The need to know where we come from and to understand as much as we can about our background is fundamental to our sense of identity.
Adults who have been brought up in the care system, however, are hugely disadvantaged if they want to search for their birth parents or contact brothers or sisters. Until the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 authorities north of the border did not have to keep records about birth parents and siblings, so services to help put families back in touch have often been unable to help people who have been in long-term care or have been permanently fostered.
Birthlink’s Care Connect project in Edinburgh, is changing this apartheid of services and offers a ray of hope for adult survivors of the care system in Scotland. Its vital work won it a Community Care award in the supporting children and families category last November.
Birthlink is an after-adoption support agency that also runs the adoption contact register for Scotland, and has more than 20 years’ experience of putting adopted people in touch with their birth relatives. Care Connect was born three years ago after the rising number of enquiries from adults who had been in care led Birthlink to launch a service that offered search, mediation and post-contact support. Since then, more than 50 people have benefited from the Care Connect service.
Gary Clapton is a Birthlink counsellor who works with Care Connect. He explains that there are a huge number of people who are cast adrift in society with no idea whether or not they have any living relatives. “There are tens of thousands in Scotland alone who have grown up in foster care or residential care,” he says. “Families are founded on a variety of different faultlines, and many children originally came in to the foster system because of neglect or abuse of some kind. Sometimes only one of the siblings was taken into care, others may have been adopted or may have remained with the birth family.
“Their histories are complex – and when they come to think they might like to find family members they just don’t know where to start,” he adds.
Clapton tells the story of Desmond.* “Desmond was taken into care at the age of eight. He came to us in his forties clutching a sheet of A4 paper with a few paragraphs of text which represents all the information he has about his family – a bit about his mother and a bit about his chequered history of care, and he wonders if we can help him to find his family.
“He came out of care and joined the army but was kicked out shortly afterwards and ended up at the age of 19 in a hostel. Somehow, he holds it together, marries and has two children and holds down a job. Then one day, he sees an advertisement for Birthlink and wonders: ‘Can they help me?’.”
Through searching their records, Birthlink were able to put Desmond in contact with his two sisters – both of whom had been adopted. One of them was in Lanarkshire and the other in New Jersey in the US. Without Birthlink’s help, Desmond would never have found them.
The award was “fantastic”, says Clapton, especially as the team narrowly missed out on an award after being a runner-up at the Community Care Awards in 1999.
“We were overwhelmed to be honest,” he says. “As soon as Ruby Wax started talking about the winning project I knew it must be us – I think I dug my nails so hard into one of my colleague’s arm that she yelped!”
The award money will be used to raise awareness of their service among local authority social work departments and organisations who used to run foster and care homes – the first port of call for many people who have been in care and want to search for their families. “There is a huge demand out there – our work has just begun to scratch the surface,” Clapton says.
* Not his real name