Secrets and Lies

Started by Chyna, Oct 13, 2023, 11:45 AM

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Secrets and lies
Why a full government apology is needed for the victims of forced UK adoptions
15 August 2023, 12:41pm

I was on the District Line when I saw my Dad for the first time. Coming home from an event, a bit tipsy, and suddenly there he was. He has my slightly wonky but mischievous eyes, luxuriant shoulder-length dark hair, and looked like a member of the Bay City Rollers, dolled up for a wedding. He never knew I existed.  When I'd first got in touch, my new-found uncle had taken a lot of convincing that his brother had fathered a child before dying of cancer, aged twenty. No one including my birth parents had known I was his. I'm the result of a fleeting teenage fling, and even my birth mother had always thought her steady boyfriend was responsible. But eventually, after matched DNA results proved my lineage, my uncle emailed a photo. Aged 50, I finally saw my Dad. Late night, alone, on a tube train.  I am one of the victims of the forced adoption scandal in the UK, for which, in March, Nicola Sturgeon, then first minister of Scotland, issued a formal apology on behalf of the Scottish government. In an emotional speech, she talked of "a level of injustice which is hard now for us to comprehend" and that it was time to "acknowledge the terrible wrongs that have been done".

More recently, the Welsh government followed suit, with Julie Morgan, deputy minister for social services, addressing mothers and adult adoptees, saying: "I would like to convey my deepest sympathy and regret that due to society failing you, you had to endure such appalling historical practices. For this I am truly sorry."

    My adoptive parents had put together a checklist of character traits they wanted

By contrast, the UK Government – which, let's remember, was responsible for adoption policy across all home nations at the time – responded to a separate parliamentary report by admitting that adoptees born between 1949 and 1976 had been subjected to a breach of their human rights, but stopped short of issuing a full apology, instead opining that: "We are sorry on behalf of society for what happened."

For those of us caught up in this, that's not nearly enough. In short, they passed responsibility for their mistakes to us, by saying: "It was just what happened in those days."

Many have questioned why an apology is important, given these practices ended in the mid-1970s. This is why.  Mothers were forced to give up their children shortly after birth. Largely young and unmarried often with the collusion of their families, and always with input from social workers or church groups they were told there was no state support available. They were unfit to be mothers. There's more than a whiff of Mary Whitehouse-like moral judgement in what happened to them. Their stories are heartbreaking.  Forcibly removed from my mother, I was in the care of the state for the first few weeks of my life. I wish I could tell you that someone loved me, touched me, kept me safe in those formative days, but no one can find my records.  The state orphaned me. It took my identity without my consent. Think a witness protection programme, imposed against my will. The crime I'd "witnessed" was a seventeen-year-old girl giving birth. Her crime began in a one-night stand with the guitarist in her brother's band. For that, she needed to be punished. It started with nurses deliberately withholding all pain relief.  But that's her story, not mine except I've come to realise that I barely have a story of my own. As with many adoptees, cover stories were created to make this seem a plausible and desirable option for both my mother and me. "She was too young; she couldn't have given you the things we can; she wanted you to have a better life."

Information about birth parents is scant and often completely fabricated, meaning adoptees cling to slivers to help make sense of their genetic make-up. My adoptive parents were told by social services that my father was a musician in the armed forces, so I found watching Trooping the Colour unbearable; have you ever looked at sixteen horn players marching in formation while thinking "Which one of you bastards is my father?"

The recent coronation was the first state occasion I had ever watched without breaking out in a cold sweat, since I now know that military bands played no part in my history.  My adoptive parents had put together a checklist of character traits they wanted: girl, CHECK; musical or artistic, CHECK. I was a commodity, an innocent child, ready for them to mould. As they always told me, I was more special than my classmates because they chose me. Society lauded them for doing a good thing, giving an unwanted child a home and a good start in life.  Except this child came preloaded with her own thoughts. With a burning sense of fairness, with a need to build her own safe space, with ruthless resilience. No one knew from where such radical beliefs had come: she was meant to be a blank slate. Hadn't the reboot worked?

That's often the thing with adult adoptees. We fight hard to establish our own identity without having any of the normal prompts. The longstanding discussions of nature vs nurture have particular resonance for us, because we're only privy to the second part of that puzzle. It's very easy to understand that your sense of humour comes from your dad, or love of art from your mother, if you have them, or wider family, around to tell you. But what if all that information has been deliberately withheld?

