Heritage and Understanding
Two quite different conversations have made me think about how adoption is different here in the UK to elsewhere.
Also about how those differences impact upon adopted children. About the information we have and that we share, with our children about their past.
I should stress before I go any further that I'm no expert on adoption elsewhere. Some of what follows about how things work in other countries is knowledge, some research and some assumption based upon listening to the opinions and experiences of friends and others. If I've got anything wrong then do please put me right. And sorry in advance.
The first conversation was one in passing. Yesterday. At our daughter's play school.
Talking to one of the teachers there our conversation turned to our family's Dutch connections. I explained that reaction to us as a family amongst our Dutch friends and their wider circle has been one of surprise. Not because we are a same sex couple with children, but because they are adopted.
Adoption is extremely rare in the Netherlands. Most children removed from their birth families and taken into care are placed in long term foster care. Their status remaining as a ward of the State until they reach maturity. Adoption being the preserve largely of those who create their family through international means.
Our daughter's teacher was astounded, having assumed that our very well structured, controlled, system was something ubiquitous worldwide.
Our conversation turned to how this impacted upon children, their stability and their understanding of self.
Our Dutch friends seem surprised, even slightly shocked, that our adoption process is so final in terms of the children moving on from their birth family. Long term foster care allows contact to be retained. The problem of course being that in many cases the continuation of contact with the birth family isn't advisable and/or wanted.
The converse of that argument is that we can say, clearly and emphatically to our children. We are their 'Forever Family'. We are together forever and no one can ever take them away for us.
How then does the children's heritage fit into that narrative? There's a balance to be made between providing them with the security and stability they crave and recognising that their story does not begin with their adoption. They may not want to recognise it now, or indeed ever, but their having access to understand, interpret and, if necessary interact with that history is, we think, fundamental to the process.
That's where the second conversation comes in.
A Twitter friend and adoptive mother in the US, Cynthia Miller (@cmillerindy) pointed me in the direction of a blog post by Maureen McCauley Evans, a blogger in Seattle.
Maureen's post, Interchangeable, Replaceable: A Reality for Adoptees, was inspired itself by an essay written by Mia Konomos, an adult Korean adoptee, about the loss and complexity of emotion she felt as an adopted child.
Both wonderful articles discuss how an adoptee can feel like a commodity. How this can affect, particularly in adult life, the adopted child's view of relationships. This despite the love and security they feel as part of their adopted family, and which they reciprocate.
Do we worry about our children feeling this way?
Of course we do. However, there are differences here in the UK which, I think, help us explain the past to our children. And help them understand how they came to be adopted.
The part though that stood out for me in Marueen's article was this.
For us adoptive parents to win, someone had to lose. Through poverty, illness, or a complicated (perhaps temporary) situation, someone had to agree to hand over their child, to lose their child, possibly forever.
Talking to US adoptive parents is always fascinating. Their starting point does appear different to us in the UK. Adoption appears to be often much more of a negotiation. The birth family more often forced to give up their child through the intervention of circumstance rather than the authorities.
The intervention of the State in the adoption process here is, I think, the cornerstone in providing understanding and context.
The State controls the process entirely. To be approved to adopt you must go through a State sponsored system. Be it via a Local Authority Adoption Department or a private Adoption Agency, the process and system are laid down by the State. OFSTED (The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) oversee all aspects of it and report directly to Parliament.
When a child is to be removed from a birth family, placed on the adoption register (made available for adoption) and finally formally adopted by an adoptive family. At each of those stages the process is scrutinised and decision confirmed by the Courts, the birth family being represented if they wish throughout.
So, when explaining to our children what has happened to them, we can point to their adoption by our family not just being something for which we wished and worked, but also a decision scrutinised by many and ultimately decreed by a Judge.
Those presiding over Family Courts often say that Celebratory Adoption Hearings are the highlight of their work. The one point at which they can oversee something joyous rather than harrowing and conflict ridden.
Our experience was also that the Celebratory Hearings were affirming for our children. We were able to say to them, most particularly our son as he was so much older, that the Judge had decreed we should be a family forever. He had tangibly visited the Court. Met the Judge. Even tried on his wig and banged his gavel. This was all so important for our son, he had the blessing of Authority on his new family. He had confirmation this was forever.
The issue of removal from a birth family is also an important one.
Our Welfare State provides a safety net not available in many other countries. Keeping families together is acknowledged as essential. Only when that familial link has catastrophically broken down. When neglect or abuse have required removal. When all other options for care within the wider birth family have been exhaustively investigated and ruled out. Only then is a child placed for adoption.
Recognition that the adopted child would want, and should have, information available to them about their birth family. That the birth family have a right to continuing information about the child. That the birth family have a reciprocal right to pass information about themselves to the adopted child. All of this forms part of the statutory process.
'Contact plans' decide the frequency and type of contact undertaken between not only the birth parents and the adopted child, but also their wider family, particularly siblings.
Given the circumstances of both our children's removal from their birth families we, in common with I suspect the majority of adoptive parents, have a 'Letterbox' style arrangement for contact. Passing letters annually to our Adoption Agency for onward, anonymous, transferral to their birth parents.
In return we hear regularly from one of our children's birth family. We have never had a response from the other.
We have also been provided with copious amounts of information to pass on to our children when, and if, they ever want to know about their birth families.
The statutory 'Later Life Letter' explains clearly the circumstances that led to their being removed from their birth family and their placement with us. That's written in language deemed appropriate for a young teenager.
For use before that we have their Life Story Books. Designed specifically for the younger child the book explains their journey so far and reminds them of their birth family. It describes their move through foster care and their ultimate adoption by us. We add to the books each year, detailing their ongoing journey.
In both cases our children look at the books, choosing to skip the parts about birth family, moving straight to their placement with us. As our son says, "I'm a kid, I don't need to know about that yet, I'll look at it one day when I'm ready."
When and if that day comes. When they are young adults and want to know the whole story. Then we have their full Adoption Files. Reams of reports providing in meticulous, bureaucratic, heartbreaking detail the neglect and abuse they suffered. The family drama and collapse that surrounded them. The hours of work that went in to investigating every avenue through which they may be able to stay with their birth families. The arguments those families put forward to oppose their adoptions. Ultimately, the decision that was taken by the Court, detailing why it was deemed to be in our son and daughter's best interests that a new family was found for them.
Of course, no matter how much we reassure our children, they still carry much damage with them. The fear of rejection persists. As Maureen so eloquently puts it, the desire to test relationships to prove they don't last, to test whether they will again be rejected. That remains.
It's something we can only hope to help them come to terms with. To guide them in understanding their situation.
Having read both Mia and Maureen's articles. Having heard the voices of US prospective adopters, adoptive parents and adoptees, Having thought deeply about what I perceive to be the differences between our systems. I'm left feeling we are much better equipped to help our children face the future positively while recognising their heritage.
The system protects them. It also recognises their need, and their right, to revisit the past and understand fully where they came from and why they are here.
Perhaps most importantly, it obliges us to join them on that journey. Support them through it and ultimately respect the conclusions they draw from it.