Adoption is not an easy option
`From the moment the child is placed in your arms you feel an overwhelming surge of love and protectiveness," says Helen Gilmartin, mother of four adopted children. "In my experience, the bonding is instant."
Gilmartin is honorary secretary of the Adoptive Parents' Association of Ireland and "compiler and editor" of Adoption Handbook: A directory of adoption related services, an impressive volume published by the association. "Adoption has not generally been portrayed as a positive option by the media," she says. "Historically it was shrouded in secrecy and there was a certain stigma attached to the whole thing.
"But nowadays there is a greater understanding of the importance of having some background information and providing all the people in the adoption cycle with opportunities to discuss any issues that might arise." Over the past 10 years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people looking for information about their birth parents. Not so long ago, adoptive parents might only have been given a bit of verbal information about the birth mother, but nowadays background information is recognised as an invaluable part of the child's identity. Helen Scott is the public relations officer with the APAI and mother of four children, one of whom is adopted. "All children have a story about the day they were born, and with Kate we talk about the day she came into our family and the great celebration we all had. We know certain important details about her parents, although their confidentiality is protected. "We are particularly fortunate to know Kate's mother's first name, so we can refer to her by name whenever she comes up in conversation. "It is very useful to have details of talents our children might inherit, for example. Kate is very good at music and she's very artistic. We knew these talents were in her background so when she began to show an interest, we knew to encourage her and give her opportunities to develop them.
"Since she was 14 we have encouraged Kate to write letters every Christmas to her birth mother and leave them with the adoption society. That way when Kate goes to search for her, there will be a history between them."
According to Scott, 90 per cent of adopted children eventually express an interest in tracing their birth parents. "This can raise a lot of fears among birth parents, but I find most adopted children want to thank their birth mother for the choice she made and for giving them the opportunity to have the life they've had."
Norah Gibbons is the director of childcare with Barnardo's which runs an adoption advisory service. "There is no evidence to support the idea that people who search for their birth mother have been unhappily adopted," she says. "We would listen to anyone who comes to us, but if they are younger than 18 we would want to involve the adoptive parents in any search. "But generally it is people aged 25 and up who start making enquiries. Before that, most adopted child are too busy getting on with life."
When adopted children express an interest in tracing, adoptive parents can have all sorts of reactions, says Gibbons. "Some adoptive parents walk the path with their children, others feel it must mean they have failed to meet their children's needs. But far from being a reflection of poor parenting, children's interest in tracing their birth mother relates to their need to make sense of themselves. "Adoptive parents may also worry that their children will discover something unpalatable. The main thing is that children and their adoptive parents take time to consider all the issues. If they are all well prepared and there is a sensitivity towards the birth mother, a first meeting can be managed with care and confidentiality. "However, the birth mother may decide she doesn't want to meet the child. This can be quite distressing, but it is important to realise such a decision relates to the mother's particular circumstances, not the child."
A couple being considered by an adoption agency must undergo a detailed assessment. The purpose of the assessment is to establish the couple's suitability as prospective adoptive parents. These assessments have recently become the subject of a considerable amount of controversy - many couples feel they are subjected to unnecessarily intrusive questioning.
According to Gibbons, "people have different reactions to the assessment. We have to ensure high standards are maintained - the primary consideration is the needs of the child concerned - but no one should experience the assessment as damaging. If it is, then the whole system should be re-examined."
Scott gets frequent calls from people who have found the assessment upsetting. "I support very stringent assessments, but I object when they become invasive. It is a decision for life and the child's needs are of paramount importance, but prospective parents are in a very vulnerable position. There is a need for more understanding of how they feel.
"We believe there should be a national support service and a contact register so as to centralise adoption and ensure it is dealt with by people with relevant training."
Adoption Handbook is available through the Adoptive Parent Association of Ireland, Glendalough Post Office, Co Wicklow (price £6.50 plus £1 p&p). The organisation's helpline number is (01) 8252043.
The Barnardo's adoption advisory service is contactable at (01) 454 6388.