As a society, we may have underestimated the long-term implications of adoption for our children and young people, and the consequences that it can have in later life and in the world of work. Similarly, as places of work and as society, we can do more to be inclusive and supportive of individuals who are adopted or who have care experience.Summary by Julian Thomson, for The World of Work Project
Huge cultural shifts are beginning to take hold in the way that we, as a society, care for our children and young people, both here in Scotland and on the global stage. While these shifts are welcome, there are still many challenges relating to class, social mobility and inclusion and diversity we need to overcome.
Furthermore, adoption may give children a better start in life, but we need to ask: do the benefits really outweigh the consequences?
In this article I:
- Explore the conflicting expectations between a middle class that sometimes seeks gratitude in return for ‘rescuing’ and adoptees who have found themselves needing to be adopted through no fault of their own,
- Explore ideas of loss and alienation experienced by adoptees and the pervasive and enduring consequences this can have in later life and work, and
- Make the case that though there may be a level of social denial and lack of awareness around such issues, there is a real opportunity for us all to think more deeply about how we harness the opportunities available through employment to provide much needed support to our adopted workforce.
The Adopted Family
Little scientific research has been carried out on adults who were adopted as children and the impact their adoption had on their full lives. Much of the research that has been undertaken in relation to adoption focuses on the more immediate impacts of adoption in children and young people, but does not take the longitudinal approach required to fully assess the impacts of adoption over the lifetime of adopted individuals. Such scant research can be seen to offer little insight into the long-term effectiveness of the systems and processes that govern the adoption process over time.
While adoption can fundamentally be viewed as a positive solution for the person being adopted, there is often a societal expectation that the adoptee ‘should be grateful’ for the new life they have been given. In addition, those new lives that they have been given are usually in middle class families as, to be able to adopt, families must have access to the resources and capability to do so and have been deemed ‘safe enough’ by the state to provide an adequate level of care and protection for a child.
The 2018 BBC article ‘We felt abandoned as adoptive parents’ is an interesting place to start exploring issues of class within adoption. The attitudes expressed in this article can be seen to reflect a profound ‘sense of entitlement’ among the middle classes about the way they feel they should be treated both by services and by the children that they chose to adopt (BBC, 2018). Moreover, this article can be seen to represent a pervasive societal view that, somehow, adopted parents are the heroes ‘rescuing’ their adoptive children from a life of abject misery.
As a result of this ‘rescuing’ mindset among many parents, adopted children, who have no control over this process, may often feel indebted for a life that they did not choose. When things go wrong in families with adopted children, there can be an abdication of responsibility and it may become easier for adoptive parents to blame Social Services, rather than developing a deeper curiosity about the underlying causes of the difficulties. I appreciate that this is not every adoptees experience, but I believe it warrants particular attention given that 25% of adoptive families are facing ‘crisis’ (BBC, 2017). This tell us that things need to change, and that many families are struggling with these issues.
Luckily, there are opportunities now for us now to get curious about our potentially poor understanding of the adoption dynamic within families. In Scotland at least, we may finally be experiencing a step-change in that regard. In her keynote speech to the ACES to Assets Conference in 2019, Suzanne Zeedyk makes the case that ‘we now have the courage to talk about the pains of childhood’ (Zeedyk, 2019). Suzanne is helping us to think about ways that we may be harming our children, sometimes without ever meaning to.
A Lifelong Struggle
The removal of adopted children from their birth families, combined with the transactional child-rearing approach so often used within families, can place unnecessary and potentially harmful conditions on ‘love’ and can leave an adopted child feeling alienated and lacking agency and control within their life.
Such experiences of childhood can have profound consequences later in life. The Psychologist and adoptive mother, Nancy Verrier, previously referred to this as ‘The Primal Wound’ and argues that adopted children experience a profound sense of loss that can manifest itself as unresolved grief throughout the lifespan (Verrier, 1993).
This “Primal Wound” is result of the fact that the adoptee has lost their birth family, heritage, roots, agency and choice, identity and is required to assimilate to a new set of rules and social structures. Moreover, adoptees have historically been seen to be disproportionately represented in psychiatric institutions and were more likely to be diagnosed with personality disorders than their non-adopted peers (Weiss, 1985). Therefore, the effects of adoption are expressed as profound experiences of alienation and loss and can be seen to have pervasive effects across the lifespan.
Numbers and Challenges
The National Records for Scotland tell us that out of the 15,000 ‘looked after’ young people in the foster system, 455 of them were adopted in 2014 (The Scotsman, 2015). If we scale that up to over a five-year period, that is 2,275 adoptees. Comparatively, there are almost 443,000 children in foster care in the USA on any given day and in 2017, 69,000 children were adopted from care (Children’s Rights, 2017). In Germany, 52,400 children and young people were taken into care and 3,700 were adopted in 2018 (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2018).
Every year adoptees like these go on to work in various workplaces both across Scotland and the wider world. These workplaces can be woefully ill-prepared to deal with the specific needs of a workforce that may present with challenges resulting from the displacement, disconnection and loss commonly experienced by adoptees and looked after children and young people.
