help them to heal?

There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether adoption is a proportionate response to situations like this. Of course the primary aim of any kind of intervention should be to preserve and support the family. This should go without saying. If this can’t happen, then of course social services should try to place the child within the extended family, or if not, with foster carers who will facilitate contact with birth parents until the child can return home. But what comes next? Some people point to long-term foster care as an option. That way, they argue, the legal bond between parent and child is still there, and there’s always the possibility that the child might be able to return if – in a few years’ time – the birth parents have been able to make the necessary changes to their lives. And that all sounds brilliant. But foster care is not permanent. Some children in foster care are able to stay in one long-term placement until they reach adulthood. But they’re in the minority. Placements break down, and children are moved elsewhere. Imagine being eight, and having to move on from your school and your friends, not just once in a year but potentially several times. Imagine it being October, and not being sure where you’ll be spending Christmas. Imagine not having any say in how your bedroom’s decorated, because you know that really it’s not your bedroom: living in a house where there are pets that you want to love but know you shouldn’t get too fond of, because you don’t know how long you’ll be staying. Think of a child you know well: your own child, maybe, or your niece or nephew. Is this the kind of life you’d want for them? Thought not. If they’re particularly unfortunate, they might be placed, at the age of 16, into an unregulated setting, dressed up under the guise of ‘a stepping stone to independence’. And then, once they turn 18, that’s it.

Adoption, then, is not a beautiful way of creating a new family, not unicorns and rainbows, but something that is needed in those cases where all other options have been explored and where children cannot remain within their birth family. It involves trauma and sadness and a whole lot of anger and grief. And none of these feelings go away. They might get buried, they might be hidden behind a mask of being ‘grateful’ or being told that you’re ‘lucky’, but they’re still there.

So. At the risk, now, of being accused of making this ‘all about the adoptive parents’, I’m going to list four things that I’d want to be a part of all adoptive parents’ preparation and support. Because if we want to support adopted people for the long term, we need to make sure that the people who adopt them as children are fully aware of the ramifications that adoption will have throughout their lives.

  1. An understanding of the ethical complexities involved in adoption, and of those times and places where adoption has involved appalling injustices. There are countless books, documentaries and websites that could help with this. My Name is Bridget by Alison O’Reilly, about the Tuam Mother and Baby Home in County Galway, is an absolute must-read.
  2. Training in and ongoing support with therapeutic parenting. Formal support stops, at the moment, when an adoption order is granted. Post-adoption support is patchily available and hard to access. But we need help. I am currently reading Dr Amber Elliott’s brilliant book Superparenting, which absolutely nails the difficulty of parenting a child who has experienced developmental trauma: ‘The stress of looking after a traumatized child who is defending against shame and suffering from the effects of toxic stress creates one of the most challenging environments for rational thinking there is’. Saying that we need help isn’t putting adoptive parents first: it’s recognising that if we want to help adopted people in the long term, we need to help adoptive parents.
  3. An understanding that adoption isn’t just about childhood. This should be obvious but I think there is a feeling amongst some adopters that their children will eventually forget that they’re adopted. It won’t dissolve into the mist. Organisations such as Adoptee Futures are doing a vitally important job in raising awareness of the lifelong consequences of being adopted and this is a drum that needs lots of banging.
  4. An understanding of the importance of heritage, keeping in touch with birth family, and the feelings involved in reunion. How To Be Adopted has written brilliantly about the fetishization of blood ties and genealogical links. There’s a lot of work to be done on maintaining links with wider birth family, and on supporting adopted young adults to negotiate the feelings involved in tracing and being reunited with birth relatives. As adopters, we need to recognise that our adopted children can maintain their relationship with us whilst also exploring and forming relationships with their birth family. It’s not an either/or.

I didn’t mean to write this much. I’ll shut up now. Deep breath, and let’s hope this week passes without too much stress.

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