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Receiving information from adoption records

This information is adapted from The Adoption Reunion Handbook (which reported the experiences of adopted people who searched for information) by Liz Trinder, Julia Feast and David Howe. Wiley, 2004 and has been included on this website with kind permission of the publisher. Further details and ordering information are available on the Wiley website.

How do adopted people react when they receive information from adoption records?

It can vary but sometimes people are taken by surprise about the feelings they experience when they see the information that is held by the adoption agency. You may be learning about lots of background information that you were not aware of before. For instance you may learn that you already have a brother or sister or that you were looked after by your birth mother for several weeks. It is difficult to predict what impact receiving this information will have. If you already have most, or all, of the information, then the impact might be quite limited. But if, like most of the people in our research, you have little existing information, then seeing the record for the first time is likely to make a much bigger impression, generating positive, negative, or mixed feelings.

What information is difficult to hear?

For the majority of people reading the adoption record is a positive experience although it can be unsettling and overwhelming. Fortunately very few adopted people who search have to deal with their worst fears of, for example, having been conceived as a result of rape or having birth parents who were involved in crime or a family history of mental illness. However it is really important to be prepared for the difficult as well as the positive information.

A health warning about adoption records

For most people it is likely that reading the adoption record will be a positive experience, giving a lot of new information and insight into your history and background. But we should stress, too, that the information recorded will have been gathered by social workers (or ‘moral welfare’ workers as many of them were called before the 1970s), probably reflecting the attitudes and values of a previous generation. This might mean that some of the material and language of the adoption record is more upsetting than it need be. There might be derogatory comments about the birth mother or father. People who are black or mixed race may come across racist comments and unfounded judgements. It also might also be the case that some of the interpretation of the facts and even the ‘facts’ themselves might be misleading or even plain wrong.

Much of the adoption record will consist of reports or notes by social workers written at a time when attitudes towards single mothers were often judgmental and condemnatory. The birth mother may not agree with the account of the circumstances of the adoption or how she is described. The description and interpretation of the actions of the birth father may well also reflect the moral viewpoint of the social worker who had prepared the adoption record, as well, perhaps, the feelings of the birth mother (usually birth fathers were not interviewed during the adoption process). In some cases it may be that the birth mother had deliberately withheld information or told untruths, particularly about the identity of the birth father, sometimes to protect herself, the birth father or the baby. Sometimes misleading or wrong information was given by the birth mother’s parents who may have taken the main role in dealing with the adoption agency and organising the adoption.

Although the adoption records are ‘official’ documents it is worth approaching them with an open mind. In most cases the factual information will be accurate, but beyond that much of the interpretation, particularly of the reasons for the adoption, might well be just one view amongst many. They are not necessarily accurate portrayals of how either of your birth parents really felt about the situation or about you.

If adopted adults require access to their adoption records they may request this service from the agency involved or from another agency that is registered with the registration authority to provide the service.  Adoption record information should be disclosed to an adopted adult only through a meeting with the adoption social worker who meets the requirements in the Adoption and Adoption Support Agencies National Minimum Standards.

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