Why we need to talk about modern adoption
Last week I was privileged to launch an initiative by former Senator Fidelma Healy Eames called myadoptionstory.ie. It was prompted by the lack of knowledge about modern adoption, an issue that has resonance just now as the referendum on abortion kicks off.
Junior Minister John Paul Phelan co-launched it with me. It is an online compilation of the personal narratives written by adopted people, by adoptive parents and by mothers and fathers relinquishing their children for adoption. Most people still associate adoption with Magdalene Laundries, cold, bleak orphanages and the forcible removal of children from their mothers. Much of this trauma was captured in the film Philomena.
Adoption in the 21st century in Ireland bears little resemblance to the practices of 40 years ago. The practices of previous decades, until the 1980s, were the same in Britain, UK and other European countries and were not unique to Ireland. It was believed and recommended that a "clean break" between the birth mother and her baby achieved the best outcomes so that the mother could "move on", and the adoptive family would not feel under threat into the future from the biological mother.
To achieve this, the baby was removed from the mother at the time of birth or shortly thereafter so that a bond could not be established. The adoptive parents were provided with little information about the baby's mother or father and so the child grew up knowing only the adoptive father and mother as his/her parents. The possibility that the bond between a mother and her baby began early in the infant's life or even during pregnancy had received little attention. As knowledge of this increased, so adoption practice changed.
An important contributor to our understanding of bonding is John Bowlby (1907-1990) and Mary Ainsworth, his student, who respectively developed the theory of attachment and identified faulty attachment styles. They identified the importance of strong physical and emotional attachment to a primary caregiver, usually the mother, particularly in the first years of life.
Failure to form an attachment can result in significant emotional problems later in life with feeling of rejection or anger being to the fore. But as well as forming a bond with the newborn, it is now believed that the process does just not begin at birth but much earlier, such as seeing the first ultrasound scan or feeling the baby kick in the womb. Work on the prenatal aspects of bonding only began in the 1990s.
Recognising that some mothers may not form a strong enough bond or one that is dysfunctional, the adoption process itself became more sensitive to this aspect of the mother's relationship to the child when evaluating her readiness to relinquish her child for adoption.
If she was driven by poverty to place for adoption the focus was on making it more practicable for her to continue to parent the infant, whereas if she did not feel attached enough, adoption became an option. But the main focus was on the baby and as the importance of an identifiable mother figure had come to be recognised it became clear that orphanages were definitely unsuited to developing confident, well-rounded people. Food may have been provided, but not unwavering love from one consistent figure.
In tandem with these new insights emerging, the Hague Convention on adoption was developed (1983). Ireland added its name in 2010. The Convention lays out the rules for ethical adoption and countries that have signed this agreement can only adopt from jurisdictions that are co-signatories. The objectives are to ensure that inter-country adoptions take place in the best interests of the child, so outlawing the exchange of money, abduction or trafficking. In addition, co-operation must take place between countries to ensure that there is mutual acceptance of each other's adoption laws.
Adoption agencies must be vetted and certified as ethical. The requirement to only adopt from signatories to the Convention has resulted in a slump in overseas adoptions. In the first 10 months of 2016, adoption orders were made for just 49 overseas children to be adopted by Irish parents. In 2008, the figure was 33 per month. Domestic adoptions in 2017, other than those by step-parents, are now in single figures. Part of the reason for this fall is that Russia, the most popular country from which to adopt, is not a signatory to the Hague convention and so is not longer accessible to prospective adopters in Ireland.
There is clearly a disconnect between the reality of adoption in modern Ireland and perceptions about it fanned by tragic stories from 50 years ago. So myadoptionstory.ie represents a huge move to present the real stories about adoption as it applies to all the stakeholders such as adoptees, adoptive parents and birth parents in 2018. It is a new departure attempting to update public perception on a painful, sensitive and stigmatised topic.
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