Saturday 1 November 2014

Mary Kenny: Searching for birth parents can be tricky – not everyone will want to reconnect

Published 18/11/2013 | 02:00

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in the film 'Philomena', which tells the story of Irish children being sold abroad.

The British education minister, Michael Gove, made a rather emotional statement last week about having been an adopted child.

In a tribute to the diligence of good social workers, he said: "As someone who started their life in care, whose life was transformed because of the skill of social workers and the love of parents who were not my biological mother and father, but who are – in every sense – my real mum and dad, this is personal. A child's opportunity should not be a matter of chance – it should be the mission which guides all our actions."

Michael Gove – who is regarded as a possible future prime minister – was indeed adopted at the age of four months by an Aberdeen fishmonger and his wife (who worked in an institute for the deaf) and given a loving, encouraging childhood by his adoptive parents. Born in 1967, he went to a state school but won a scholarship to a renowned Scottish academy, and from there got to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where he became president of the Oxford Union. I knew Gove slightly when he was a journalist on 'The Times' and was impressed by his drive, energy and common sense; he married a fellow journalist, Sarah Vine, and has children of his own now.

Gove is passionately ambitious about education, and, because his own childhood was happy, is a warm advocate for adoption. Like the actor Dan Stevens – who came to fame as Matthew in 'Downton Abbey' – Michael Gove has chosen not to trace his birth parents because he simply regards his adoptive parents as his "real mum and dad".

He was making this speech in the context of several harrowing cases in Britain in which children have been killed by birth parents (or a birth parent with a new partner, such as little Daniel Pelka, aged four, who was starved to death) and social workers have been clamorously blamed for not removing these children from a dangerous or violent home. There certainly have been errors of judgment by social workers in leaving a child in a vulnerable place, but perhaps there is always a risk involved in these decisions. There was a special howl of outrage against the Ulster-born Sharon Shoesmith under whose stewardship in London's Haringey baby Peter Connolly died pitilessly, but who nevertheless won compensation of £600,000 for being sacked.

So, Gove was making the point that there are excellent social workers, and he, personally, feels grateful to them for facilitating his happy family life.

His championship of adoption is also perhaps a balancing counterpoint to the many sad stories from adopted children – or birth parents – who feel that the experience was not a positive one, and robbed them of a key biological relationship.

The compelling movie 'Philomena' tugs at our heart-strings about the highly irregular, if not scandalously illegal, practice in Ireland during the 1950s of whisking away the infants of single mothers to place them with rich Americans. Jane Russell, the film star, famously acquired an adopted child this way.

In the Dail, the Independent TD Clare Daly has been pressing the Taoiseach and Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald to enable mothers like Philomena to trace their biological offspring, and where relevant, for the adult children to connect with their birth mothers, or parents.

Forced or coercive adoption is deplorable, and should never be allowed, or have been allowed: although it must be pointed out that adoption was only enacted in the Irish State in 1952, and even then, there was some reluctance – especially among rural deputies – to accept any legislation about adoption at all.

Even in Britain, which had adoption legislation since 1926 – after World War I left many children as orphans – there was still some coercive adoption being carried out in the 1950s, when single mothers were pressurised and given very little choice about yielding their babies for adoption.

This became a strong argument for ushering in the British Abortion Act in 1967, and once that was in place, abortion became the preferred choice in many cases. The situation today is thus very different and there are very few babies available for adoption.

But because of harrowing stories like that seen in 'Philomena', adoption is sometimes seen as a cruel practice of yesteryear. In speaking out about his gratitude in being adopted, Michael Gove has introduced a balancing note into the debate, and perhaps highlighted the point that much may depend upon the adopting parents, as well as the skill of social workers.

In the 'Philomena' story, we gather that the adopting parents were not always kind, particularly the adopting father, which makes it even more upsetting.

But Michael Gove has, by inference, also made another point: not all adopted children wish to trace their birth parents (though women tend to be keener than men to find their biological family), and not all birth parents want to make the connection either. It has got to be a sensitive, personal issue, handled with care and respect by all concerned: even in righting the wrongs of forcibly adopted children in Ireland in the 1950s that sensitivity to each individual situation will have to be kept in mind.

Irish Independent

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