The current adoption narrative isn’t that different from the 18th century

Amanda Boorman talks about The Open Nest's conference at The Foundling Museum, and how the 'rescue and salvation' adoption narrative of the museum's past still exists

by Amanda Boorman

For national adoption week, our contribution as a peer support charity – – was in the form of a conference called ‘Adopted Voices’ at The Foundling Museum on Monday.

The aim of the conference was to address the barriers to hearing adopted peoples’ experiences within current reform. The purpose was to encourage improvements in adoption policy and practice. We knew barriers were there but we were not sure why.

Unbelievably it was considered fairly radical to have only adopted adults speaking during a National Adoption Week event. One experienced adoption social worker who came to listen stated that it was the first such event she had attended in the past 20 years.

Rescue and salvation 

The agenda of adopter recruitment is clearly visible everywhere this week. Despite the obviously healthy marketing budgets that allowed, among many other shiny things, mobile road shows and projections onto iconic buildings, the overall adoption PR message remains one of rescue and salvation.

The choice of venue was not a coincidence. Adoption was born at The Foundling Hospital in the 18th century. The taking in of poor and destitute women’s children was then seen as a charitable act, as was changing children’s names and separating siblings within that process.

Some mothers would lose more than one child and, although in close proximity to one another when they were still in hospital, the renamed siblings would be unaware of their birth connection.

There was no contact between women and their children after handover. Although there was heartbreaking hope for reunification via an identifying token left by a child’s mother, this rarely happened.

Same beliefs

Modern adoption in the UK perhaps depends somewhat on the same beliefs held by officials and patrons of the original Foundling Hospital.

The hospital carried out state-funded charitable interventions that removed children from ‘undesirable’ roots and into the bosom of those culturally presented as morally desirable.

Within that process, severance from a past life and baptism into Christianity was required.

Where once church parishes were relieved of financial obligation for ‘fallen women’ within this arrangement, it could be seen that the current aggressive adoption drive, backed by the state funding of adoption charities, relieves local authorities of care and support costs.

The difference is 300 years, women’s rights, valuing of cultural diversity and state-recruited adopters.


The conference heard directly about the impact of interventions into children’s lives that had resulted in severance from roots. The painful and traumatic effects this had on those children beyond the immediate and most obvious loss of a parent/parents were clearly spoken.

One of the things that struck the speakers and many delegates was the large collection of huge oil paintings representing rich, politically and religiously important white men that watched over the day’s proceedings. The portraits are of the Foundling Hospitals governors and officials.

The speakers at the conference were diverse in cultural experience and life story. Despite this, key themes emerged around loss, identity, race, class, choice and truth. These common threads did not see adoption as a wholly bad thing but certainly did not see current adoption systems as charitable towards adoptees.

One speaker told of the loss of religious identity and how this matter was at best glossed over and at worst not considered important at all.

Adopters responded by discussing a lack of systemic support via adoption preparation courses to address their potential privileges within cultural frameworks of dominance in class and race as opposed to some birth families’ cultural disadvantages. The unhelpful diametric positioning of good and bad parents, alongside the rhetoric of rescue, was seen to set up barriers to valuing contact with birth family and friends. One adopter described the local authority as having put ‘the fear of god’ into her about the mother of her adopted child.


Speakers described how gathering important information from birth families, letting children lead on life story and making it an open, ongoing and organic process rather than a prescriptive ‘add on’ post adoption, would improve children’s experiences and ownership of their identity.

Work and commitment within adoption policy and practice towards keeping and maintaining meaningful connections for adopted children was seen to be as tokenistic at times as the small buttons, scraps of cloth, beads and bottle tops left to the Foundlings.

The political and resultant cultural positioning of more adoption as an urgent need, alongside the expectation of adoption workers and adopters to act as unquestioning saviours, was seen to hamper adopted children’s rights to their history.

It was also seen to leave little room to hear children’s individual version of events or allow them to have power in the choices made in their name, or even about their actual names.

As adopted adults this had transformed for some into feeling infantilised and disempowered, particularly by the lack of correct information, freedom of information or any information at all, in and around their state-held files.

Hearing the voices of adopted adults must be part of any adoption reform, especially one so heavily government funded. To omit them is beyond an oversight and it could therefore be seen that they are deemed to be irrelevant by charities and organisations working in the field.

If this is the case, how far have we really moved on from the days of powerless women and children being passive and silent recipients of powerful peoples idea of charity?

Research launched at the conference aims to gather the many and varied voices of adopted adults in order to inform current policy and practice.

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One Response to The current adoption narrative isn’t that different from the 18th century

  1. BuddhaPest October 26, 2015 at 10:39 am #

    I wish you every success in bringing the voice of adopted adults into the adoption discussion. It is great that there is an organisation to channel their views into this debate. Too much policy and government direction comes as a response to a few loud voices, and probably deliberate misreadings of research data.