Adoption and Children Bill

[back to previous text]

The Chairman: I welcome my colleagues to the second part of our sitting and I welcome two new witnesses. Would you please briefly introduce yourselves?

Professor Sonia Jackson: I have just retired as Professor of Applied Social Studies at the University of Wales, Swansea. My background is partly in social work and partly in psychology. I was originally a clinical psychologist. I have been researching on the subject of children in the care system for about 25 years. This year I published three books, which may be relevant. One is about stability and instability in the care system and the other two relate to the education—or miseducation—of children in care.

Professor John Triseliotis: I am Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh, and a Visiting Professor and Senior Research Fellow at Strathclyde university. I have been a director of social work and education at Edinburgh university for many years. I have researched separated children for about 55 years now, and published a couple of dozen books on issues to do with separated children. I am a half-adopted Scot, internationally adopted at the adult age of 30.

The Chairman: Some of us around this table were reading your books many years ago.

Mr. Walter: My question is really directed to both Professor Jackson and Professor Triseliotis, but I shall start with Professor Triseliotis. On the question of access to birth records, do you think that birth parents should have the right to protect their identity from adopted children and others if they so wish?

Professor Triseliotis: No, I do not. For me, this is a very sad day because I have deja vu from 26 years ago. I carried out the initial research for the Houghton committee, to produce probably the first video film about access to records and what adopted people feel. The committee, on the basis of our evidence, was persuaded. When the Children Act 1975 came to a similar committee, similar issues were raised at the time by a section of the press. They said that Pandora's box would be opened if access to records were allowed.

Some portrayed adopted people as vindictive, as possible blackmailers, and as abusers of any facility. We had then had that facility in Scotland for 30 years. Now it is 70 years since the facility has been available in Scotland, and 25 years in England and Wales. There has been no incident of adopted people having been proved to be vindictive or blackmailers. I am not saying that not one single adopted person could be like that, but there are many others who are not adopted who are blackmailers and accusers and their rights are not being taken away.

The Chairman: Why do you think that the position has changed?

Professor Triseliotis: I cannot understand—it came out of the blue. I thought that we would have to fight, but this was 25 years ago. Other countries, on the basis of our research and experience, changed their laws. My view is that adopted people are seen as a soft option, a soft target group. We have fought for 30 or 40 years now to dispel the view that adopted people are second-class citizens. This is what is now being reintroduced for no apparent reason.

If a birth child were to be deprived of their birth certificate or of possible access to their parents, there would be an outcry, and yet every year there are many birth children who murder their parents. They murder their brothers or their sisters or their grandparents, but there is no call to deprive them of their rights.

The Chairman: Professor Jackson, do you concur with your colleague's views?

Professor Jackson: Absolutely, yes. I think that it would be an extremely retrograde step if this clause were to pass into law. I am not aware of any incidents in which adopted children have attacked birth parents, but there are many, many hundreds where they have been very pleased indeed to be able to trace their birth parents, and have usually been welcomed.

I have just come back from Australia, and I was very struck by a book called ``Empty Cradles'', which is the account of the quest of the children who were forced to emigrate from England to Australia. It is about their desperate wish to find out about their origins and trace their birth parents—often, sadly, too late. I think that I agree with the witness in the previous sitting, who said that it would be devastating if people were refused access to their birth certificates. People have now had that access, of course, for 25 years.

Mr. Walter: The Chairman and I are well aware of ``Empty Cradles'', because we conducted an inquiry into the matter for the House of Commons. However, I wish to pursue the point and get an answer from both of you. Is a compromise possible between the Government's position and the view that you have expressed whereby the birth parents could agree that the adoptees would have access to birth records but would undertake not to make contact?

Professor Jackson: It is a civil right to have access to your birth certificate, as Professor Triseliotis said. I do not see that the birth parents should have the ability to block that right.

Professor Triseliotis: Let me put it another way. Each year, certainly, we have cases of people who are mentally ill and released from hospital. Occasionally, some of them commit crimes, even murder. Psychiatrists themselves are not always clear who is likely to do this, but because there are occasionally crimes of that sort, there has been not been a call that mentally ill people should not be released from hospitals. Neither have there been calls for parole to stop because, occasionally, people on parole commit crimes. I think society has to accept certain risks. The role of society is to try to protect people, and if parents feel they are harassed by a child they parted with for adoption years ago, there are laws that should be used to protect them. I think in a society that values blood ties and kinship, to try to deprive a section of that society—British society—from having access to that blood tie and that kinship is a deprivation of basic human rights.

Mr. Dawson: I agree with every word that has been said about the right of adopted people to access their birth records. I am slightly surprised by the view that birth parents should have a converse right to contact their children as adults, and I would appreciate an explanation of that. Is the correct balance not reflected in the current position, whereby adopted people can make contact and birth parents can make known their willingness to be contacted?

Professor Triseliotis: We take account of studies about birth parents who parted with children for adoption. We did one 10 years ago and we are doing one at the moment. We are looking at the perspective of all three parties to adoption: the adopted people, the adoptive parents and the birth parents. We know from these studies that birth parents cannot put this episode behind them—it has been very traumatic and very difficult, and they are haunted by continued guilt. Many of them have mental health problems as a result. They are worried about whether the child is doing well or not. I think it is fair, in the same way that there have been—not always—mental health issues, identity issues and esteem issues in relation to adopted people, that there are also issues about mental health and about concerns and guilt that permeate the lives of many birth mothers.

Mr. Dawson: I accept everything that you say about the pain experienced by birth parents. However, if the proposal were accepted, would there be circumstances in which people who had abused their children and proved seriously detrimental to the children were allowed into such children's lives in future? Should we not try to resist that? If the children want to make contact, that is fine, but should we not protect them from people who have abused them?

Professor Triseliotis: There may be, occasionally, dramatic cases of that sort. I do a fair amount of work for the courts. Things are much more grey at the levels at which parents may neglect and sometimes abuse—sometimes, there are serious abuse cases. Such children are often older when they come to courts and the parents' rights are taken away from them. Those children have access to a brother or sister. Contact is not difficult for the children. I think that it is setting up a worst possible scenario to deprive a lot of people of possibilities that are essential to them.

Kevin Brennan: Would not a more acceptable middle way be a much more active service available to birth parents to establish and signal the fact that they wish to contact adopted children in adulthood?

11.30 am

Professor Triseliotis: Let me put it like this. Even in 1969-70, when we carried out the first research into adopted people searching for the records in Scotland, the vast majority of them were looking for intermediaries—for people to help them. Only one out of 75 turned up at his mother's door to say, ``I'm so and so.'' Adopted people like to have facilities—they turn to people to help them through it. Our experience is that birth mothers also want to have that kind of facility. Now that the services are expanding and developing, that will come naturally without having to make specific laws.

Some legislation works well, and in my 35 years of research in child care if I thought that one piece of legislation would work well, it would be this one. But to be told suddenly that it is to be changed is incredible.

Professor Jackson: I can only agree, but I do not feel so strongly that birth parents should have a right to access their birth children without going through an intermediary. I would agree with Hilton Dawson's position on that.

Kevin Brennan: In the case of birth parents, should they not at least have a right to have their wish to contact their adopted child signalled actively to that child, even though they do not necessarily have the right to identify and locate the child?

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 21 November 2001