Adoption – Who Owns the Children?

By Laetitia Lefroy

Laetitia Lefroy was, for many years, a Project Leader and Senior Social Worker with Dr. Barnardos. She set up the Adoption Advice Service in 1978. With Charles Mollan she was the author of New Families, published by Turoe Press in 1984. She was a member of the Review Committee on Adoption Services set up by the Minister for Health in 1983. Here she talks to Mavis Arnold.

There has always been a need for some children to be reared by people other than those who have borne them – wider family members, foster parents, those providing institutional care. In my professional life as a social worker, I was frequently involved in situations where children were separated from their natural parents and either adopted or fostered, and also with people who had this experience in the past as parents or children. While the pur­pose of this article is not to argue the merits or demerits of each of these systems or, indeed, whether any person/parent owns any other person, I have, in the past, expressed concern about the implications of legal owner­ship of children and the implied belief that it was necessary for the develop­ment of bonds, a ‘sense of belonging’, identity, security and commitment as well as parenting confidence. It is this concern which I have been asked to develop here.

For many years the term ‘adoption’ was commonly used for arrange­ments now known as long-term fostering (whether arranged formally or by doctors, priests etc. or within the family). Many secure and happy families were formed in this way. Openness was acceptable to all and security of relationships was not dependent on legal underpinning since the arrange­ment had no legal basis. It did not carry rights of succession, a new name, a new birth certificate, claim to ownership or protection from reclaim by the biological/natural parents.

Such loose arrangements were often expected to protect the child by surrounding him or her with secrecy, and withholding information which society might not have found acceptable. It was also intended to protect the natural parents – usually the mother. Unfortunately, the secrecy meant that important information was withheld, forgotten or passed on in a confused or ambiguous way causing considerable distress. A simple example of this would be where a child discovered that the person whom she had always believed to be her sister was, in fact, her mother.

In order to tidy up these matters and to regulate the position of children and parents in new families, legal adoption was introduced into Ireland in 1952, and a sharp difference was made between an adoptive family and a foster family. Adoptive parents were granted all the rights and respons­ibilities they would have had if the child had been born to them (without the intrusion of an agency or biological family except at their behest and within their control), and the child received all the benefits of belonging to that family. This included a new birth certificate with the new parents named as the parents, and the identity of the biological parent withheld by law (although in some instances the biological parents’ identity may already be known to the adopting couple).

With fostering no legal bonds have been established. Arrangements are usually made by an intermediary, often a statutory or voluntary child care organisation, with an expectation that the arrangement will be monitored. The length of time could be short, indefinite or long but, without legal pro­visions, no promise of security could be given. (Nowadays, most organ­isations aspire to having an ongoing plan with the foster parents, child and relatives which would include a time scale.)

Normally, even if care and guardianship are removed from parents by law, the responsibility for them is vested in a statutory agency rather than the foster parents. Therefore, while in fact many foster placements have been as long term as adoptions, there can be no permanent arrangement. A foster child is always on loan, cared for on behalf of parents or guardians usually through an organisation. Adoption is a permanent commitment and the weight of the law cements this.

Our Constitution gives inalienable and imprescriptible rights to parents but our recent legislation does expect the court to be satisfied that decisions are ‘in the best interests of the child’. Legal challenges and conflicts tend to be addressed in an adversarial context and can be bruising for all concerned. With a small child ‘the best interests’ can be difficult to determine, particul­arly the relative value of the ‘blood tie’ in individual situations.

It then becomes obvious that while the legal and administrative basis of adoption is clearly defined, the psychological aspects are more confused. Most cultures place value on blood ties, and adoption is often seen as a second-best solution for both children and parents. This is not helped by comments made to adoptive parents which draw a distinction between ‘own’ child and ‘adopted’ child and, if reference is made to ‘real’ parents, this is automatically asssumed to mean biological parents.

Dr. Kellmer Pringle, former Director of the National Children’s Bureau, believes that unconditional, unpossessive care is every child’s birthright. “Implicit in this concept of parenthood is the recognition that the child is a person in his own right not a personal possession, as it were, over which exclusive rights can be exercised or through whom one’s own, possibly frustrated ambitions” may be realised. It also implies an ungrudging acceptance not only of the demands which parenthood inevitably imposes on one’s emotions, energy, time and finance, but also of the constraints on independence, freedom of movement and one’s whole way of life.”

Implicit in the adoption procedure is that adoption gives security for the whole of a child’s life. It creates a bond that cannot be legally broken. It also presupposes that the parent/child relationship is complete in itself, whereas we know that a child does not always get nurturing or fulfillment of needs only from parents. This is not a moral judgement, it is a fact. Children often find people other than parents to satisfy needs – grandparents, teachers, friends.

