Concerned by the over-representation of adult adoptees among clinical populations, PhD graduate Denise Blake from Massey’s School of Psychology interviewed adoptees to discover how they experienced the adoption process. They articulated the loss, grief and dislocation, which characterised even the most successful adoptions among the participants.
Dr Blake, who graduated last month as a Doctor of Philosophy, examined the language that adoptees draw on and the processes that govern their lived experiences in her research. It showed that even as adults adoptees still struggled to understand their own challenging experiences of being removed from the care of their birth mothers to another family.
“Adoptees have a normal response to an abnormal event,” she says of the experience many adoptees struggled with throughout their lives.
Dr Blake interviewed 12 adoptees aged between 26 and 52 born from the early 1960s to late 1980s.
She identified the passing of the Adoption Act (1955) which legalised closed adoption where birth parents had no physical or written access to the children (who in turn had no way of tracing their birth parents) after an adoption was completed, as producing feelings of loss among those adopted out.
Although it aimed to remove the burden of illegitimacy and dependence on the state while offering hope for childless families, the inherent secrecy of the Act created other issues for many adoptees.
“Many adoptees interviewed had similar experiences of feeling second best and incredibly sensitive to rejection.”
While the passing of the Adult Adoption Information Act (1985) went some way to removing the secrecy surrounding the process, the fact it did not replace the earlier legislation, which is still on the statute books, meant adoptees still felt a stigma about being adopted, Dr Blake says.
“It didn’t stop feelings of illegitimacy among adoptees,” she says describing their situation as living in a ‘no-man’s land’ emotionally. Adoptees experience the tension of wanting to learn more about their original identity without disturbing the environment created by their adoptive parents, she says.
Such feelings dated back to childhood days with classroom family tree exercises proving “incredibly painful” for some, while reunions with birth mothers were described as “tricky” for adoptees trying to manage the “highly complex social relationships between them and their natural parents.”
One study participant spoke of the pain they experienced when their adoptive parents divorced, a situation they described as being like “ a double rejection.”
Dr Blake notes that the Ministry of Justice has started work on reforming the legislation on five separate occasions but has never followed through.
“The issue of adoption matters in terms of how we understand kinship and family,” she says.
For me adoption needs to be open and transparent and have the interests of the child at the heart of it.”