Select Committee on Select Committee on the Adoption and Children Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Professor Audrey Mullender, University of Warwick


  1.1  I wish to submit evidence to the Committee on the basis of my research over a five-year period. My submission focuses on post-adoption contact (particularly in adulthood), access to information (particularly for birth relatives), and sibling groups. Policy and practice in all these areas is still confused and deficient. It is important to remember that this situation will be compounded if more children are placed for adoption unless changes are also made to rectify the omissions and anomalies in the areas to which I allude.

  1.2  I conducted the only national research to date on Part II of the Adoption Contact Register (Mullender and Kearn, 1997)—that is the part used by birth relatives—and went on to conduct an in-depth study of siblings on the Register which I combined with an overview of other research on siblings into a recent book (Mullender, 1999).

  1.3  The Adoption Contact Register research was based on an anonymised postal questionnaire to birth relatives who had registered their names, covering all aspects of the Register's operation and wider post-adoption issues. The size of the response was extremely high for a postal questionnaire and indicated the strength of feeling amongst birth relatives, who took this opportunity to "speak out", often for the first time in their lives. Much of my evidence is based upon the responses of 1,784 birth relatives, not my own views. Many of the issues they raised have implications for future policy decisions.

  1.4  The follow-up research sampled those respondents in the earlier study who were the brothers and sisters of adult adopted people for in-depth anonymous interviews by telephone (conducted via a freephone number). Once again, it revealed great strength of feeling, including anger at being kept apart, and it has major policy implications.

  1.5  Together with Dr Anita Pavlovic of Oxford Brookes University, I am just starting new research on abandoned infants ("foundlings") and could also offer limited evidence in that field if required.

  1.6  There is a close link between the content of my evidence and that submitted by NORCAP. I have had sight of NORCAP's evidence in draft and would commend it to the Committee as being well supported by research. My only reservations about it would be in respect of vetoes (which cause intense to those encountering them distress and are seldom watertight) and compulsory counselling (which can become an in advertent obstacle and can place too much power with professionals).


  2.1  Adoption is for life. This means that a placement made now may have sharply felt consequences in people's lives for eight decades or more. It is important not to fall into the common trap of thinking about post-adoption support for the parties to adoption as only being needed during the adopted person's childhood.

  2.2  When the needs of adopted people to have access to their birth records information were recognised in this country, a quarter of a century ago, the equally strong need of their birth relatives to have news of them was overlooked. Belatedly, the Children Act 1989 created the Adoption Contact Register which, though an important improvement to birth relatives' rights, has had only limited success. The rate of links has been low (recently risen from around a 3 per cent to around a 6 per cent chance of success) and many people stay on the Register for years without a link occurring. Respondents to my research consideration that the Register would be improved by increased publicity, regular feedback to those who are registered, a letterbox facility, direct access to an optional counselling service, an intermediary service and a more reciprocal exchange of information when a link is made.

  2.3  But the Register alone will never meet the true need, however well it is run. At present, many birth relatives are in distress because they are unable even to find out whether the adopted person is alive and well. Some further improvement will be achieved through the recent issuing of Department of Health practice guidelines on intermediary services for birth relatives, but this will do nothing for those related to someone who was placed privately for adoption. Non-agency placements actually continued into the early 1980s and there are many thousands of adopted people still alive who were placed this way in the past. Consequently, only a change in the law to give rights to birth relatives to obtain identifying information about the adopted person is actually going to meet their needs. There is ample evidence from New Zealand that this can be managed without cutting across the rights of adopted people.

  2.4  Respondents to the research also made and responded to more detailed suggestions about the working of the Adoption Contact Register, leading to the following detailed recommendations.

(i)  Information placed by proxy about an incapacitated adopted person

  An overwhelming majority of relatives consulted approved of the idea of a new provision, whereby an adoptive parent or other proxy could place an adopted adult's details onto the Register, in the event that they were too sick or incapacitated to do so for themselves. In the absence of this provision, a birth relative seeking an adopted person who is incapable of registering simply hears nothing and is left to imagine that this is because the adopted person has no interest in them, or that they may be dead. This category of "incapacitated" adopted people would include some with terminal illnesses or coma—where this could be the last chance of an exchange of information, or a reunion if desired by birth relative and adopters, before the adopted person dies. It would also cover forms of disability requiring personal assistance. It is a service which Birth Link in Scotland already offers.

