THE BLOG

Adoptees: Lucky Escape or Forgotten Victims?

04/04/2013 12:51 BST | Updated 03/06/2013 10:12 BST

Over 92,000 children in the UK are cared for by local authorities, with 72% having experienced situations of abuse or neglect. Just 4.6% (4,200) are placed for adoption annually and of those, 3,450 were adopted in England, 466 in Scotland, 245 in Wales and only 60 in Northern Ireland (2011-2012 figures).

Recognising that so few children escape state care, the government has been urged to do more to get children into adoptive families, where they can receive the love and support that otherwise may not have been available to them.

However, finding suitable adoptive parents is no easy task; adopters must be special, almost selfless people in order to provide an environment where an adoptee can prosper. They must be driven by the desire to raise a child for the child's sake and consequently, authorities are reticent about speeding up and simplifying the adoption process. Doing so could lead to further neglect of needs of adoptees; often the forgotten victims of their own circumstances.

Adoption is widely regarded as a perfect arrangement for all parties and whilst it does generally benefit everyone involved, it is naive, one-dimensional and even dangerous to assume that it is a purely positive event without repercussions. Most adoptees are certainly better off adopted into a loving family than raised in a situation of uncertain parentage, possible economic hardship, prejudice and stigma. However, the oft-neglected fact is that adoption is a life-altering event so, no matter what the circumstances, it can also lead to tremendous pain.

Some experts argue that adoptees' trauma begins at the moment of separation from their birth mothers; they can be intrinsically damaged by the early loss of that relationship. This is further exacerbated by months or years spent within the care system, meaning that some adoptees suffer an unimaginably traumatic start to life, which often causes attachment, development and behavioural difficulties.

The negative effects of adoption obviously vary with the individual; some may spend a lifetime dwelling on the circumstances surrounding their birth. Others may not even appear to notice. Whilst true of any group affected by trauma, for adoptees, this fact is frequently forgotten by the people around them.

Even the most basic terminology often overlooks their views; the terms 'natural mother', 'birth mother' or 'biological mother' pay little attention to the wishes of adoptees, who are rarely comfortable with using 'mother' to describe the woman who gave birth to them, generally feeling that this term best describes the mother who raised them.

Another issue which peppers the adopted population relates to understanding. To outside parties, adoptees' concerns can be perplexing and impenetrable; they often have many complex layers to unravel and some do not even realise themselves that so many layers exist. Most possess sparse information regarding their relinquishment, but it is unreasonable to think that they will not reflect on the circumstances which brought them into being. Yet they are encouraged to concentrate on their present and future and the result is that few talk openly or inquire about their past, often out of respect for their adoptive parents or simply if it is an uncomfortable subject in their home. This can lead to the creation of 'ghosts' which haunt them through life; the ghosts of the person they think they might have been, or the ghosts of their biological parents.

For various reasons, these complex, unresolved issues can get bottled up or sidelined, often until adulthood, when curiosity becomes inexorable, or more worryingly, that bottle cracks open. Then, it can be an operose task to provide support; it is difficult for adoptees themselves to ascertain what form of help they need, let alone others. Furthermore, some concerns are unmistakably related to adoption, but individuals can also battle problems only to find that they stemmed from a completely unrelated issue.

Nevertheless, most adoptees will inevitably encounter adoption-related issues at some stage. Many learn to be well-defended on certain topics and even those lucky enough to have a secure and loving family can feel perennially alone. Anxiety, fear of abandonment, fierce loyalty issues, rootlessness, insecurity, relationship problems or a fragmented sense of identity are also commonplace.

Even if is beyond conscious awareness, the feeling of loss is omnipresent and profoundly affects adoptees. Without loss there would be no adoption. Yet these feelings are rarely discussed openly because, to non-adoptees, it seems irrational to grieve something which cannot be remembered and society still considers adoption as a purely joyous, problem-solving event.

Feelings of rejection are also recurrent as some adoptees perceive their placement into adoption as nothing other than total rejection. Many personalise the loss, which often leads to the creation of guilt and shame. For those who lack medical, genetic, religious or historical information, self-analysis can result and certain adoptees are plagued by questions such as: Who are they? Why were they born? Were they a mistake?

The formation of relationships, notably the development of intimacy with a romantic partner, is cited as a major challenge for adoptees, especially as many of the adoption issues only converge during adolescence. This view is corroborated by Dr. Marshall Schechter, a world-renowned expert on adoption from the University of Pennsylvania, who suggested that the lack of security and feelings of abandonment may make relationships unsafe territory.

Adoptees often refrain from 'giving everything' in relationships and many articulate that they have never felt close to anyone. Questions surrounding their conception and biological/genetic history can stoke intimacy issues. Some adoptees even sabotage important relationships by evading closeness and commitment; primarily to insulate themselves from possible re-enactment of previous losses.

For some, the openness and vulnerability required in a close relationship is just too risky. However, the authors of Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self noted that even failed relationships can be positive for adoptees; forcing them to admit secrets that were dormant, suppressed or hidden, even from themselves.

Once these latent issues are triggered, adoptees can often find it hard to make sense of their own situations. A strong sense of unfair treatment is not unusual. Most are keenly aware that they were not party to the decision that led to their adoption. Life-altering choices were made for them and they had no control over the events which thrust a total paradox upon them; the immeasurable benefits but the indefinable sadness of adoption.

Again, these perspectives may be true for some adoptees, but vastly inaccurate for others. The more robust adoptees may actually harness their burden, believing that they invented themselves and that their uniqueness is something of worth.

Still, adoption is a lifelong process and comes with lasting emotional impacts for all. With most support structures currently aimed at adoptive parents, given authorities' desire to get more children out of care, adoptees can face a lonely battle. Support for adoptive families is necessary and laudable, as adopted children need a special type of parenting. It takes a truly incredible person to be an adoptive parent. There are few who can do it well; particularly as the longer a child spends in care, the more likely that traditional parenting techniques will be counter-productive or re-traumatising. Adoption will be hard on prospective parents too, so these extraordinary people must be given all the support and help that they require.

However, this should not come at the expense of adoptees; their needs should not be neglected. Recognising all of these issues is important for both policymakers and professionals working in adoption. They must understand that there are residual effects of the adoption experience for all adoptees. Only then will adoption give some of those 92,000 children in care, who have had the worst start in life, a truly positive future.