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Professional background: Social Worker

Details: Post Adoption Resource Centre (PARC),
The Benevolent Society

The results of a study of the outcomes of contact and reunion among 161 clients of PARC will be presented, and discussion invited. All participants in the study were either adopted persons or parents who had lost a child to adoption. The study asked participants to rate their experiences according to how worthwhile they were, how easy or difficult and how much they regretted or were happy that they had attempted contact. It also looked at more specific impacts, eg, on self-esteem, self-understanding, and contributing factors towards these results. The presenter will also offer video material drawn from interviews with people who are asked specifically to respond to the question of the healing effect or otherwise of their reunion experiences.


Our approach views people as experts in their own lives. While people's evaluations of their experiences is diverse, and reunion can be fraught for some, trends suggest that reunion is generally positive in its impact.


At Least Now I Know:

A study of outcomes of contact with relatives separated by adoption.




For anyone who doesn't know, the Post Adoption Resource Centre (PARC) is a service of The Benevolent Society and was set up in April 1991 to assist people affected by changes in NSW adoption legislation. The changes allowed adopted people and birth parents to access the information they need to make contact with each other.


At PARC we're often asked by people starting out on the path of search and contact whether the outcome is likely to be worthwhile. "How does it generally work out?" is the question often posed. Until we conducted the study of outcomes of contact and reunion I'll be referring to this morning, we were each really only able to give a subjective answer. We wanted to be able to give a more objective picture.


At this conference there has been extensive coverage of the harmful, often traumatic effects of family separation. One of the questions I’ll try to answer in this presentation is: What hope does contact and reunion offer in alleviating these impacts? I’ll be understanding the term “healing” in a very broad sense. Where people have viewed their experience as positive and worthwhile I’ll gather some measure of healing has taken place.


The video which I’ll show about half way through the presentation will address the question of healing more explicitly.


A paper by Raie Goodwatch, "Does Reunion Cure Adoption?"  (Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, June 2001) would suggest that birth mothers experience little or no healing through the process of reunion, that “grief was exacerbated when the hoped-for ‘completion’ of family did not occur."


      I would say that this wouldn't have matched our experiences at PARC. Birth parents let us know their grief is re-activated during contact and reunion, and the process is especially difficult if the adoptee does not want contact. But we also hear about their relief in knowing their child is well and has had a good life. They are able to unburden themselves of secrecy to varying degrees, and to begin to reclaim their dignity by challenging the shame and blame associated with the loss of their child or children.


          Adoptees  tell us that search, contact and reunion can be complex, confusing and demanding, again especially if they are rejected. But many also speak of feeling better about themselves knowing more about their origins.


          However, what is the extent of these positive influences? Overall, do people view the outcomes of contact as worthwhile and positive, or are there as many issues raised as there are issues resolved?


Furthermore, where the outcomes have been worthwhile and positive, what is different? The answer tho this question could help us advise people how to maximise their chances of a positive experience or help us warm people if the factors in their circumstances are associated with a negative outcome.


          To answer these questions, we surveyed 161 people who were clients of PARC and who had attempted contact. Some were also interviewed. In understanding the results please bear in mind that the group would have experienced more problems than the general population affected by adoption (not as a result of contacting PARC) but because a counselling agency is more likely to be contacted by people experiencing problems.


          Some of the more notable features of the group were:


          * exactly three-quarters of those who participated in the questionnaire were women, a quarter of them were men


          * 19% had been rejected by the birth relative they first approached


          * three-fifths remained in at least phone contact with their birth relative


          * A quarter of rejections were in the form of no response at all


          * 71% of the 161 people who responded met face to face with their birth relative at some point.


          * three-fifths remained in at least phone contact with their birth relative


( 2 pie graphs: Currently meeting in person

& Current telephone contact)



          The biggest factor determining whether or not search and contact was perceived to be healing and positive, was the acceptance or rejection of contact by the found relative. Our study found that people who were rejected were more than twice as likely to see the first contact as very difficult compared to those who went on to have ongoing contact, three times as likely to have regrets about the whole thing, and ten times more likely to see contact as not having been worthwhile.


          Those who had been rejected were less inclined than others to report that contact had “enabled a better understanding of self” and “increased my self-esteem”. 


