British Chinese Adoption Study - It's significance and messages for current adoption policy

Issue date: 08/02/2013

The Observer's article (3rd February 13) reporting the findings of the British Chinese Adoption Study presents a particular view of the significance of the study with a strong emphasis on the experiences of racism and identity confusion throughout life of the women who were studied. While these experiences were common and significant personal experiences, they need to be set within other findings from the study.

There have been numerous questions over the years about both international and domestic adoption and whether it is an ethical and effective solution to the problem of children who cannot be brought up in their own family. There have been particular questions about whether placement with adopters who do not share the child's racial origins, culture, religion, language and nationality results in experiences of alienation, confusion, a deep sense of loss and indeed for some an adoption breakdown. There are many personal accounts from adopted people which reflect such experiences but equally there are many accounts which do not. In terms of research, there is almost nothing that attempts to address these questions into adulthood and certainly nothing into middle age.

As important as these questions are, there are others. It is generally acknowledged that a child's early years are very important in establishing a pathway that secures their successful entry into adolescence and then early and middle adulthood. A poor start in life increases the risks of mental health problems, educational poor performance, low aspirations and achievements in work and relationship and family difficulties and poor physical health. The challenge in adoption is to enable a poor start in life to be transformed into a better set of outcomes in each of these areas. The challenge for researchers is knowing what influences are of importance given the many factors that come to bear on a child's development over time, both in the family and outside of it.

The significance of the British Chinese Adoption Study was that it enabled us to ask these questions over a period of 50 years for women who we would typically understand to have had a very poor start in life with their early years spent in institutions and then being transported to be adopted by strangers in a foreign country. We anticipated that we would find these women to have higher rates of a range of difficulties in their lives when compared to the general population of women, as well as a small group who were adopted shortly after birth in the U.K. at a similar time.

Our findings did not confirm what we predicted. We could find no difference between the physical, psychological, family lives, educational outcomes and career outcomes of the women in the study when compared to a large sample of women in the general population of a similar age and a smaller sample of adopted women. This is a remarkable finding. However, as with many people of 50, that does not mean that there weren't challenges, disappointments, periods of unhappiness and a sense of loss. These were present in different proportions, at different points in their lives and with different consequences. There were also a small number of women who re-collected cold and harsh treatment from their parents with more negative reported experiences of being adopted. We think this was associated with more challenges and difficulties in adult life. But overall, the picture we have is of substantial progress and real achievement from these adoptions.

Within this picture, there are many accounts of the problems that resulted from the girls as children being visibly different and from a background that they did not share with their adopters. This undoubtedly did result in difficulties in many of the girl's child, adolescent and adult lives. Some of these were blatant racism at school or in the community. Others were feelings of confusion and alienation in their family or at school. Some girls did not know where they belonged or who they were connected to. These are well known experiences for many trans-racially placed children. Nonetheless the evidence from the study was that over the course of time, most of the women made adjustments and found ways of living their lives that resulted in a positive sense of identity, a sense of community connectedness and belonging. There is no doubt that for some this was an arduous and painful process and it does not reflect well on a society that was and still is racist and discriminatory.

In reporting these findings, it is important to note that much has changed since the 1960s. We understand much more about child development, adoption, identity development and the life-long challenges of adoption. Society has also changed into one that is multi-cultural, has come to recognise and to some degree rise to the challenge of racism and is more comfortable with aspects of difference - ethnic, cultural, religious, sexual, gender and language. There has also been a significant rise in interconnections between people from different groups with the emergence of 'mixed identities' and a challenge to individuals and society about what identity this confers and means.

Studies of this kind raise important questions in many areas but the overarching conclusion, as noted above, is of surprisingly good outcomes. However that is not to dismiss or diminish in anyway, the risks and challenges that adoption brings alongside its obvious advantages. In the current context, adoption is high on the agenda although its focus is on the large numbers of children in care to local authorities as a result of parental maltreatment. Most of these children are white, a much smaller number are from complex 'mixed race backgrounds' and a very small number are Asian or Black. Children from mixed race backgrounds leave care for adoption at the same rate as do white children and within the same timescales. But Black and Black British children have a much lower rate of adoption and over a much longer timescale. This is troubling and there needs to be a solution to this. The current debate cannot return to simple stereotypes of 'same race' or 'trans-racial placements' - we have moved on in society and we have moved on in terms of the understanding about what children need and from whom.

The children for whom adoption is the plan today share some similarities with the woman in the British Chinese Adoption Study but there are probably more differences. We need to be very careful in using the findings to determine current policy. But the study does re-affirm the huge significance of family life for all children in establishing good outcomes despite a poor start. It does recognise that issues of difference need to be openly addressed, sensitively thought about and integrated into the child's family and community life whoever they are placed with. Difference is to be expected as the norm and it is for all those who work in or are affected by adoption to ensure that it continues to have its 'proper place' on the agenda. Finding that 'proper place' is the challenge for both adoption policy and practice in a way that ensures that all children placed for adoption find the loving homes they need in a timely way and where both their similarities and differences are celebrated and become a part of who they are.

John Simmonds

Julia Feast

Margaret Grant

British Association for Adoption and Fostering

Alan Rushton

Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, University of London

The full report of the study is available from BAAF Bookshop:

Feast, J., Grant, M., Rushton, A., Simmonds, J., (2013) Adoption, Adversity and Afterwards, London, BAAF.

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