'I just wanted to know who I am' (UK - Independent)

Submitted by Editor on Thu, 14/10/2004 - 20:17

The BBC launched a major television series urging us to go back to our roots. But for adopted children, tracing their bloodlines can be difficult - and even terrifying. Kate Hilpern describes her emotional journey home

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SOURCE: http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/this_britain/story.jsp?story=571070

11 October 2004

I'm a bit of a family-history junkie. I have an insatiable appetite for facts about my past: my ancestors, and the people connected to them who have made me who I am. When the BBC announced its new series Who Do You Think You Are?, which starts tomorrow night on BBC2, I knew instinctively that I would be there in front of the television for each episode, watching the celebrity contributors discover their roots.

It's not that I'm particularly interested in the personal stories of the 10 people involved. It's just that, for years, I too was on a quest to find out about my past, and have spent much of my life searching for knowledge. I'm adopted and, like all adopted people, I grew up having lost an entire family

No wonder so many adopted children - about half, it's estimated - develop a hunger for information and decide to trace their birth relatives. The reunions that result lead not only to filling in gaps in our identities, but possibly to significant and lasting relationships. It's not that my adoptive family isn't part of my roots. Having been given up for adoption at birth in 1970 because my mother was a teenager at a time when adoption was the acceptable" solution to the shame of illegitimacy, I was placed with a set of parents. They are my Mum and Dad. They raised me and, with my brother, adopted three years before me, they are my family.

But I couldn't help wondering about the other family "out there". It doesn't take long for an adopted child to realise that to be "chosen" or "adopted", she must first have been relinquished. My upbringing was filled with questions. Who gave birth to me? What did she look like? Did she feel sad about giving me up? Did her family know about me? Did she think about me on my birthdays? The problem was that my parents neither knew the answers, nor wanted to talk about the questions.

David Brodinsky, an American academic specialising in adoption, believes that adopted children suffer a less recognised, more profound sense of loss even than children who experience the loss of a parent through death or divorce. Death is painful, but we learn to expect it, and unless it takes the form of suicide, it is not a rejection that could have been helped. Loss through divorce may be eased by visits. But an adopted person loses all their family; somewhere there are parents, grandparents, siblings, all of whom the person has been denied.

Days after turning 18, I decided to do something. As a legal adult, I was allowed access to my original birth certificate, enabling me to begin the search. Immediately, I discovered the devastating fact that I would never meet my birth mother. She had gone travelling in India, where she died.

But her extended family welcomed me with open arms, as did my birth father and his family. I remember feelings of huge warmth, coupled with an overwhelming sadness about my mother. For my birth mother's parents, the reunion was significant: I was their one link to their daughter.

My birth father - who hadn't wanted me to be given up for adoption - was beside himself with excitement about finally having the chance to get to know his daughter. The sense of belonging I very quickly began to feel was intensified by the fact that I looked very much like my birth mother in photos - something so new to adopted people that it can be overwhelming.

The bonds I now have with them can only be described as having made me feel complete". The thought of not knowing them - especially my birth father and his other daughter - is alien to me now. They are as much a part of my life as my adoptive family.

According to Julia Feast, co-author of The Adoption Reunion Handbook and adviser to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), many more adopted people would like to trace their birth families, but are afraid "Some feel they've been rejected once, and the risk of it happening again is just too much to bear."

In recent weeks, many people have become so alarmed that they ditched their search plans altogether, worried by media reports stating that "almost 60 per cent of adoption reunions end in tears". The BAAF received calls from adoption agencies reporting that adopted people had become "concerned" and were "put off" by what they'd read. The Children's Society even received an e-mail from a woman in Illinois who had seen the reports on a website and asked: "Is it really true that such a high number of reunions break down?"

The answer is a resounding no. The statistic, supposedly from the Children's Society's "Adoption, Search and Reunion Study" of 500 adoptees (on which the handbook is based), was quoted incorrectly. The effect has worried adoption experts. "It can take a lot of courage for adopted people to seek information about their past. The slightest thing can tip the balance, so giving people inaccurate odds about reunions breaking down is very serious," says Feast, who also co-authored the Children's Society study.

In reality, she says, the study found that almost 60 per cent of adopted people and their birth relatives are still in touch eight years after first contact. Heather Samuels, 43, is among them. "I kept putting off the search, partly because there's this huge black pit of the unknown that lies ahead of you.

