Root Search by Adopted Children: Issues and Challenges

ROOT SEARCH BY ADOPTED CHILDREN: ISSUES AND CHALLENGES by Dr. Jagannath Pati, Deputy Director, CARA (Indian Central Authority)

Many people think of the issues that take place before and during an adoption, but fail to realize that it is important to anticipate and understand the issues that may come up after you have brought a child into your family. Adoption is an emotional experience. It is also a physical experience, a biological, and a psychological experience. Post Adoption Services shall refer to psycho-social and support services provided to the adoptee, adopter and the biological parents, popularly known as the adoption triangle, by a professionally trained social worker and/or other discipline e.g., psychiatrist/psychologist, etc., after the adoption is legally completed.

Children need some knowledge of their heritage to foster self-esteem later on in life. Long-term studies have shown that children whose heritage was celebrated in their adoptive families by and large grew up to be healthy, self-respecting adults.The Case for Transracial Adoption International adoptions presents unique challenges in securing accurate and truthful background information and history on individual children. Differences in culture, language, terminology, and the competence of medical resources all profoundly affect this process.

The access to information and the quality and reliability of information varies widely country by country. From countries where programs are well established and sophisticated, child information can be very complete and available. Routinely orphanages, institutions or hospitals that are all under the authority of appointed government ministries hold this information. The range of cooperation on the part of these authorities is often irregular and inconsistent (http://www.holtintl.org/ethics.shtml).

Guiding principles/Policies

The child’s best welfare and interest should be the paramount consideration in all questions relating to his/her adoption. Searching for birth family relatives is a sensitive and emotional process. The intent to search may be allowed only upon the personal request made by either the adult adoptee, adopter or the biological parent/s. Minors who are interested to search for his/her biological parent/s shall be represented by his/her adoptive parents. The request must be made in writing to the particular adoption agency, which processed his/her case. The adoptive parents should respect the adopted child enjoy the reciprocal rights and obligations arising from the relationship of parents and child. The adoptee has the basic rights and needs to search for his /her origin and identity, hence, he/she should not be denied the opportunity to search and to know his/her roots. All agencies and authorities involved in the process shall ensure the observance of the confidentiality of matters related to the adoption. While non-identifying information e.g., medical records, circumstances which lead to the adoption of the child (but not necessarily divulging the identity of concerned individual etc.) may be made available to both adoptive parents/s and birth parents and the adoptee under 18 years old, identifying information e.g., names, address, personal background etc. can be shared only between and among the adult adoptee, adoptive parents and his/her birth parents and only of they give their written consent.

Nature of Search

For some, the interest in searching is a matter of intense curiosity. They seek a sense of connection to someone of similar genetic make up. They want to know if their birth relatives look like they do, speak as they do, or demonstrate similar gestures or body language. They want to know if they share similar characteristics such as a dry sense of humor, athletic or musical abilities, or an outgoing personality. For others, searching is important for their emotional development. Some adoptees have a desire to know and understand why their birthparents made an adoption plan for them. Children or adults in inter-country adoption face unique challenges in locating birth parents.

Each country has its own laws governing information access. In addition, there is great variation in record-keeping practices across countries and cultures, and in many cases, searchers will find that no information was ever recorded, that records were misplaced, or that cultural practices placed little emphasis on accurate record-keeping. The child-placing agency is the best beginning point for an international search. The foreign agency or the central authority should be able to share the name and location of the agency or orphanage abroad and, perhaps, the names of caregivers, attorneys, or others involved in the placement or adoption. The agency, or its counterpart abroad, may be able to provide specific information on names, dates, and places. They also may be able to offer some medical history, biographical information on parents, and circumstances regarding the adoption.

