news analysis of moves to give birth parents new rights

The right of adopted people to search for their birth parents,
accorded them by the Children Act 1975, recognised what is now
commonplace: their right to know their origins.

While no one would deny adopted people these rights, birth parents
(largely birth mothers) have remained in the shadows. Often their
only link is through the unrecognised efforts of campaigners who
for years have been striving for a corresponding right for a parent
to search for their child, or at the very least know how the child
is doing.

In July, the campaign reached its most hopeful point for years when
the House of Lords grand committee rejected a government olive
branch in exchange for dropping amendments to the Adoption and
Children Bill that would give adoption support agencies (in effect
specialist off-shoots of voluntary agencies) a legislative
framework to provide intermediary services for birth relatives. The
amendments, which will now go to the third reading and report stage
in the Lords after the summer recess, would let adopted people know
of their birth relatives’ interest in making contact.

The government’s compromise looked unenticing at best: advertising
the Adoption Contact Register, funding an intermediary service, and
issuing new guidance on how agencies should respond to requests for

Pam Hodgkins, founder of Norcap, which supports adults affected by
adoption and advocates changes, says: “I feel more positive now
than I have done for a long time.”

Campaigners believe it is simple justice to give birth parents some
legal equality with their children but the government is hostile to
such changes. However, time and the peculiarities of the
legislative timetable may be on the reformers’ side.

The government may feel reluctant to challenge a positive Lords
vote on the amendments if only because it would entangle the bill
in more parliamentary red tape, wasting precious time – unless it
receives the royal assent in November, the bill will be cast onto
the parliamentary scrap heap.

If the amendments do go through, England and Wales will join
Australia, New Zealand and most of Canada in recognising this right
for birth relatives to have access to intermediary services,
although in Australia and New Zealand there is a right to
identifying information that would not be available here. If
Ireland can extricate its own reform proposals from their current
impasse, it will also enjoy this right.

The first demand for these rights, made by Norcap more than 10
years ago, was provoked by discussion then taking placing on what
became the Children Act 1989.

Norcap’s initial agitation seemed to be bearing fruit. In the early
1990s, the report to ministers of the inter-departmental committee
on adoption legislation, a part of which became the abortive
Adoption Review, reported favourably. “But since then,” says Pam
Hodgkins, “the issue has disappeared entirely.”

But before today’s campaigners succeed in establishing a statutory
right, they have to save an existing one. Section 50(5) of the
Adoption Act 1976 allows an application to the high court for the
registrar-general to make available matched birth and adoption
entries from his records. Unless the amendments are included in the
bill, this right will be lost because the 1976 act will be
superseded by the provisions in the new Adoption and Children Act.

“I wanted the situation to get better with the amendments,” says
Pam Hodgkins. “I never thought I would see it get worse.”

For years birth parents whose children were placed by voluntary
agencies have been helped informally to make contact through the
intermediary services, one of the most extensive of which is run by
the Children’s Society.

But apart from the lack of a statutory right to information, one of
the barriers to making contact is that such assistance is by no
means universal and is not safely enshrined in law. Consequently,
intermediary services offered by local authorities are patchy – in
2000 half of them provided none at all.

Although in 1990 the Department of Health and the Social Services
Inspectorate agreed that it was lawful to offer such services, what
we have now is a service with no statutory right, no central
agency, no framework and certainly no encouragement.

The DoH published practice guidelines, developed by the Children’s
Society, for intermediary agencies in 20001 but has
since remained quiet.

The Adoption Contact Register, created in 1991 and run by the
registrar-general, had 18,276 adopted people and 8,007 birth
relatives registered in November 2000. It has been spectacularly
unsuccessful in bringing people together: there have been only 490
successful matches.2 Given that it is never advertised,
it is hardly surprising that most people have no idea that it

Many of the arguments against granting birth parents the right to
search are similar to those raised during the debate over whether
to give adopted people similar rights. These include possible
disruption within the adoptive family and also distress experienced
by adopted people who are contacted. Subsequent research has
disproved these arguments.

However, health minister Jacqui Smith is not keen on changes to the
law. In her introduction to the Adoption Support Framework, she
recognised that adults have needs when it comes to adoption but
that the government’s policy intentions are to meet the needs of
children who require adoption.

The minister’s objections are based on concerns that changes would
deflect local authorities from the government’s priority of pushing
up the number of adoptions, and that false expectations would be

She says that some records are incomplete or missing, that the
adoption standards create even greater openness, that a “sizeable”
number of people might not know they were adopted, and that there
would be a great demand for the service.

Norcap and the Children’s Society disagree. They argue that
stand-alone agencies, backed by fees or supported by charitable
funds, and listed by the registrar-general, would avoid
administrative burdens being placed on local authorities.

The registrar-general’s records are complete and modern methods for
storing and retrieving information (such as electoral registers on
CD-Rom) make tracing easier. The adoption standards do make for
greater openness but only for children adopted after the records
were created.

Only 3 per cent of people are believed not to know that they are
adopted and a veto register would ensure that unwanted contact was
not made. In these cases only non-identifying information would be
available to searchers.

While demand could be large at first, experience shows that it
would diminish with time.

While the 1975 act was retrospective, Smith objects to any changes
to the bill being so. The irony is, of course, that many mothers
who have given their children up for adoption since 1975 would not
require the service because of present-day greater openness.

Julia Feast, project manager for post-adoption, care and
counselling at the Children’s Society and a leading member of the
campaign for changes, says: “We are particularly concerned about
many of those women who gave up their children before 1975 – often
unwillingly – and who are now in late middle age or are

Last April, in a high court judgement concerning triplets separated
by adoption in 1932, Mr Justice Sumner, said: “We are still faced
with an urgent need to review the legislation that impedes birth
relatives’ opportunities for search and reunion.”

The triplets were able to obtain information about their matched
adoptive and birth names from the registrar-general’s records. It
is a cruel irony that this information would no longer be available
to them if the bill is not amended.

1 Department of Health, Intermediary Services for Birth
Relatives: Practice Guidelines, DoH, 2000

2 Department of Health, National Statistics: Adoptees
and Relatives Who Wish to Contact One Another: The Adoption Contact
Register, DoH, 2001

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