As much as we may like to moan about them from time to time, the truth is that parents are a pretty fundamental part of growing up. They provide us with home, security, a sense of identity in a confusing world, bed and board, affection and discipline…the list goes on and on.
Sadly, for much of history losing your parents to disease or some other peril was a common misfortune. The luckiest orphans would be taken in by friends or family members, but many others were simply cast out into a harsh world before they were ready. Some were driven away or fled abusive homes. These lost children struggled to survive, some becoming the vulnerable street urchins depicted in Oliver Twist and still seen in some Third World cities today. The workhouse and the orphanage were frequently frightening institutions but at least they offered otherwise homeless children something to eat and a bed to sleep on.
A form of adoption for orphaned and abandoned children existed but it was originally seen as a way to provide families and artisans with cheap labour. It was not until the 19th Century that adoption as we recognise it today was first introduced by social welfare activists. They encouraged the adoption of institutionalised children as genuine members of their new families and not just servants.
The idea of adopting disadvantaged children was a real innovation, although the concept of adoption itself was not, and in fact dates back thousands of years. It was a common practice, for example, amongst the aristocracy of ancient Rome. But Roman-style adoption was largely motivated by politics and economics, a way of strengthening ties between families and producing male heirs. Many Roman emperors were adopted, including the legendary Augustus, who rose to power following his adoption by Julius Caesar. Children rarely got a look-in.
This pragmatic, practical, adult approach to adoption is still found in some countries today, including Japan. This Far Eastern powerhouse has the world’s second highest adoption rate: more than 80,000 a year. However, most of these are not adoptions as we would recognise them in the west. A fascinating recent article on BBC News examined the practice of mukoyoshi, or adult adoption. This sees men in their 20s and 30s adopted by their wives’ families in order to help run the family firm. This is a long established practice inJapan, one which allows even large companies to remain in family hands. Car manufacturer Suzuki is, for example, currently run by the fourth adopted son of the family. There is even a dating website designed to help women find men willing to be adopted by their families.
Back in the UK, meanwhile, the latest figures from the Department for Education would bring a smile to the face of those Victorian social reformers. In the year to 31 March 2012, 12 per cent more children were adopted from care than in the year to 2011: a total of 3,450 children. That is the highest number in five years.
The British Association for Adoption & Fostering gave a cautious welcome to the news:
“The latest statistics provide an encouraging base on which to build. To make further progress, we need to see a concerted whole system focus on increasing adopter recruitment, speeding up court processes, improving the adopter assessment process and ensuring adoption support.”
My own feelings are more mixed. I would love to be unambiguously happy for these newly adopted children. There is no doubt that adoption can be a great force for good in their lives of sometimes troubled children, but sadly it is not a panacea and I cannot help but wonder whether the drive to increase adoption is at least partly motivated by a desire to reduce the cost of children in care to the state.
Adoption is irreversible in law. Children in care may be adopted too old to sufficiently ‘wipe out’ what went on before and they may need very serious help to overcome whatever they have been through pre-adoption. This in turn could end up causing major problems for the entire adoptive family, problems from which they too may never recover.
In one recent case an adoption failed because the child was so traumatised by what had happened in their earlier life that they could not adapt to their new one. This trauma had a hugely negative impact on the adoptive parents and their own children, and the child in question ended up back in care. Prospective adopters need to understand these risks and be sure they are ready to run them.