(ii)  Information in the event of a death

  There is a related question as to whether adoptive parents should be given the opportunity to place on the Register information about an adopted person who has died, either for the simple purpose of passing this information on to any birth relative who might be seeking a link, or to initiate contact with the birth family, if desired. This is not currently possible since Part I of the Register is open only to adopted people for initial registrations. An overwhelming majority of respondents to the Mullender and Kearn survey certainly did want to be informed if the adopted person died so this would be an uncontroversial measure. Southport will already, if asked to do so, record on any existing entry in the Register the information that the person concerned has subsequently died. This means that, in the event of a match between entries in the two parts of the Register, one party can be told that the other has died but it still leaves unresolved the question of contact being initiated between the birth family and the adoptive family of a deceased person who never went on the Register, where desired. It is also only of assistance in cases where the information about a death is communicated to the Office of National Statistics. There is no provision for cross-referencing between the Adoption Register and other information held by the Registra General. Birth Link in Scotland does allow registrations by adoptive parents where the adopted person has died. The agency reports a particular need for information amongst people who were involved in private placements since there would then be no adoption agency to act as an alternative source of information about a death.

(iii)  Right for under-age adopted people's details to be placed on the Register

  More than twice as many people agreed than disagreed that adoptive parents should be able to place details on the Register for an adopted person who had yet to reach the age of 18. Again, Birth Link in Scotland already provides such a service. There would be no effect on any birth relative—or, indeed, any adoptive family—who did not choose to register their details. Given current adoption practice, adoptive parents would be advised to talk the matter through thoroughly with the adopted person before registering his or her details, and, indeed, a typical scenario would probably be one where they were acting on behalf of a teenage adopted person who themselves actively wanted a link but was, as yet, too young to register (or on behalf of an incapacitated young adopted person, as above).

(iv)  Right for under-age birth relatives' details to be placed on the Register

  A majority of respondents felt there should be the opportunity for those birth relatives who were under 18 years of age to place their own details on the Register. This option would, for example, allow young siblings of adopted people to make themselves available for contact.


  3.1  Siblings are normally thought of, in the UK, as people who have one or both parents in common, regardless of whether they have resided together or been parented together. They may share, to a greater or lesser extent, common genes, a common history, shared family values and culture. They may not have the same legal status. Siblings in care tend to have more complex families than other children in the community, compounded by multiple moves and by parallel changes within their birth families. Social workers do not always keep track of children's family constellations. Research reveals a particular lack of contact with paternal siblings. Sibling groups may include children with additional needs in relation to disability (one in five has special educational needs), ethnicity or other factors.

  3.2  Separation remains a very real issue for siblings who have had social work involvement in their lives. Two-thirds of the children in one study who were to be adopted were separated from some or all of their looked after siblings, and almost half of these were placed apart from all of their siblings. In one study of children placed for adoption, 95 per cent of all those with siblings were living apart from at least one of them. Social workers were not necessarily keeping track of the other siblings, especially those still at home, so there would be no information about them on the agency file in future years should the adopted person choose to ask. This might include siblings born subsequently, of whose existence the adopted child would not even be aware. Perhaps there should be a duty on local authorities to keep information updated after adoptions from care.

  3.3  Another researcher found sibling planning to be service-led rather than needs-led. Social workers reported a lack of placements for larger sibling groups and for those where one or more of the children had special needs. To get round this, they tended simply to record that their plan to separate children was "in the best interests" of at least one of the siblings.

  3.4  There is general agreement that, where placement together is not possible, contact assumes particular importance. Yet, in one permanence study, nearly half the placements lacked a definite contact plan and it was rare to include all siblings. Many children had other siblings with whom there was no contact at all, even where social workers thought this might cause difficulty. In another study of young children placed for adoption, two-thirds of those who were separated lacked the potential for contact with any of their siblings. Even where there is contact, it may not be at the most desirable frequency or organised in such a way that it gives the children concerned meaningful relationships. It is sometimes based on out-dated theoretical concepts about its value for children and its importance is not always explained to adopters.

