This short study concerns my experiences in dealing with an adopted service user who wishes to establish contact with her birth mother. The essay takes up the case of J, a 46 year old divorced lady who finds out about her history of adoption after the death of her adopted parents. J tries to directly establish contact with her biological mother, who refuses to meet her, leaving J traumatised and emotionally devastated. The case scenario is provided in the appendix to this essay and is considered as read.
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This reflective and analytical account concerns (a) my experiences in dealing with J’s problems and needs, (b) my thoughts and theoretical knowledge of social work theory and practice with regard to children who are put up for adoption at birth, (c) their various emotional and physical challenges, and (d) the desire that is sometimes manifested by them during various stages of their lives to establish contact with their biological parents. It makes use of established social work theories like the attachment theory and the separation anxiety theory.
I also take up the growing prevalence of the use of social networking sites by adopted children to establish contact with their long separated birth parents, and the social work mechanisms available in the UK to facilitate meetings between adopted children and their birth parents.
The Challenges of Adoption
J was put up for adoption at birth and was adopted by foster parents. She grew up in her foster home in the company of her siblings, who were the birth children of her adoptive parents. The fact of her adoption was however concealed from her by her adopters. J grew up with some feelings of unease between her and her siblings and adoptive parents and suffered from low self esteem when she was young. She also displayed some behavioural problems and found it difficult to establish friendships with other children.
Adoption is undoubtedly an important and beneficial social process. It serves the critical needs of different individuals (Howe and Feast, 2000, p 34). It relieves natural parents of the onerous responsibilities of bringing up children when their circumstances make it impossible for them to do so, on account of social and economic reasons. It ensures safety, security, physical and emotional nourishment, education and improved life chances for unwanted, orphaned or abandoned children (Howe and Feast, 2000, p 34). It also fulfils the needs of childless couples, single people, and families for a child. Whilst adoption is undoubtedly an important social process, it brings along with it different types of social, economic and emotional challenges for all involved people, the child placed for adoption, the birth parents and the adopters (Howe and Feast, 2000, p 34).
Adopted children, numerous studies have revealed, are prone to the adverse consequences of attachment disorders and separation anxiety (Cassidy & Shaver, 1999, p 11). John Bowlby, well known for his advancement of the attachment theory, explains the critical importance for infants to develop secure attachments to their primary care givers. Bowlby states that attachment processes between infants and caregivers are biologically based, chosen by evolution to maximise survival chances, and aim to provide infants with feelings of security (Cassidy & Shaver, 1999, p 11). Such security provides infants with the foundations required to explore their environments, with the full knowledge that their caregivers will be able and available to provide them with protection in the face of adversity or stress (Cassidy & Shaver, 1999, p 11).
The separation of children from their primary caregivers often results in feelings of separation anxiety and the development of attachment disorders if their attachment needs are not met or resolved effectively (Blum, 2004, p 538). Studies on adopted children show that positively formed attachments between children and caregivers improve chances of well adjusted lives, irrespective of the biological relationships of attachment figures with children (Blum, 2004, p 538). Whilst it is known that J was put up for adoption at birth, the exact age at which she was adopted is not clear. Research shows that that children adopted after 6 months of age are at greater risk for development of attachment disorders (Blum, 2004, p 538). Such attachment disorders can lead to emotional disturbance, eating disorders, bedwetting, lack of performance at school, difficulty in development of positive relationships, withdrawal from society and poor life outcomes (Blum, 2004, p 538).
The adoptive parents need to take special care to ensure good adjustment of their adopted children. It is important for them parents to meet the needs of infants for love and nurturing on a consistent basis (Brisch, 1999, p 79). Adoption requires an active role from adoptive parents who assume the role of caregivers. As adopted infants explore their new and alien environment, adoptive parents must provide the required guidance, supervision and structure to ensure their safety (Brisch, 1999, p 79). Caregivers must also have the capacity and ability to provide levels of stimulation that do not overwhelm or stifle the infant’s developmental level. They must be attentive to the internal world of infants by being emotionally available to help them during periods of frustration, rejoice in their achievements and share their joy of exploration (Brisch, 1999, p 79).
Secure attachments create positive feelings in children that relationships can be helpful, fulfilling, and valuable and provide adequate protection in an occasionally overwhelming world (Blum, 2004, p 545). Whilst secure attachments do not secure immunity from subsequent psychopathology, childhood security is certainly related to (a) increased capacities for stress management and ability to rebound after periods of psychological disturbance, (b) capacity to manage family stressors, (c) increased self-esteem, (d) good peer relationships, and (e) good psychological adjustment (Blum, 2004, p 545).