"But then I saw a chat show about birth mothers and their anguish at not knowing anything about their lost children. I'd never thought of it like that, and felt it was important to let mine know that I was OK. It turned out that we got on brilliantly. Even the first time I met her, it felt like I was coming home. Fourteen years later, we still have a very close and easy relationship."

Even adopted people who do lose contact with birth relatives rarely do so because the reunion "ended in tears", says Professor David Howe, Feast's co-author in both study and handbook. "Our research found that, in some cases, it was because the birth mother had subsequently died or, most often, because the relationship simply petered out in a natural way."

Samuels says of her birth father: "Meeting him was a matter of completion rather than an emotional need. It was my mother, and the siblings I knew I had, who I really wanted to get to know. I think he and I both felt that and by mutual agreement, decided that one meeting was enough."

In the study, only 7 per cent of adopted people were refused contact altogether by the birth mother. Norcap, the charity that supports adopted adults before, during and after reunions, estimates the figure to be higher - about 20 per cent. But, says the founder and chief executive Pam Hodgkins, in many cases where there is initial rejection, birth parents later change their minds.

"Some are very hesitant when we first contact them on behalf of an adoptee, because they are scared," Hodgkins says. "Many have never told subsequent partners or children. But if we stay supportive, we often work towards some positive response. Even in cases where they have been outwardly hostile, we have often been able to get them to send a photo. If they agree to receive one too, we generally find that six months later there is contact. The adoptee has become real, and they start to relate to them."

Of course, the possibility of outright rejection, a complete lack of response or the contact ending after a single meeting should be considered, says Rose Wallace, a specialist in post-adoption at the Children's Society. We always warn people that this is a possibility. Mind you, most people are surprised by how rarely it happens."

Lizzie Moss, 49, was one of the unlucky ones. "I found my birth mother about 10 years ago. She was, and has remained, very clear about not ever wanting to meet me," she says. "Nobody in her life knew about me and that's the way she wanted to keep it. She wrote me a letter to explain this, and it was very hurtful and difficult to deal with."

But, like the majority (90 per cent) of the small number of adopted people who experienced a rejection, Moss doesn't regret her search. "I was able to find out what happened and laid a ghost to rest." A similar figure - 85 per cent - of adoptees who have had a reunion, no matter how short-lived, said that it helped them to find out who they were and move on.

While fear of rejection is almost certainly the major factor separating searchers and non-searchers, it's not the only one. Pam Hodgkins points to the very real concern of upsetting the adoptive family. "No matter how encouraging their parents may have been, many adopted people notice how their mother will grip hard on the side of the sink while saying, 'Yes, dear we're really pleased about your search.'" But she adds: "The irony is that very often they are just worried that their child will get hurt."

Other times, as in my case, parents feel betrayed and threatened and that does make it harder to go ahead with a search. Even 15 years after my reunion, my mother and father feel disappointed by my decision. They will meet my birth family for the first time next year, and that is only because I am getting married.

Julia Feast adds that sometimes the difference between searchers and non-searchers can simply be put down to different personalities. Some people aren't curious or don't want to face it - like my brother. Contrary to popular opinion, however, what the decision rarely depends on is how well people get on with their adoptive families, she says. In fact, all the research shows that the majority of searching adoptees describe their relationship with their adoptive parents as "average" or "better than average". What we're talking about is not trying to find a "better" family, but making "better" sense of our lives by discovering our histories.

Next September, many adopted people will find themselves at the other end of the searching process, when the Adoption and Children Act 2002 will open the way for birth relatives to seek out adopted people. But, Rose Wallace points out, this isn't as dramatic a a change as it may sound. "Birth relatives won t be able to turn up on doorsteps. They will just have the right to ask for an intermediary service to enquire if the adopted person wants to receive information. Many adop- tion agencies, including us, offer this service already. It's just that, until now, it's been a postcode lottery situation."

And, despite the controversy that surrounds the new legislation, it seems that the majority of adopted people aren't interested in fighting it. Three-quarters of the adopted people who responded to the survey said that they believed it was right for the adoption agency to contact them, and nine out of 10 agreed to contact.

For Julie Holguin-Rodriguez, being contacted by her birth sister spurred her on to seek out her birth father. "I'd never thought about tracing birth relatives, but when I heard from the Children's Society that my sister wanted to meet me, I did agree to it, although not for two years. I couldn't meet my birth mother because she'd died, but some years later, when my son was born, I decided that I'd like to meet my birth father, and we too are close. In fact, my adoptive and birth families now know each other. It's like one big family."

'The Adoption Reunion Handbook' is published by John Wiley & Sons, £12.99

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