Adoption: Right to Confidentiality vs. Right to Identity

It is now widely recognised that the search for origins is often fundamental for numerous adoptees and can become a key stage in their quest for an identity. However, by virtue of the right to respect the private and family life, these families have the right to not want to be found again or even contacted. For example some mothers or families have no wish to revive the past because of the surrounding taboo or the sharp suffering that the incident can revive. There are also cases where the mother has completely hidden the abandonment from her family and cannot divulge the secret, sometimes for her own security and that of her family The Right of the Adoptee to search for his roots and identity is diametrically opposite to the Birth Mothers Right to secrecy and confidentiality of her identity. The “Search” has serious repercussions on the emotional well being of all the three integral corners of the adoption triad, i.e. the Adoptee, the Birth Parent and the Adoptive Parents. The children are either relinquished by unwed mothers, surrendered by poor biological parents or are available at the abandoned stage. In case of abandoned child, there is rare possibility of searching of roots. Unwed mother is hardly traceable. It is only in case of poor biological parents surrendering child, there is possibility of tracing the roots.

The rights of adopted children to find out their biological parents’ or the search by the child for his/her roots and identity is a sensitive aspect of the adoptive process. There are two points of view regarding what should be done in such a situation. One is that the adopted child has the right to know his/her biological parents, and the other that it is the biological mother's right to keep her secret and have the confidentiality of her abandonment preserved. Not to be forgotten is the social worker's code of ethics and her responsibility to keep confidential the records of the birth mother, which makes the situation more complex. Particularly in India, the adoptive parents usually wish to keep the matter as secret. At present, many agencies promote the view that when the child grows up information may be given regarding the birth mother's social background, circumstances and reasons for surrender etc. However, the identity of the mother is not revealed for protecting all the concerned in the adoption triad.

Adoption agencies in India have a sealed and confidential record system. There is no access to the relinquishment document and it remains a property of the Court. For some, the interest in searching is a matter of intense curiosity. They seek a sense of connection to someone of similar genetic make up. They want to know if their birth relatives look like they do, speak as they do, or demonstrate similar gestures or body language. They want to know if they share similar characteristics such as a dry sense of humor, athletic or musical abilities, or an outgoing personality. For others, searching is important for their emotional development. Some adoptees have a desire to know and understand why their birthparents made an adoption plan for them. They want to know if their birthparents ever regretted their decision or missed them. It has been observed that rarely a biological mother turns back to an adoption agency to reclaim her surrendered child within the stipulated period. While searching for birthparent, a child is sure to experience many difficult emotions. Fear, guilt, anger, anxiety, exhilaration all may play a part. It has also been noticed that in most of the cases, particularly foreign adoptive parents do help their adoptive children to gather more information about their biological parent and their country of origin.

In the Indian socio-cultural context, this issue takes on a unique dimension. The Right of the Adoptee to search for his roots and identity is diametrically opposite to the Birth Mothers Right to Secrecy and confidentiality of her identity. The “Search” has serious repercussions on the emotional well being of all the three integral corners of the adoption triad, i.e. the Adoptee, the Birth Parent and the Adoptive Parents. Counselling in this area helps the adoptee to cope with his adoptive status. There are some adoptees who are quite comfortable with this knowledge and there are some who feel a sense of “Incompletion” like the oft-quoted “missing link” or the “missing piece of the jigsaw” situation. The issue that often lurks in the mind of the adopted child is “why was I given up? Did my parents not love me and want me?” Counselling the adopted child and the adoptive parents of this issued helps to resolve many unarticulated problems. The adoptee’s rights and those of his biological parents on the one hand, as well as those of his adoptive parents on the other can sometimes lead to conflict. It then becomes a matter of seeking solutions that respect the needs and rights of all concerned parties with those of the child as a priority.

Older Adoptees

You must know that in case you are an abandoned child, you have remote chance to find your biological mother. In case of surrender by unwed mother, you have very less chance also to be reunited with your biological mother since unwed mother either gives a false or does not stick to the address given at the time of surrender. In India’s socio-cultural scenario, a child born of an unwed mother or out of wedlock is not recognised and in such case the unwed mother so also her child are treated with disrespect and discrimination. In case you desire to know your background of adoption, you must approach the particular adoption agency with the help of your adopted parents. You must remember that you have been surrendered or abandoned by your biological mother for a better life, respectable in all sense. You are welcome to find relevant information of your social background but it should not lead to a tragic end. Unlike western culture, here in India, a biological mother. If your biological mother’s family comes to know that she had a child before her marriage, she might invite the wrath of her husband and in laws. Therefore, you are strongly advised to have the help of the particular adoption agency while you got adopted. Please do not take the help of third person and keep away from media or press who may not put your situation correctly.