Contemporary psychiatric theory states that adopted children often need therapeutic parenting, rather than normal domestic environments. Such parenting should be based on principles like sensitivity, responsiveness, following the lead of the child, the sharing of congruent and inter-subjective experiences and the creation of an environment of safety and security (Goldsmith, et al, 2004, p 2). Parents, in order to engage in such therapeutic parenting, require to be committed to adopted children, have reflective abilities, good insightfulness and secured mental states with respect to attachment (Goldsmith, et al, 2004, p 2).
With J showing evidence of emotional disturbance and behavioural problems during her childhood, it is possible that her parents, whilst providing her with a normal and secure domestic environment, did not place great emphasis in responding to her specific emotional needs. Their concealment of her adopted status is possibly an indicator of their concern for the child and their desire to protect her emotions and feelings. Contemporary psychological and social theories however recommend that children be informed of their adopted status (Hollingsworth, 1998, p 303). Such information, when provided with sensitivity and in appropriate circumstances and environmental surroundings, prevents adopted children from experiencing emotional traumatisation when they otherwise inevitably come to know of their history of adoption and helps them in adjusting to their new homes (Hollingsworth, 1998, p 303). Knowledge of birth parents is also important, both for the adoptive parents and the adopted children, in order to effectively cope with possible medical problems (Hollingsworth, 1998, p 303).
J came to know about her adopted status by accident when she was 42, after the death of her adoptive parents. The knowledge left her emotionally traumatised and brought back memories of her childhood and of feelings of strain in her relationships with her adoptive parents and their birth children. It is however but fair to realise that J’s parents very possibly had her best interests at heart and were also unaware of the future impact of not informing her of her adopted status.
Reunion of Adopted Children with Birth Parents
J, on knowing of her adopted status and the name of her birth mother, became emotionally disturbed because was not informed of the facts of her adoption, or about her birth parents. Adopted children, as they grow older, often become curious about their birth parents, especially so in situations of little or no contact (Adoption UK, 2010, p 1). Studies by Adoption UK, a national charity operated by adopters, reveals that all adopted children do not wish to know or contact their birth parents. Such desires are essentially personal, with some adoptees wishing to know more and others having little interest (Adoption UK, 2010, p 1). It is however also true that people who are not interested in contacting their birth parents when they are young, change when they become older, especially after they become parents and experience desires of knowing, contacting and establishing relationships with their own birth parents (Adoption UK, 2010, p 1).
The emergence of social networking sites like Facebook and My Space have made it far easier for adopted children, who wish to know more about their parents, to establish contact with their birth families (Fursland, 2010, p 1). Such accessibility has introduced significant complexities in the social relationships of adopted children with their adopted and birth parents and is creating difficult challenges for social workers when they are asked for assistance by individuals in need (Fursland, 2010, p 1).
Establishment of contact between adopted children and birth parents is an extremely sensitive issue and needs to be handled with care and sensitivity (Adoption UK, 2010, p 2). Adoption reunion can be a truly enriching and joyful experience, full of anticipation, twists and turns, joy, confusion, excitement, and fear. However reunion, like adoption, is not simple and can turn out to be a difficult, complex and sometimes saddening event (Adoption UK, 2010, p 2). Reconnecting with birth parents and children is rarely seamless and easy. It requires dedication, motivation, and a leap of faith (Adoption UK, 2010, p 2).
Adoption reunions often give rise to complicated issues that have been dormant for decades and have to now be dealt with and resolved. Many birth parents may have never have shared their child’s adoption with anybody else (Howe and Feast, 2000, p 57). Some birth mothers protect their secret because they are afraid of how others might or will react. For some mothers it is a matter of shame and they are instructed not to reveal their secrets to others (Howe and Feast, 2000, p 57).
The National Adoption Standards for England, (Department of Health, 2001), along with the Adoption and Children Act 2002, provided birth parents in England and Wales entitlement to a support worker, apart from the child’s social worker, from the point of identification of the adoption plan for the child (Goldsmith, et al, 2004, p 4). The Standards state that birth parents (a) should be able to access different types of support services, including counselling, advice and information before and after adoption, which recognise the long term implications of adoption, and (b) should be treated with transparency, fairness and regard during the adoption process (Goldsmith, et al, 2004, p 4).
Most adopted children now have plans for direct or indirect post-adoption contact with birth relatives. Agencies are required to identify contact arrangements in adoption plans and consider post-adoption support requirements of all concerned (Goldsmith, et al, 2004, p 4). Existing regulations like The Adoption Support Services Regulations entitle adopted children, adoptive parents, and birth relatives for need assessment regarding contact arrangements and mandate agencies to maintain services to help such contact arrangements (Adoption UK, 2010, p 2).
