Legislation now gives birth relatives the same right to search for family members as adopted people gained 30 years ago. But what can be the effects of reunion? Terry Philpot explains, while overleaf, adoption professionals in Somerset describe their system of support for birth parents
Jane Miles* was adopted as a baby and went to live with her new parents and her adopted brother in a seaside town. When she was 16 her birth father, John Kerrigan,* placed adverts in local newspapers trying to make contact with her. What he didn’t know was that her adoptive parents’ marriage had broken up, and at the age of nine Jane had moved with her adoptive mother to a house just streets away from where John was living in a London suburb.
When he, his wife and children were out shopping, they must have passed Jane, then a teenager and eventually a young woman out with her own son (now 14).
Kerrigan knew none of this until last March when Jane, now aged 35, agreed to meet him, three months after he had made contact with her through the Children’s Society, which had arranged the adoption.
Their reunion has come about through the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (implemented in 2005), which gave birth relatives the statutory right to an intermediary service to facilitate a search. However, Pam Hodgkins, director and founder of Norcap, the agency which assists search and reunion, says that there has not been a marked increase since the legislation.
“There was a real rise [in applicants] in the late 1990s as people had had an expectation because they had been alerted by the stories of friends, by the opportunities [for intermediary services] offered voluntarily by some agencies, and by the campaign to change the law,” she explains.
In 25 years Norcap has worked with 500 birth relatives and has referred on more than another 500. Half of applicants are mothers, 20 per cent fathers, and the rest brothers and sisters.
Julia Feast, policy, research and development consultant at BAAF, who co-authored The Adoption Triangle, a study of birth relatives who search, says: “What birth relatives want to know is whether their child is alive, safe, alright and happy. To have had a child adopted is living with a void it is like a death where you can’t grieve because you know the person is out there. They also want to explain why their child was adopted.
“There has been very little research about fathers and only a tiny number are on the adoption contact register. But in many ways, their motivations are no different from those of the mothers.”
John Kerrigan was 29 when Jane was born. It had been a summer romance between an ambitious young architect and a married woman who was separated from her husband. He says: “I know I did Jane’s birth mother an injustice. I was very involved in work. It was really me: I saw great opportunities and I imagined that she would keep the child. I don’t suggest that I didn’t understand what was going on. I tried to get Jane back when I learned that she had been put up for adoption but I was a single man and it was months later that I learned that she had been adopted.”
Since last March Jane Miles and her son have met John Kerrigan’s family, but he has never met his daughter’s adoptive mother or her family. “I wouldn’t want to detract from Jane’s devotion to her adoptive mother,” he says. “They have such a strong relationship and I wouldn’t want to interfere with that.”
Miles is ambivalent about visiting her birth mother, though her son would like to meet his grandmother. The pair know where she lives and that she did not remarry or have other children. When Miles was 17 she did search for her mother, find and meet her. It was, she says, “very polite and didn’t last long”. She has not seen her since. She cannot understand why, at 34, her mother gave her up for adoption.
After the initial elation of finding one another, John and Jane both suffered serious depression. She thinks this was because meeting him evoked feelings about the way her adoptive mother had sometimes treated her. For John it may be a sense of loss: he looked for a baby and found a young woman with a 14-year-old son.
He says: “I had read about the emotions of people meeting but I thought that I was too old for this to affect me. I was not prepared for the huge hook that I had for Jane it was a great feeling of protectiveness. What I was least prepared for was the lack of embarrassment – by me and Jane – when I cuddled her when we met it was just the natural thing to do.”
Most searchers today, whether adopted children or birth relatives, will be of that generation when adoption was about giving up a child because of stigma or family disapproval. But the coming challenge, Julia Feast sees, will be for those later adoptions, or where there was abuse. “Practitioners”, she says “will need more training to be able to offer a different kind of counselling and to be able to manage those inquiries and searches differently.”
*Names and some details have been altered.
A mother’s story – ‘this is my miracle’
Stephanie Asher became pregnant in the mid 1950s through an affair with a married man who had five children. Her son Tony Platts was adopted as a baby.
Some years later, Philip, Stephanie’s lover, left his wife and children, and the couple eventually married in 1973. Guilt stopped him discussing the adoption, even though he knew years ago that Stephanie was searching.
They had no more children and he died of cancer only seven months before Norcap located their son last July.
As she nursed him Stephanie was herself diagnosed with breast cancer which was thought to be terminal. She left hospital in March last year and met up with her son four months after tracking him down.
She explains: “I would really have wanted to keep Tony but you couldn’t then with the terrible stigma. And you couldn’t just go and get a flat or anything like that, so the adoption was against my free will.
“When he was adopted in 1957, it was like losing a limb, or my heart being wrenched out, a feeling I don’t even like remembering now.
“There was no after care following the adoption I had no one to talk to, no confidante, like a close girlfriend, so I just had to bottle it up. I used to go for long walks to keep what I felt hidden. I was up and down all the time. It’s the worst possible thing. You can’t be bitter all your life but I needed to find him, to know that he was alive and happy otherwise I would never have forgiven myself.
“This is my miracle. I could have gone into a depression: my husband had died and I had been very ill. This has given me something to get up for in the morning. I do keep thinking what I have missed but I feel as though I have known my son all his life it is so natural for us both.
“My life has come full circle. I feel complete, whole I am in a state of utter happiness and shock. It’s such an intimate feeling of love that hits you: it is like having a love affair – it is so intense.”
This article appeared in the 15 March issue under the headline “When the search ends”
This weeks other feature articles in the children’s sector
Adoption: support for birth parents in Somerset
Profile: Young People’s Substance Misuse Service, Bristol
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