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- Tens of thousands of children are adopted every year.
- Adopted children can struggle with the trauma of neglect and abuse, and being bounced around the care system.
- But there are benefits to finding an adoptive family, such as stability, permanence, and the love and nurture that all children need.
- Sometimes, birth parents are the victims of circumstance.
- The best thing for everyone is openness and honesty, and for the children to know where they came from.
- Otherwise, they may conjure up stories in their heads and suffer from the uncertainty.
Polly Penter was 31 years old when she finally found out where she came from. Her parents had told her she was adopted from an early age, but very little was known about who her mother was or what had happened to her when she gave away her child.
Penter was adopted at three months old, and until her third decade of life had no contact with her birth parents. She also didn’t know she had a brother until he found her one day.
“I was very sad when I realised I had a brother who was in permanent foster care and was shifted around,” Penter told INSIDER. “The very first time we spoke on the phone, he was angry [at the system] that I’d been adopted and he’d only been fostered. He said ‘I was only fostered and you had a family, it’s not fair.’ And that was just pure luck of being born the second one.”
Adoption has changed a lot over the past hundred years. While children were adopted and fostered informally over the centuries, it was only in the late 20th century and early 21st century that adoption was legally recognised in the US and Britain.
Many children are abused and neglected
Adoption UK chief executive Sue Armstrong Brown told INSIDER that in 1999 about half of children who were adopted had suffered abuse or neglect. That number has now risen to around 75%.
“Adoption increasingly becomes an intervention for some of society’s most traumatised and vulnerable children,” she said. “The average age of adoption in England today is three years old. This is because huge efforts are made to keep families together, before the courts take the drastic decision to remove a child from their birth parents.”
Having a higher average adoptive age has its difficulties. As adoption specialist Ruth Adams from Trauma and Attachment First Aid told INSIDER, being taken from the birth mother is a traumatic experience in and of itself, but the more memories the child has of their life before, the harder it can be for them. Also, the reality of adoption often doesn’t match up with the hopes and dreams that people have, she said.
“A child’s brain is only 15% developed when it is born, and the next 85% happens in the first two years of life,” she said. “If those two years are neglect, abuse, all those sorts of things, then the child’s brain is hardwired to those negative experiences. And without a lot of understanding, hard work, and probably therapy, to undo that and rewire is a long process.”
She said there are successful adoptions, but the majority of those she has witnessed have been difficult. Often this is because the child may have had a tough upbringing, been moved around several times, or may never have wanted to be taken from their birth family in the first place.
Saying that, there are some benefits to adoption, Armstrong Brown pointed out. For instance, even though it may be tough, in the majority of cases adoption is the best chance to permanently break a cycle of neglect and abuse and to give a child a second chance.
“Most importantly, evidence points to children who are adopted doing well,” she said. “They catch up. They do better than their peers who remain in care. They do better than those left at home on the edge of care.”
- Polly Penter
Many carry the early trauma through life
Penter got lucky with her adoptive parents. Although she suffered with a fear of abandonment most of her life, and said she had vivid nightmares of her mother leaving her up until her teens, overall her upbringing was happy and “normal.” She had two parents, a cat and a dog, and a comfortable home.
Still, she believes adoptions benefit most when the child is aware of as much as possible. In the years where she had no information, Penter’s mind went into overdrive. Other children at her school would ask her if her mother gave her up because she didn’t want her, or if she was raped. And Penter didn’t have answers for any of them.
“I was terrified because I had no information to go on,” she said. “I didn’t dare go any further because what if my mother was 16 years old, but now she’s married and got kids and there were all these ‘what if’s. And because I knew nothing I had nothing to go on. I never found anybody. My brother found me. And my whole world turned upside down.”
The truth was a lot more mundane, Penter said. Her birth mother was a victim of circumstance with a very disruptive background herself – an on-off relationship with a violent partner, no job, and some mental health difficulties. In short, she didn’t have a stable life, and she wouldn’t have been able to raise Penter like her adoptive parents could.
“I think she made a really brave decision,” she said. “And she said to me since she met that she really worried about me, and she didn’t want to give me up. But it was the best thing to do for me. And I’ve said to her endlessly as an adult that she did a really good thing.”
Faye Smith, 52, was also adopted at a few weeks old in 1966, but she told INSIDER she knew from a young age her “story of me” so she wouldn’t be faced with startling revelations later in life.
She said she’s always been happy to have been “chosen,” and truly believes she had a much better quality of life and security than she would have had otherwise.
“I have a Christian faith and the Bible speaks much about being ‘adopted’ into God’s family,” Smith said. “I never felt in any way second best and was warmly welcomed by all members of my family.”
Mending the relationships
Penter now has a relationship with her birth mother. To some extent, being adopted gave them a bond that may have been more strained if they remained together.
“I’m glad I didn’t grow up with her because I don’t think it would have been a good experience,” said Penter. “I don’t think I would be who I am today. As an adult it’s really nice to have that relationship because I understand and can process what happened and accept her for who she is.”
Penter and her brother can now come to terms with their birth mother’s faults, and fully comprehend her life and the reasons why she had to give them away.
Of course it wasn’t a smooth road to get there. When Penter finally asked for her file and was given her information, she found out her birth mother had given her the name Kelly Marie, and was also not allowed to see her – not even once.
“It said ‘mother has never seen her.'” she said. “And it said in my file she tried to contact us twice to say ‘can I have a photo,’ when I was a baby and then again when I was three, and they said no, and they never contacted us to ask ‘would you be happy.’
“That’s been the hardest thing for me to deal with as an adult – to put myself in my mother’s shoes and realise how badly she was treated.”
She believes everyone would be better off if there was more open and honest conversation about adoption.
“For a positive adoption there should be as little judgment and shame as possible,” she said. “And there shouldn’t be unrealistic expectations.”
For instance, Penter didn’t feel an instant connection with her birth mother and extended family, but bonds have grown out of spending time together.
“There needs to be the knowledge that adoption in and of itself is not a happy thing, but the outcome can be,” she said. “My dad tried really hard to do that. He never pretended there was some really happy person out there who had their baby taken away. He made it very clear he owed whoever this person was for giving him her baby. I think otherwise everyone has too high expectations.”
Armstrong Brown said there are tens of thousands of children in the UK who aren’t safe with their birth families, and adoption can give them the chance for stability, permanence, and the love and nurture that all children need. But it’s never going to be a fairytale.
“Adoption is not a silver bullet,” she said. “The trauma suffered in early childhood is carried with children into their adoptive families. Those families need consistent, specialist support to help them give their adopted children the best possible chance of a brighter future.”