Search for Origins, Mediation and Support

The right to know one’s origins is guaranteed both by international Convention on the Rights of the Child and by the Hague Convention. In particular, the Hague Convention states that Countries of Origin of the children must guarantee access to their adoption files and therefore keep all the relevant information concerning them. Besides the Hague Convention lays down that the competent authorities shall ensure access for children to the relevant information with appropriate counsel.

Whatever their origin (institution, foster family) or their age upon arrival might be, all adoptees need to build their own adoptive identity, understand what it means to be adopted and the circumstances which caused their adoption to happen. All of these needs encountered by adoptees in relation to their adoption status will require answers from their adoptive parents. On the other hand frequently adoptive parents need help in order to understand their children’s behaviour concerning adoption, as well as certain guidelines as to what would be the best way to address it.

UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child)

The right of the child to obtain information about his or her origins derives from the right to know his or her parents as provided for in Article 7(1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But the right of adopted children to information should not infringe the biological parents’ right to privacy. Information would not be made public, but only supplied to the adopted child. Furthermore, factual information, such as age, health and social circumstances, could be given without disclosing the names of the parents. However, the child’s right must be balanced against the right of birth parents not to have their identity disclosed to the child who is relinquished for adoption. For example, in some countries an unmarried mother who had consented to the adoption might be later harmed by the disclosure of her past. (Therefore, Article 30 does sanction some restrictions to the right of the child to have information, as access is only “in so far as is permitted by the law of that State.” Furthermore, States of Origin are permitted to withhold identifying information from the report on the child in accordance with Article 16(2). Hague Convention on inter-country Adoption - 1993 Article 16 (2) It shall transmit to the Central Authority of the receiving State its report on the child, proof that the necessary consents have been obtained and the reasons for its determination on the placement, taking care not to reveal the identity of the mother and the father if, in the State of origin, these identities may not be disclosed.

Article 30 (1) The competent authorities of a Contracting State shall ensure that information held by them concerning the child's origin, in particular information concerning the identity of his or her parents, as well as the medical history, is preserved. (2) They shall ensure that the child or his or her representative has access to such information, under appropriate guidance, in so far as is permitted by the law of that State. Article 30 of the Convention imposes on Contracting States an obligation to preserve any information they have about the child and his or her origins. There is also an obligation to ensure the child has access to that information under certain conditions. Article 30 should be read in conjunction with Article 16, because the information referred to is required for the preparation of the report on the child that the Central Authority of the State of origin is to transmit to the Receiving State.

Therefore, as a practical matter, it may be beneficial for States to include the retention of records as a duty of the same office that prepares the report on the child. States may also want to clearly determine, and include within their laws, the length of time that records should be kept. The child’s right must be balanced against the right of birth parents not to have their identity disclosed to the child who is relinquished for adoption. For example, in some countries an unmarried mother who had consented to the adoption might be later harmed by the disclosure of her past. Therefore, Article 30 does sanction some restrictions to the right of the child to have information, as access is only “in so far as is permitted by the law of that State”. Furthermore, States of Origin are permitted to withhold identifying information from the report on the child in accordance with Article 16(2). While Article 30 acknowledges the right of the child to discover his or her origins under certain circumstances, it is necessary to limit the possibility of misuse of personal data, which is disclosed during the adoption process.

Consequently, the Convention establishes minimum safeguards by prescribing that the information on the child and the prospective adoptive parents should only be used for the purposes for which it was gathered or transmitted. These obligations and safeguards are also given emphasis through the requirements of Article 9 a) that Central Authorities shall take all appropriate measures to “collect, preserve and exchange information about the situation of the child and the prospective adoptive parents, so far as is necessary to complete the adoption”.

