Access to information progress and perils.

Author:Feast, Julia

Julia Feast discusses BAAF's role in securing the right of adopted people to have access to information about their origins and how perceptions regarding this right have changed over time


In the UK the right of adopted people to have access to information about their origins is well established. Each country has legislation that allows adopted people to receive details enabling them to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate and the opportunity to reconnect with birth family members if they so wish. However, we should not become complacent that this hard-fought right will go unchallenged in the future. It is crucial to continue to evidence the wide-ranging benefits that accessing information can have for adopted people and their families. The same applies to people who have been brought up in care or been born as a result of donor-assisted conception, but unfortunately for these groups it is not so easily achieved.

Over the past 30 years, BAAF has played a significant role in promoting the information rights of adopted people and the rights of birth relatives to request intermediary services so that they can let an adoptive relative know that they would like to have contact.

BAAF has led or partnered many campaigns, for instance, during the passage of the Adoption and Children Bill (2001), which proposed to limit drastically adopted people's rights to identifying information. Together with organisations such as The Children's Society and NORCAP, it brought this proposal to the attention of the adoption community and was successful in overturning it.

BAAF has also strived to ensure that the knowledge gained about the importance of accessing information concerning genetic heritage is used to inform and educate other situations where children are raised in families where there is no genetic link with either one or both of the parents, such as in donor-assisted conception. The organisation was at the forefront in promoting the identity needs of the child (BAAF et al, 1984; Walby and Symons, 1990).

More recently, during the passage of the Children Act 2008, BAAF joined with other organisations to campaign (unfortunately without success) for a new legislative framework to ensure that post-care adults are on the same footing as adopted people in terms of access to information and are not restricted in obtaining comprehensive details about their family background and records relating to their time in care.

In celebration of BAAF's 30th anniversary, this article will therefore explore the importance of accessing information and explain why it is crucial that we do not become complacent in the belief that all bodes well for the future.

Perceptions over time

In the very early days of adoption, people's perception was that it would not only sever the legal ties with the birth family, but the emotional ones as well. In the 1950s, a leaflet produced for adoptive parents on what they should tell their child about adoption advised that:

... provided that the child has not grown up with the idea that his adoptive parents do not love him, or that there is some mystery about his origins, he will not dwell unduly on these matters or want to get in touch with his natural parents. (Standing Conference of Societies Registered for Adoption, 1950)

It is nowadays accepted by all those in the adoption community that this is simply not true, and that it is important for children to be given information about their origins and family background and the reasons why they were placed for adoption. Adoption does not end when the order has been made; it is a life-long process, not just for adopted people themselves but for anyone who has been affected by it.

Today, adoptive parents are encouraged and supported to talk to their son or daughter about his or her beginnings (Morrison, 2007; Wolfs, 2008, 2010). All children should have life story books with photos of significant people and places so that they can know their histories, build a stronger sense of identity and appreciate who they are and 'what makes them tick' (Camis, 2001; Shah and Argent, 2006; Cairns and Fursland, 2008).

Communicating about a child's origins and adoption and telling him or her difficult and distressing information are not easy and have to be done in an age-appropriate way. However, adopted people need to have information and facts about their origins and family history; talking and telling is an integral part of the adoption process. Research studies have shown that just because a person does not raise the subject of their adoption and origins and ask questions, it does not mean they do not want to talk about it (Howe and Feast, 2003).

The need for adopted people to have access to information about their origins was recognised when the Children Act 1975 came into force. The legislation made the provision for adopted people in England and Wales to have the right, once they reached the age of 18 years, to apply for the necessary information and to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate. This had always been a right for people in Scotland, as its 1930 Act addressed this at the time. In Northern Ireland it became a right in 1987.

The opening up of adoption records was a significant step and made a clear statement about adopted people's rights to have an opportunity to know more about their original background. The legislation was retrospective. Some may say that this was a brave step to take at that time, as societal attitudes were very different from today, when it is generally accepted that access to information and/or making contact with birth family members can be a positive experience

This was further reflected in the guidance notes that were issued by the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) for counsellors undertaking Access to Birth Records in England and Wales when the legislation came into force in 1976. These recognised the importance of adopted people accessing information about their origins and made it clear that the 'counsellor' does not have the right to withhold basic information. However, there was great concern about the impact on birth parents and other relatives should the adopted person decide that they wanted to trace and contact them. The emphasis was very much on 'leave well alone', as portrayed in the following quotation:

The possible distress and disappointment at not being able to trace one's parents or of being rebuffed should be mentioned. The counsellor may advise against continuing the search because of the other people who could be hurt. The applicant must be helped to accept responsibility for the pain he might cause to himself and to others if he pursues his quest ... (DHSS, 1976, p 6)

But as with opening up records, the fears expressed at this time have not been realised. Instead, empirical studies support the legislative change that occurred in 1975, showing that having the opportunity and choice to seek background information and make contact with birth relatives can bring a range of psychological benefits to many adopted people and their birth parents without affecting the relationships in the family (Howe and Feast, 2003; Triseliotis et al, 2005).

BAAF was at the forefront of producing advice notes for all those affected by these changes, including a practical guide to assist practitioners to provide high-quality birth record counselling, access to information and intermediary support services (Hodgkins, 1991).

Access to information denied: a changing climate?

The opportunity to access information and the climate of openness now seem to be under threat....

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