The legal formalities of adoption create a new family unit that ‘belongs’ together. A sense of belonging, however, comes from the relationships formed and the security which results. This can be more significant within an artificially created unit. The importance of establishing strong relation­ships is widely acknowledged but I question whether the legal back-up for them is always necessary. Who needs this security? The child, the natural or adoptive parents, or both? It is natural and commendable to want to make your adopted child like your own, but if the child wants to meet her natural parents, or vice versa, this ‘owning’ is immediately threatened. Often adoptive parents fear losing the child, convinced that he or she (probably aged eighteen at this stage) will ‘choose’ or prefer the natural parent. The belief that relationships are formed by blood ties alone is a complete fallacy – or that an existing strong relationship is obliterated by a new relationship with a blood relation. If it were so it presupposes that only one relationship can exist at a time. These relationships are very different in nature, if not intensity. They will test but need not damage each other.

Changing the name of a child on adoption is a very obvious indication of ownership and clarity in relation to ‘belonging’. As part of the new family, the child takes the new family’s surname, and is often given a new Christian name. I have found that single mothers who later marry, often want to adopt the child jointly with their husband. When asked why they want to do this they say they could not be a family unless everyone had the same surname, and adoption is the only way to get a new birth certificate with the hus­band’s name on it. The name and the authority derived from it is extremely significant. In Ireland, only children whose parents are not married to each other can be adopted except in some very exceptional cases. Yet the need to take a new husband’s name does not seem to arise with widows who re­marry. One could surmise that it is to do with insecurity and confidence building. If you are ‘respectably’ born, you can keep your name and your memories will be positively nurtured. Where there was hurt or dislike of the absent parent it is much harder to do this for the child.

The name is a significant aspect of a person’s identity. Increasingly, families are happily accepting different surnames with women choosing to keep their own names after marriage. In such families the sense of belonging is not threatened by this.

A child can be adversely affected where ownership is used to deny or reject other significant relationships, especially that of the natural mother and the father, about whom very little is said. I feel that there is something basically dishonest about some principles of adoption in that they are blank­ing out any previous history and previous relationships. Some natural parents have chosen adoption because of this. Some adoptive parents may have a psychological need to deny these relationships because of insecurity in their parental role or in their relationship with their adopted child. They will have missed out on early bonding and on the changes which take place in a relationship during pregnancy. They may have had negative feelings about their inability to have children which can bring up basic inadequacies and leave them vulnerable.

Jane Rowe, a social worker, says: “Adoptive parents need to make the child their own, accepting him entirely both in his present and in his past. The essence of adoption is making the child a complete member of the new family. This need not mean denying the reality of birth parents or his right to know something of his origins. Nor does it mean pretending that being an adoptive parent is just the same as being a biological parent. It does mean that adopters need a sturdy belief that their form of parenthood really is parenthood.”

I feel that, in many cases, more open adoption procedures are healthier where, for example, the natural parents may choose the adoptive parents and where the child can have access to the natural parents at a suitable time in his/her life. Facilitating these is increasingly become current practice.

But we still have no legal mechanism for tracing here in Ireland unlike most countries whose adoption legislation and practice is similar. I believe that, since the law does not give natural parents or adopted people a right to know each other’s identity, we should find ways to make tracing simpler and safer. There is currently a greater awareness of the needs of adopted people for information on the identity of their natural parents, but less of parents’ needs to know the child they bore. Not only are many adopted people seeking access to their natural parents but also natural parents with a strong need to know the child they bore or fathered.

For these reasons I have wanted a register set up of people wanting to trace or to be traced. Ten years later it is still being discussed. I accept that reunions between natural parents and their children can be traumatic and will certainly be significant. But the fear expressed or felt by adoptive parents that they will be rejected in favour of the natural parents is totally unrealistic, as is the belief that an eighteen year old faced with an option will always choose his or her natural parents. What are they ‘choosing’? Any relationship will be quite different from any other, but will not necessarily be exclusive. It is often at such times that the support of the adoptive parents is crucial. After all that is where the bonding and long term relationship has been established. Adoptive parents are not the only ones to have fears – adopted children/adults and natural parents also fear rejection or dis­appointment but their fears are equalled by their needs. Reunions are not like fairy tales, with ‘happy ever after’ results. ‘Happiness’ is not the main goal; the motivating needs are for knowledge and understanding.

As society changes and develops, so does family life. Expectations in parent/child relationships, attitudes to sexuality and difference will change and will affect newly constituted families as much as any other social group. Increased openness in these matters means that there are greater demands on those who need to be open with sensitive information, but also means they are likely to find more support.

Adoptive parents have to deal with difference and must reconcile themselves to the inescapable fact that their child comes to them with his or her own history. To be able to set their fears aside, to acknowledge this history and not deny it and to include it in the relationship they are building with their child will establish a secure basis for the future.


All quotations are taken from Child Adoption, A selection of articles on adoption theory and practice, published by The Association of British Adoption & Fostering Agencies.