Supreme Court of Indian case of Laxmi Kant Pandey vs. Union of India

According to Supreme Court of India, the biological parents of a child taken in adoption should not under any circumstances be able to know who are the adoptive parents of the child nor should they have any access to the home study report or the child study report or the other papers and proceedings in the application for guardianship of the child. The foreign parents who have taken a child in adoption would normally have the child study report with them before they select the child for adoption and in case they do not have the child study report, the same should be supplied to them by the recognized social or child welfare agency processing the application for guardianship. It may not be desirable to give information to the child about its biological parents whilst it is young, as that might have the effect of exciting his curiosity to meet its biological parents resulting in unsettling effect on its mind. But if after attaining the age of maturity, the child wants to know about its biological parents, there may not be any serious objection to the giving of such information to the child because after the child attains maturity, it is not likely to be easily affected by such information and in such a case, the foreign adoptive parents, may, in exercise of their discretion, furnish such information to the child if they so think fit.

Certain observations of recognised adoption agencies in India

More and more adoptees are visiting Adoption Agencies from where adopted to know about their birth background. Typically, the visiting adoptees are looking for information on their life prior to adoption to fill the void experienced in their lives. If handled well to their satisfaction it can lead to closure of this sensitive beginning of their lives and they can move on with their lives. However, this must be done, keeping in mind the birth parent/s right to confidentiality as this is the commitment given to them at the time of relinquishment of their child especially in the case of unwed mothers who desire anonymity because of the strong stigma attached to unwed parenthood. The social implication of “uprooting” the birth parent/s family life (which includes children born subsequently through marriage) needs to be considered seriously in the Indian context. Some adoptees manifest a compelling need to know the name and address of the birth parent/s, or even meet them. This can only be done after taking permission of the birth family and implies contacting the birth family before disclosing any information. This should only be done by the adoption agency which was responsible for the relinquishment and subsequent adoption. If the biological parent/s are traced, their desire to meet or not to meet their relinquished child must be respected. However, if it is possible to bring the parent/s and the relinquished adoptee together, it should be done discreetly and sensitively in the agency from where the adoptee was placed. This should be done only by a senior and experienced social worker of the concerned adoption agency that placed the child in adoption. The information should be conveyed in person and not via correspondence or email. This means the adoptee should visit the particular adoption agency from where adopted. As far as possible, relevant information can only be given to the adoptee if he/she is an adult 18 years of age and above. When background information is sought by adoptees even before they are 18 years, in such cases counselling must be done by professional Social Worker keeping in view the sensitivity of such information. As far as possible, the adoptee must be accompanied by his/her adoptive parent/s and only non-identifying information can be given. 3rd party searches are being considered or have already been undertaken by adoptees or Foreign Adoption Agencies (EFAA) which needs to be discouraged. It is a personal issue between the adopted child and the Indian agency and the records maintained are confidential.

Need of Counselling

Searching of roots may be treated as a natural emotional response. The contact between child placed in adoption and its biological mother is a distant reality in case of India as biological mother hardly resides in the place/address given in the surrender deed because of social stigma. Getting to know more about the social background of the biological mother may be quite meaningful in the sense that it may yield positive results in terms of improved self concept, self esteem, and ability to relate to others. Thus professional social worker can play meaningful role through counselling and benefiting older adoptees in their search missions. While searching for birthparent, a child is sure to experience many difficult emotions. Fear, guilt, anger, anxiety, exhilaration all may play a part. It has also been noticed that in most of the cases, particularly foreign adoptive parents do help their adopted children to gather more information about their biological parent and their country of origin. The recognized adoption agencies should provide independent advice, counselling and support to anyone affected by or dealing with the challenges and opportunities of adoption.

References

(i) REPORT AND CONCLUSIONS OF THE SECOND SPECIAL COMMISSION ON THE PRACTICAL OPERATION OF THE HAGUE CONVENTION OF 29 MAY 1993 ON PROTECTION OF CHILDREN AND CO-OPERATION IN RESPECT OF INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTION (17-23 September 2005)

(ii) UNCRC

(iii Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption 1993 (http://www.hcch.net/index_en.php? act=conventions.text&cid=69)

(iv) WP No. 1171 of L. K. Pandey vs. Union of India and its subsequent judgements.

(v) http://www.postadoptioncentre.org.uk/ (vi) http://www.holtintl.org/ethics.shtml

(vii) afabc website

(viii) Adopted Children must know 4(a) of the JJ Rule (page 54)

(ix) Letter from Maharastra based adoption agencies on root search.