Adoption and trauma

Dominic McSherry on a debate and a journal special issue.

Several months ago on Twitter I shared findings from a longitudinal study that has been following a population of children who were in care under the age of five in Northern Ireland in March 2000, which I’ve been leading for the last 17 years, namely the Care Pathways and Outcomes study.

The focus of the study (currently in its fourth wave and at the stage of early adulthood) is to understand psycho-social outcomes for these children and their families throughout childhood and into adulthood, and to explore reasons for variation in experience within and between the different types of journey’s that these children follow, such as returning home to their birth parents, remaining in foster care with relatives or non-relatives, or being adopted.  

A key finding to date has been that irrespective of placement type, where the children had remained in stable placements through to the teenage years, there was very little that differentiated the groups. The children were mostly secure and happy with a strong sense of identify and belonging to their family, irrespective of whether or not they were fostered long-term, adopted or returned home. Placement stability, rather than placement type, appeared to be the most critical factor in understanding the positive outcome profile, as it enabled the formation and maintenance of secure attachment relationships with parents/carers.

Although the findings flagged up the positive aspects of a range of long-term placements, I received a lot of criticism for suggesting that adoption could have any positive aspects. A lot of people argued that ‘adoption is trauma’, i.e. the very fact that children have to be removed from their birth parents is traumatic. It was also suggested that this trauma is only really fully processed and understood by the adoptee well into adulthood, where some separation and independence has been achieved from their adoptive parents. This suggested that the perspectives being presented to the research team from teen and early adult adoptees may not have been fully formed.  

I engaged further with this discussion, highlighting that I was talking specifically about children who had been adopted from the care system, and that entry to care in most instances had been precipitated by experiences of early adversity and trauma, primarily due to maltreatment, and through acts of commission and/or omission by their birth parents. My point was that in those circumstances, adoption from care could be seen more as a child welfare response to trauma, rather than being traumatic in and of itself. This sparked further criticism, and it was suggested that I was trying to silence the voice of adoptees, and from a privileged academic position.

As is common with Twitter, I was worried that this discussion would simply fade without any of the genuinely expressed issues and concerns being properly addressed. So, I contacted one of the leading journals in the area of child welfare, namely Child Abuse and Neglect, and proposed that I guest edit a special issue broadly examining the relationship between adoption and trauma from multiple perspectives. They kindly agreed that this had merit, and I approached a number of leading scholars in the field to co-edit the issue with me.  I was delighted to secure the support of Professor Gina Samuels (University of Chicago) and Professor David Brodzinsky (Rutgers University). This issue is now live and open to submissions through to February 2021.

In addition to reports of empirical research, literature reviews, and critical commentaries, the special issue also allows space for experiential perspectives from professionals who have been working clinically with adoptive family members, as well as from adopted persons themselves who can provide a first hand and intimate account of how being adopted has impacted their sense of self, relationships, and emotional well-being, and can speak directly to the relationship between adoption and trauma. 

My hope is that the special issue will allow for a non-privileged and open discussion of the relationship between adoption and trauma in a way that enables people to feel that all voices are being heard in this debate, and that can further inform theory, policy and practice in this, at times, controversial area of work. I would welcome submissions from BPS colleagues with research or practice expertise in adoption and your engagement with this ongoing discussion.  

Dr Dominic McSherry

Reader in Psychology

School of Psychology

Institute of Mental Health Sciences

Ulster University

Email: [email protected]

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