J contacted us for support on making contact with her birth parents. The Adoption and Children Act of 2002 has established a framework that provides adopted people, who are more than 18 years old and their birth relatives, rights to request for intermediary services if they wish to make such contacts. Such intermediaries are provided by registered adoption agencies, (either voluntary or local authority), or registered adoption support agencies and act as mediators between adopted people and their birth relatives. It is recommended that people wishing to make contact with birth relatives do so through intermediaries. J was informed about the intermediary process and services that could be provided by me in mediating with her birth mother but decided to contact her directly.
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When J contacted our agency and the case was assigned to me to help her with her emotional challenges and her desire to establish her birth mother, I engaged her in a long discussion in order to assess her emotional status, her views about her adopted childhood and her desire to meet her birth mother. I met her at her home on two occasions after taking prior appointments in order to ensure that she was prepared for the meeting and would be able to convey her thoughts better in familiar surroundings.
I took care to adopt the person centred approach and deliberately avoided all judgemental feelings about her background as a relinquished and adopted child. The adoption of a person centred approach is necessary for the true implementation of anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory approaches and I was able to understand J’s emotional and mental condition with greater clarity and empathy (Mearns and Thorne, 2007, p 9). Whilst my choice of open and close ended questions did help her in opening up and in shedding her inhibitions and reservations, I found her to be disturbed about her adopted status. She appeared to be disturbed with her adoptive parents for their concealment of information about her birth, her birth parents and her adoption, and kept talking of small incidents of her childhood about her parents and siblings. She also spoke about her behavioural problems, her disturbed sleep and her difficulties in making friends at school.
J was however determined to establish contact with her mother and decided to contact her as soon as she found out her contact details. I offered to act as intermediary and contact her mother in order to assess (a) her views on the relinquishment of her birth child, (b) her current emotional status and (c) her attitude towards establishing contact with J. The lady (J) was however unwilling to wait even for a few days and was convinced that her mother would like to meet her as much as she did. I did mildly explain to her that her mother could have different opinions on the issue and even offered to expedite the process. Whilst J did provide some indication of being ready for my help at the closure of our second meeting, she subsequently changed her mind and established direct contact with her birth mother. Her birth mother, from what J told me later, was absolutely surprised at receiving the call and was taken aback by the development. She responded to J’s introductory communication with brusqueness and asperity, informing her that she did not wish to respond to her overture or to establish contact.
I do feel that J acted with great haste and the result of the initiative could well have been very different with the use of an intermediary. I would have telephoned J’s mother and asked for a personal meeting. I would have again adopted a person centred approach, refrained from being judgemental, and would have engaged her in discussions about her reasons for relinquishing her birth child. I would have then gently brought up the matter of J, her adopted childhood, the concealment of information about her adopted status, and her current emotionally disturbed condition. I do feel that such an approach would have yielded a better response from her mother than J’s arbitrary method of establishing contact.
This reflective account details my experiences of dealing with an adopted service user, who tried to unsuccessfully establish contact with her birth mother. Modern day theory on social work and psychology stresses upon the complexity of adoption and the various challenges that the process brings up for the adopted children, the adopters and the birth relatives. Adopters have particularly significant responsibilities in ensuring, possibly through the use of therapeutic parenting methods, that their adopted children do not suffer from separation anxieties and do not develop attachment disorders. It is important for social workers to understand the emotional implications of these complexities and consider the emotional needs of all involved people with empathy and understanding.
It is also important, as my experience with J reveals, for adoption reunion processes between adopted individuals and their birth relatives to be handled with great care and thought. I do feel that I should have been more persuasive and possibly more forthright, without being judgemental, with J on (a) the possibly very different perceptions of her birth mother towards the meeting, (b) the compulsions that forced her to relinquish her birth child for adoption and (c) her current emotional condition and social environment.
Such an action would have possibly produced better results at the end. My knowledge of social work theory and practice has been significantly enhanced by my experience with J and will help me to deal with such situations much better in future.
Word Count: 2625, without citations and bibliography
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Bowlby, J., & Parkes, C. M., 1970, “Separation and loss within the family”, In E. J. Anthony & C. Koupernik (Eds.), The child in his family: International Yearbook of Child Psychiatry and Allied Professions, pp. 197-216, New York: Wiley.
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Fursland, E., 2010, “Facebook has changed adoption forever”, www.guardian.co.uk, Available at: www.guardian.co.uk/…/19/facebook-adoption-tracing-birth-mother (accessed January 30, 2011).
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Hollingsworth, L., 1998, “Adoptee dissimilarity from the adoptive family: clinical practice and research implications”, Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal 15, (4): pp 303-19.
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