Is there anything right about adoption today?

I’ve been thinking for a while about the current adoption climate. I’ve been listening to lots of different voices and perspectives. I’ve been reflecting on my experience and views, and on those that my daughter might have now and when she’s older. As with every other complex ‘subject’, there’s a whole spectrum of thoughts and opinions. I don’t think there is a definite answer to this question, as there are so many variables that affect each and every case. What might be right for one person, could be absolutely wrong for someone else. Anyway, in this post I’m going to try to look at some of the themes that are currently being debated, in an attempt to explore the question.

From listening to adoptee voices, the overwhelming message that I have taken from them is that adoption in itself is trauma. Regardless of the reasons why someone might ‘need’ to be adopted, the actual physical action of adoption will cause trauma to the individual. I think it’s well recognised that moving in with total strangers, being separated from your familiar care givers is traumatic for children. As adults we understand why it happening, but for children, they most likely don’t, however well they are prepared. As adults we can see the purpose of adoption and the long term benefits it can have. Children can’t. They often don’t understand time. They only have limited experience to draw on. That experience is often negative. They learn to expect negative. They don’t know it’s going to be their ‘forever home’, they expect their caregiver to disappear, just like the last one did. How do they learn to trust again?…

The argument for adoption, for putting children through this level of upheaval is that we know that children do settle, that they do learn to trust again. We know that they will go on to have positive experiences, and that’s why adoption can be the right option for some. With time, effort, support this part of the trauma of adoption can be healed. Probably not fully, but it can be reduced. If the transition is managed well, and everyone is supported, then they can be successful. These processes should always be child centred, and care should be taken to ensure they go at the child’s pace.

The trauma of adoption runs deeper than just moving house and caregiver. As adoptees have taught me, it’s the total cut off from birth family that causes much damage. Adoptees are expected to change their names, have a new birth certificate, be permanently separated from their birth families. Their identity is totally changed, and they don’t feel whole or complete. They’re expected to be grateful to their adopters for ‘rescuing’ them, when sometimes they didn’t want to be recused at all. Many adoptees don’t know anyone who is genetically related to them. This is a big deal to some people. They feel like they don’t fit in their new families. They might not look like their adoptive family, which marks them as ‘different’ even more. They can’t give information about ‘family history’ in medicals, they don’t know who/where they get their characteristics from. They have no baby photos to look back on, no photos of birth family members to treasure.

The argument seems to be that when we understand the level and depth of trauma that some of these issues bring up, then how can we knowingly put children through it again and again? I’ve had it said to me (as an adoptee adopter), that I’m ‘repeating the cycle of trauma’. I get this, I see where they’re coming from. But…for some children, their best option is still adoption. Adoption with every effort made to maintain some of those links, to maintain that identity. This could be through some level of direct contact where appropriate. It doesn’t have to be a birth parent, it could be another relative. It could be through a foster carer who the child lived with before adoption. All these connections will allow the child to build up an understanding of where they come from. The child can ask these people important questions, they may have access to relevant information that helps them make sense of who they are. As an adoptee told me this week, it allows gaps to be filled, and prevents the mind imagining. Or fears/fantasies being made about their birth family.

As a family, we have direct contact with birth family member and foster carers. It’s hugely beneficial for everyone involved, and I think it is helping our daughter make sense of her story. It’s helping her learn about her two families, and how/why she came to be with us. As she gets older. she’ll be able to explore more and ask more questions. It might not be easy, but we’ll always try to do what’s best for her. The other day I was talking to her about adoption, and she was asking questions, and I could see the confusion on her face. It felt so wrong that someone so little would have such big thoughts to have to work through. I hope gave her an appropriate answer that helped her to understand a little bit more and reassured her. It made me angry that if she hadn’t been adopted, she wouldn’t be asking questions like this. Without going into details about her story, I know that adoption was best for her given the options available. We are very open with her as appropriate, and she has a good understanding of her story. She does ask questions, and I hope she always feels able to, however difficult the answers might be (for us and her). Contact with birth relatives doesn’t answer all those questions, but it does keep that link open. I think that in adoption these days, direct contact is being considered more. As the research shows the benefits it has, more people see that it must happen (where appropriate). Prospective adopters need to be told about it early on in the process, and professionals need to consider it more. More needs to be communicated to make people understand that adoption isn’t a fairy tale story in which everyone lived happily ever after. Adopters need to understand that adoptive parenting is hard. They also need to know it can be wonderful too.

Another argument against adoption is why don’t people become long term carers/guardians rather than adopters? That way, the child maintains their identity, and are not legally disconnected from their birth family. I see the benefits of this approach, but I’m not sure there would be many people willing to be essentially carers until the child is 18, rather than a parent. I know that no one has a right to ‘have’ a child, and to be a parent. But, being a parent is what many people do want to do. Historically there was a need to reproduce to achieve survival of the fittest, and continue the gene line. Now days it’s not about that, but I still think the desire to have and care for children stands. For some people, genetics doesn’t matter, and their chid doesn’t have to be related to them, for them to have deep sense of needing to care for and protect that child. To me a parent is very different to being a carer. This doesn’t take away from the fact that carers do an amazing job of looking after children, usually as they would their own. However, for some children having a parent rather than a carer allows them to feel secure, to know that no one can take them away. It provides stability and familiarity that enables them to start to heal, to strengthen attachments. A child needs these things first before they can start to learn and take on the wider world. For some children, they will never manage or thrive in a family, and in these cases long term, care is appropriate. Voices are being raised in the adoption world, and maybe practice will change to give more options for adoptees to maintain their original identity.

What also needs to be done is that more support needs to be given to families, so that they don’t even get to the point of needing children taken into care. More support needs to be given to help children return to families from care. But, we can not ignore the fact that for some families, they are given chances and more chances, and a massive amount of support. And yet they are not able to keep children safe. Many times this can be due to generational deprivation, and sometimes the safest thing to do is to break this cycle altogether. More needs to be done to work with families where children have been adopted out, to prevent further children being taken into care. To help parents learn to parent safely.

In conclusion, to answer the question, there is a lot ‘wrong’ with adoption right now. But, these issues are complex, and will take time, effort, money to solve. There does seem to be more awareness around some of the problems, and more voices being raised in unison to petition for things to change. But, on the flip side, when done well, with support, there is lot right with adoption now too. It’s not perfect, and it never will be. However, adoption does give the most vulnerable and hurting children the chance to grow up safe, and to achieve their potential in life. It can provide healing, and it can transform a child and their life before them.