Identity theft by another name?

Is it fair to change the forename of adopted children or does it erode their identity? Social worker Wendy Brain and Elaine Dibben from the British Association of Adoption and Fostering examine the arguments

Is it fair to change the forename of adopted children or does it erode their identity? Social worker Wendy Brain and Elaine Dibben from the British Association of Adoption and Fostering examine the arguments

Wendy Brain, senior adoption social worker, west Wales

When I started as an adoption social worker eight years ago, I accepted the practice that children should retain the forenames given to them by their birth family for “identity reasons”. Adopters who dared change their child’s forenames were disapproved of. But with the threat of adopted children being traced by their birth families through the internet, more children’s social workers are asking that a child’s forename be changed.

This led me three years ago to question what we were doing to the sense of identity of these children by changing their names.

I have not found any research since that directly proves that an adopted person retains his or her birth identity by retaining their birth forenames; equally I have not found any research to the contrary.

During my research I found that most local authorities take a dim view of adopters changing the child’s forename. Some were so adamantly opposed that they asked adopters to sign an agreement and would even consider disrupting the placement if the adopters changed the child’s forenames.

Choosing a name for my (birth) children was a deeply bonding and claiming experience. Should we deny our adopters and their adopted children this by sticking to a practice that lacks evidential support?

Many adopters resolve the issue by adding a new first name, keeping the others as middle names. Anecdotally this has good outcomes for children. It also enables family discussions about the child having been part of the birth family and now belonging to the adoptive family.

We should also remember that some adopted children ask to have their forenames changed as well and, although we should always examine the motivation behind such a request, this can sometimes be from very positive and desirable motives.

I am left to wonder whether the emphasis on retaining a birth forename was started at a time when we were first trying to encourage “open adoptions”. Now that keeping in contact with birth families is embraced by adoption law, perhaps the time has come to break down the taboo that still surrounds giving different first names to adopted children.


Elaine Dibben, adoption development consultant, British Association of Adoption and Fostering

Much adoption practice develops from what is learned from practice experience. Many practitioners who have worked with adopted adults seeking information from their original birth certificate or adoption records will have experienced the disconnect or loss felt by those who learn their original first name was changed.

Equally, birth parents, involved in a re­union, can be distressed that the name they chose has been discarded.

As with any parent, there will be thought that goes into choosing a name, with possible cultural or family significance. Legislation and case law have upheld the importance of a child’s name to their identity.

In a judgement in 2003, Judge Butler Sloss said: “To change a child’s name is to take a significant step in a child’s life. Forename or surname, it seems to me, the principles are the same. A child has roots. A child has names given to him or her by parents. The child has a right to those names and retains that right, as indeed, the parents have rights to retention of the name of the child which they chose. Those rights should not be set to one side, other than from good reason.” She queried whether carers appreciated the underlying importance for the child of a change of name, and it’s significance.’

Adoption legislation provides the opportunity to change both a child’s first and surname. Clearly, there are individual situations where retaining the child’s birth name would present risks to the placement.

However, there are options for adoptive parents. Choosing a middle name for a child can still give a sense of belonging but allow an adopted child the choice when they are older. BAAF would be concerned about any move away from current practice.

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This article is published in the 16 September issue of Community Care under the heading Identity theft under another name?

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