These challenges are brought into focus for the workplace through exploration of the socio-economic case for supporting care experienced or adopted colleagues. According to ‘The Ferret’, young people aged 16-24 in Scotland are four times more likely to work on zero-hours contracts (The Ferret, 2019). Because young people are more likely to leave care between 16-24, this can lead to a lack of job security and potentially unacceptable levels of financial hardship. The resulting debt, unpaid bills and the inability to afford adequate clothing or nutrition serves only to magnify feelings of emotional stress and trauma for the adopted young person.
Therefore, I believe that it is in the interest of workplaces across Scotland to provide a trauma-informed framework of support for adopted or care experienced employees, which will in turn, improve the social mobility and life-chances of this group, whilst providing benefits to wider society. More information about trauma informed practice can be found here.
The Role of Work
My own view is that one of the best places to provide trauma informed support is within the workplace. The Independent Care Review in Scotland’s vision is to “put love at the heart of the care system.” This helps me to take a wider view and think about the various ways that employers and employees alike can start having more ‘loving’ and connected conversations at work in Scotland and far beyond.
The opposite of alienation is reconciliation. I believe that if we work with our adopted and care experienced colleagues who need an additional helping hand in a spirit of reconciliation, we will be able to connect more meaningfully and authentically with those who have so-often experienced a lifetime of hardship.
The Role of Leaders
An immediate action I think all leaders can take is to respect the individual differences and needs of every colleague within their organizations. Doing this authentically requires vulnerability from everyone. I believe this will pay off in the long-term as more staff will feel supported, listened to and valued. As previously mentioned, developing a trauma-informed framework of support in workplaces will help meet the needs of this group.
Such changes to the way organizations are led will require effort and a radical change of approach towards support and supervision. If this is done, adopted and care experienced colleagues will start to experience feelings of safety, empowerment, involvement and a sense of control over their working lives. This will, in turn, lead to improved engagement, wellbeing and productivity.
Finally, I think it’s worth saying that something as simple as really listening to your colleagues at your next coffee break can help foster a supportive culture within the workplace. Indeed, if you give them a chance, you might find out that the people you speak to may be trying to tell you something important. If this doesn’t feel right, just strive to be kind anyway.
The World of Work Project View
Adopted and care experienced young people are a strand of diversity and inclusion that receive less attention than many others. While adoption can clearly bring benefits for adopted young people, it can also bring significant complexity including a sense of indebtedness and feelings of alienation and lack of agency and control.
Those individuals in society who have experienced care and adoption, and the complex associated feelings described above, do their best to thrive in adulthood and use their resilience to help build a better world for themselves and for others. But they don’t always find this easy and should not have to rely on their resilience alone. Many of those with adoption or care experience would benefit from a society and workplaces that are informed, inclusive and supportive.
Creating workplaces and a wider society that is informed, inclusive and supportive is difficult, particularly as the world has become increasingly frightened of saying and doing the wrong thing. Making the changes we need will take radical courage and leadership. Along the way we’ll need to redesign the systemic, cultural, legal and social structures that will govern the lives of adopted adults both now and in years to come.
In the meantime though, each of us has a role to play in the world of work to lean into our own vulnerability and capacity for connection. This will, in turn help us to create truly inclusive cultures, support our colleagues who have experience of care and adoption and try and bring prosperity to everyone.
About the Author
Julian Thomson is the Communications Lead for the organization Connected Baby, which is based in Dundee, Scotland, and was established in 2014 by Dr Suzanne Zeedyk to help to ‘bring the science of connection to life.’
He is passionate about using his experience of the foster care system and his adoption to bring about real and lasting change for care experienced young people in Scotland.
Julian has worked in various roles within Health and Social Care since 2013. He continues to use his skills, expertise and experience to challenge the status quo to ensure that we are building a safe, connected and bright future for our children and young people.
Dr Suzanne Zeedyk is a research scientist fascinated by babies’ innate capacity to connect. Suzanne’s core aspiration continues to be strengthening awareness of the decisions we take about caring for our children — because those choices are integrally connected to our vision for the kind of society we wish to build.
If you’d like to learn more about this subject, you can listen to a conversation with Julian in our podcast exploring the experiences of care and adoption experienced individuals in the world of work.
Sources and further reading
Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas. In this instance, the article is based on Julian’s lived experience as well as the following referenced sources:
A, Weiss (1998) Symptomatology of Adopted and Nonadopted Adolescents in a Psychiatric Hospital Adolescence, 20(80), 763–774. Available online at: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1986-12024-001
BBC (2017) Over a quarter of adoptive families in crisis, survey shows, Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41379424
BBC (2018) ‘We felt abandoned as adopted parents’ BBC News, Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-45354667
Children’s Rights (2017) Factsheets: Foster Care. Available at: https://www.childrensrights.org/newsroom/fact-sheets/foster-care/
Statistisches Bundesamt (2018) Social Statistics: Public children and youth welfare. Available at: https://www.destatis.de/EN/Themes/Society-Environment/Social-Statistics/Public-Children-Youth-Welfare/_node.html
M, S., Zeedyk (2019) ACES to Assets Keynote Speech 2019
N, N., Verrier (1993) The Primal Wound British Association for Adoption and Fostering; UK ed. edition (21 Sept. 2009)
The Ferret (2020) ‘Tired of just surviving’: how care leavers are fighting back against austerity. Available online at: https://theferret.scot/care-leavers-austerity/
The Scotsman (2015) In Numbers: Adoption in Scotland. Available online at: https://www.scotsman.com/news-2-15012/in-numbers-adoption-in-scotland-1-3918229
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