You feel you don't quite fit in, anywhere, because you can't pin your values, interests, physical attributes and talents to anything, or anyone.  In time as you emerge from the fear, obligation and guilt that so often partner the narrative of being saved by a nice middle-class family you begin to realise you were trafficked, and that the state facilitated that.

    In time, you begin to realise you were trafficked, and the state facilitated that

Adoptees will find that their original birth certificates have been voided, reissued under a new name. That, on adoption, they were gifted a new NHS number, so that it was near impossible to trace birth families. They begin to realise they were entered into a lifelong adoption contract without any legal representation, and with no break clause.  It gets wearing that every time they visit a GP, they go through the rigmarole of explaining that no, we don't have any family medical history, and then watch while the doctor looks awkward, shrugs and says: "So, no pre-existing conditions. We'll put you down as no risk."

They also find that life assurance companies take the opposite view, penalising with exorbitant premiums, specifically because they don't have any family medical history and are therefore high risk.  For those who persist in trying to find genetic families, they might seek medical records from their birth, only to be told they can be accessed only with the permission of the mother yes, the one you can't find. If records haven't been conveniently lost in a fire/flood/office move (delete as applicable), some lucky few are provided with adoption files with so much information redacted that they are literally not worth the paper they were written on. Others are told their own birth records have been sealed for a hundred years, but provided with no reason.  Increasingly, it's transpiring that some adoptive families have been told their children's birth names but choose to withhold this information from their adoptees, despite assurances that they've passed on everything they know. These transgressions are often discovered only on the death of adopters, secreted in family documents like little hand grenades that detonate alongside grief. The lies and manipulations that sit, on some level, behind all adoptions are breathtaking.  Unsurprisingly, many adoptees find this difficult to process and seek counselling, only to uncover another hurdle: we are able to be supported only by counsellors registered with OSTED, despite being adults. Unsurprisingly, very few bother so there's a massive shortage of adoption-informed therapists to support us. I know of only two north of Watford. Providing a recommended reading list to a potential counsellor prior to starting therapy is the norm in the adoptee community. Yet again, we do both the emotional labour and the pragmatic administration in our bid to find our roots. It's as if the government deliberately overlooks the fact that children become adults, keen to keep us infantilised.  The advent of home DNA-testing kits has been a game-changer. If the authorities won't help, science will. But going from tiny scraps of (mis)information to a worldwide network of people who share your blood line is utterly overwhelming. Sadly, not all relatives are accepting, as adoptees are usually the dirty secret of the family tree, so the happy-ever-after moments so beloved of TV programmes are the exception. Only one in ten reunions are positive.  What do I know of mine?

My birth mother and grandmother are both alive, and we have met. This is not a happy-ending story, since although my mother and I are building a relationship, nothing can ever make up for her missing my first day of school, my fifty birthdays, and being in my wedding photos. Few people will have had the experience of finally meeting the grandmother who signed them away to a parallel life with another family, against their own daughter's wishes, and had to sit smiling throughout the meeting.  There are positives, and amusing coincidences, such as finding that my mother and I had exactly the same photo of an unlikely pin-up in our teenage bedrooms: Glaswegian architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. There are also huge sadnesses, such as discovering I have cousins on my father's side who either do not want to meet me, or don't know of my existence, since all contact is gate-kept by the eldest uncle, a man untroubled by emotional intelligence. I suspect my own comes down the matriarchal line.  So, back to the apology. Yes, it would make a difference to me and to the quarter of a million other adoptees from that period because it legitimises the trauma of being parted from your mother, and the lifelong impact of adoption – the primal wound. Under UK Law, puppies cannot be separated from their mothers until they are eight weeks old because scientific research says it risks behavioural and health problems in later life. Join the dots.  Many surmise that the lack of a formal apology is because the admission of liability would prompt reparation claims. Yes, it probably would. The government knew everything all along, so perhaps could cover some of the costs. Aside from any compensation for the wrongs done, it's taken me thousands of pounds to date to try and find out who I am: subscriptions to ancestry sites, DNA testing, counselling, certified copies of documents to unlock further secrets and lies. Adoption is state-mandated identity stripping. An apology is the very least the adoptee community deserves.

Arwen Noble is a nom de plume, but also the author's birth name. The child left floating in the ether who has a birth certificate but then disappears