Make no assumptions

Thirty years since the right of adopted people to trace their
birth relatives was established, the Adoption and Children Act 2002
will be implemented at the end of this year to complete the
adoption triangle. It’s been a long struggle to give birth parents
the legal right to an intermediary service so that, once the child
they gave up for adoption reaches 18, they can make contact with
their son or daughter. But will birth parents approach the services
to take up this opportunity? Our research suggests that this may
not be the case.(1)

We looked at birth and adoptive parents’ experiences of adoption,
search and reunion. Although most birth mothers in the study longed
to hear from their child, a significant number felt they had lost
the right to initiate contact. Some felt it should be left to the
adopted adult to get in touch. Others said they would not want to
make contact for fear that their adopted son or daughter would
reject them.

This may have important implications for adopted people who believe
that, now the law has changed, they will automatically be hearing
from birth parents. They may well be left feeling disappointed and
rejected because they assume that, if the birth parent does not
initiate contact, it means they do not want to hear from them. In
fact, the study showed that 94 per cent of birth mothers were
pleased that their son or daughter had made the move.

Although there have been several studies about adopted people’s
experience of adoption, search and reunion,(2), (3) until now
little was known about the experiences of the other key players:
adoptive parents and birth parents.

One of the primary objectives of this Nuffield-funded study was
specifically to look at their experience and outcomes. Information
was gathered, using a large-scale detailed postal questionnaire,
from 93 birth mothers, 93 adoptive parents and 126 adopted people.
The sample included searching and non-searching adopted people,
birth mothers who were contacted by the adopted person, as well as
birth mothers who initiated contact through the adoption agency.
Fifteen birth fathers also participated. The sample in this study
represents adoptions before 1975, involving children mostly younger
than 18 months.

For 90 per cent of participants the contact and reunion had been a
happy and satisfying experience. The study showed that the contact
and reunion stood the test of time over an average of eight years.
Seventy per cent were still in face-to-face contact and 86 per cent
were still in indirect contact with their son or daughter.
Searching birth mothers (where they had contacted the adopted
person using an intermediary service) were more likely to lose
contact at the initiative of the adopted person.

Although losing contact was disappointing and painful, many of
these birth mothers reported that they had already gained a lot
from knowing that their son or daughter was well and happy. They
also relieved much of the guilt through having the chance to
explain the reasons why they felt they had had no choice but to
place their child for adoption.

As Ruth* says: “I was 16 when Andrew* was born in
1960. My parents put me in a mother and baby home where I remained
for six weeks after Andrew’s birth. During that time I fed and
nurtured him and was absolutely devastated to part with him, but I
really had no choice. My parents did not want to support me and in
those days there was huge stigma attached to being an unmarried
mother and no financial support.

“A day never went by without me thinking of him. When Andrew was 30
years old I contacted the adoption agency. It agreed to act as an
intermediary and contacted Andrew to see if he wanted contact with
me. He was shocked to hear from me but pleased and we got on well
for the first four years but then Andrew told me he was finding it
hard to keep in contact as it made him feel guilty. He did not want
his adoptive parents to be hurt so he ended our relationship. I was
deeply saddened by this but at least he knows that I have always
loved him and that the adoption decision was really not my

So how do the adoptive parents feel about the search and reunion?
Do they feel marginalised? Popular perception is often that
adoptive parents are likely to feel threatened by their son or
daughter’s desire to search for background information or birth
relatives, but the study showed that in fact most understood and
three-quarters supported the search. They could fully appreciate
their child’s curiosity and why they wanted to know the answers to
questions such as “who do I look like?” and “why was I adopted?”

As Esther* says: “It was no surprise to us when
she told us she wanted to search for her birth mother. She
discussed it with us before she started making contact and went
ahead with our blessing. I always said I would help her if ever she
wanted to trace her family.”

However, being supportive and understanding did not necessarily
mean that adoptive parents did not feel anxious or concerned. Some
reported being worried that their child could be hurt in the
process, particularly if the birth parent refused contact. They
also feared that their relationship with their son or daughter
could change or that they may lose their relationship to the
newly-found birth parent, although these fears rarely

“Concerns that he [adoptive son] would leave us were groundless,”
says Mike*, an adoptive father. “He is even more
sure he is ‘ours’ after the experience. We are happy that he has at
last met his birth mother and made a friend of her.”

Sixty-five per cent of adoptive parents reported that contact had
had no effect on the relationship they had with their sons and
daughters, and 22 per cent stated that their relationship had been
enhanced. In many respects the search and contact had helped them
to be more open with one another and brought them closer.

The study found that for the great majority of all parties, the
experience of contact and reunion was positive and satisfying,
particularly for birth mothers. Adopted people, birth parents and
adoptive parents were all eager to acknowledge the importance of
each person. Birth parents were keen not to usurp the adoptive
parents’ role and place in the adopted person’s life, and equally
adoptive parents felt compassion and understanding towards the
birth parents.

Jean* says: “His birth mother must have wondered
all those years where he was and what he was like. I am pleased for
her sake that she now knows and sees him and his family from time
to time. Equally we know what she looks like.”

The study has provided new insights into the world of adoption,
search and reunion from the birth and adoptive parents’
perspectives and will help practitioners have a greater
understanding of all those involved.

* Names have been changed

Training and learning

The author has provided questions about this article to guide
discussion in teams. These can be viewed at
and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on
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service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered


This article reports some of the findings from a recently
published study about adoptive and birth parents’ experience of
adoption, search and reunion. This complex study builds on the
findings from the previous study, Adoption, Search and


(1) J Triseliotis, J Feast, F Kyle, The Adoption Triangle
Revisited. A Study of Adoption, Search and Reunion Experiences,
Baaf Adoption and Fostering, 2005. Call 0207 593 2000.
(2) J Triseliotis, In Search of Origins, Routledge & Kegan
Paul, 1973
(3) D Howe, J Feast, Adoption, Search and Reunion – the Long-term
Experience of Adopted Adults, 2000, reprinted by Baaf Adoption and
Fostering in 2003

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