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 relativesand
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
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
(i) Information placed by proxy about an incapacitated
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 comawhere
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
(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 relativeor, indeed, any
adoptive familywho 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
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
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
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
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.
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
adoptionwe must move on and stop morally meddling with
other peoples' lives and wishes with this social engineering called
"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."