  3.5  So, initially through separation and then through lack of contact, adoption is still meaning that many siblings are lost to one another.

  3.6  Separation from siblings and lack of contact with them matter because research with adults suggests that feelings of loss frequently persist throughout life. This is as true of "half"—(maternal, paternal) siblings as it is of "full" siblings. Adoption legislation as it stands in England and Wales leaves many people with no opportunity ever to find their adopted siblings again, no matter how hard they try.

  3.7  Self-reports tell us that the loss of a sibling can involve the loss of: a lifetime's close and loving relationship, support in adversity, a sometimes paternal degree of personal care, a shared history, a sense of kinship, of "flesh and blood", for full and maternal siblings of a "bond" (coming from the same womb) which is understood by all the peoples of the world, of continuity and rootedness, a source of knowledge about the family, and a resource for the individual's own development of identity. For those with a memory of the sibling, the unresolved grief can be akin to that we now acknowledge to be felt by birth mothers. For those who unexpectedly discover that they had a sibling, their foremost feeling may be more of a devastation, a disbelief, followed by a sense of injustice and a loss of all the things the relationship would have meant to both parties and to the wider family.

  3.8  Neither social work theory nor practice has strong enough foundation to justify claims to "assess sibling relationships" so as to guarantee that the pain and sadness of separation can be avoided. Given a consistent lack, too, of policy and practice guidelines on sibling placements and on contact in care and placement agencies, children frequently become separated for adult reasons that have little or nothing to do with their current or future needs, even when expressed in terms of the latter.

  3.9  There are no reliable data about siblings who are looked after or for whom adoption is planned. We do not have information about numbers of children with siblings elsewhere in the care system or with the birth family or adopted, numbers of referrals of sibling groups, or categories of reasons for separation. Sibling group placement patterns are typically not monitored. Thus, although social workers and their managers often understand the value of sibling placements (repeatedly also shown to improve placement success), we do not know how often this priority is pushed aside by other, competing factors in the situation. Nor can we record the long-term effects in terms of eventual loss of contact.

  3.10  More careful and proactive planning and a wider range of placements are needed across the board. A headlong rush into increased adoptive placements will increase separations still further. Adopters simply are not coming forward in anything like the required numbers for older sibling groups.

  3.11  There can be bureaucratic obstacles, too. A sibling group normally counts as one case in a caseload weighting system. This may not allow the social worker to devote the time and attention needed to assess and meet each child's needs including, for example, where there are complex contact arrangements. Responsibility for key tasks in relation to siblings may fall between workers and between teams. Yet again, this is compounded by the fact that managers are not working to clear policies that might encourage them to take action to clear the blockages to best practice.

  3.12  Additional families might be enabled to take on sibling groups if they had help to purchase a larger vehicle, an extension to the house, help with ironing, or other such assistance. There are less tangible needs, too, for input on issues about siblings in general and about aspects of sibling support that may need working on, including in families where one sibling may have abused another. All of these needs point to better resourcing.

April 2001


Mullender, A (ed) (1999) We Are Family: Sibling Relationships in Placement and Beyond, London: British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering.

Mullender, A and Kearn S (1997) "I'm Here Waiting": Birth Relatives' Views on Part II of the Adoption Contact Register for England and Wales, London: British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering.


  Comments form research respondents who are birth relatives of adult adopted people:

    "Adoption has a hole in the corner history, with its secrets. I dearly hope we will become humane regarding adoption—we must move on and stop morally meddling with other peoples' lives and wishes with this social engineering called "adoption".

    "I feel we are the forgotten people. Put it under the carpet and forget about it."

    "The law says that all mothers of adopted children must go to their grave never knowing what became of their child; the secrecy surrounding adoption is wrong."

    "It is 1996 and people are more mentally mature and better able to deal with situations like this. The whole secrecy part of this is archaic and totally unacceptable."

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