For some people, the  rejection brings enormous grief and little else. “I went into things thinking it would change my life for the better, like it would be the best thing that would ever happen to me. There were happy times, but when it didn't work out and I was rejected, I was left with a heap of emotions I could not deal with for three years, it was three years of sheer hell. When things became clearer, I decided I cannot lay down and die because someone has rejected me. And now after going through it, I live for the here and now, I live for today. I think counselling helps and is important. And I never would wish harm to the blood relatives that have rejected me, but I think they are not worth worrying about anymore, to a certain extent.  In other words, I mean nothing to them so why should they mean anything to me."


          It is significant however that around half of those rejected nonetheless rated the experience as being to some degree worthwhile and were happy that they tried.   56% of rejected people were on balance, on the “happy” end of the continuum and just 22% were at least partly “regretful” that contact had been made.


          I quote from an adopted person who received no reply to his letters, and was asked the question “was this worthwhile?”


           “... now what they've done by not replying to me, I'll never really know  her as a person. I don't know whether she was a good housekeeper or a sloppy one. I don't know if she was a snazzy dresser or a sloppy dresser. What were her interests, Village Glee Club or was she a prime cook or did she collect stamps, or what did the woman do? I mean, what kind of a personality was she? I'll now never know. ... 


          Although the result was negative I still feel that I at least attempted, because ... what if when I was 70 mightn't I have said to myself, ‘John you darn fool, you should've tried to contact her because you might have gotten on with her and now you'll never know’. ... it still pleased me in so far as I made the effort rather than just sitting back….”


          Of those people who were rejected, seven out of ten made at least one other approach. They were more likely to use an intermediary the second time round, but this rarely led to any more joy. (Where an intermediary assisted there was success in only one out of 14 cases.)


          Of those adopted people who were unsuccessful approaching their natural mothers, almost half went on to make contact with another relative, mostly siblings and aunts and uncles. Surprisingly, it was generally felt by those in this study who did go on to make contact with other relatives that this made the initial rejection more difficult to cope with rather than easier. 


          This is of course not always the case:

“Although my relationship with my birthmother is now non-existent, I have an excellent relationship with my birth grandparents. My adopted parents have an excellent relationship with them too. This made the unsatisfying contact with my birthmother very worthwhile.”  



          Taken as a whole, including those who were rejected, this group of 161 clients were slightly more inclined to view their experience as difficult rather than easy, but three quarters of the group viewed their experience as positively worthwhile.


          ( 3 pie graphs: How difficult was the relationship with the other person

          & How worthwhile was contact?

          & Happy/regretful that contact was made?)



          Participants were asked to rate from most important to least important, seven possible effects of contact and invited to include in their list an eighth effect which they could name themselves. Of the seven suggested, as listed in the questionnaire, the most common effects of contact and/or reunion on the lives of respondents were reported as being, in order of


          -       “increased my self esteem”

          -       “enabled me to have a better understanding of myself”

          -       “brought the truth more out into the open”

          -       “allowed me to move on with my life”

          -       “made my life more complicated”

          -       “done little to change my life”

          -       “caused conflict with my other relationships”.


          98% of all participants rated “increased my self esteem” as the first, second or third most important effect, and 64% rated “enabled me to have a better understanding of myself” as the first, second or third most important effect. 


          (last 2 graphs :Increased my self-esteem

          & Enabled better understanding of self)



So far a fairly positive picture has emerged about the impact of contact and/or reunion, even with this group of people who had sought the help of a counselling agency.

          The question remains, are positive outcomes associated with certain factors? If so, how can we advise people to proceed? And can we predict for people whether the factors in their situation will likely lead to certain results? For instance, are adoptees more likely to be rejected than birth mothers? If an adoptee is approaching a rather elderly birth mother, is she or he more likely to be rejected? Is the experience of men significantly different from the experience of women?


          * 24% of adopted people were rejected compared to 13% of birth parents.

          (The figure of 24% contrasts with the 7% of adopted people in a UK study who were rejected, reported in Adoption, Search and Reunion: The Long-term Experience of Adopted Adults by Julia Feast and David Howe in 2000. This supports the idea that a more representative cross-section of the population would yield more optimistic results.) Our results do give us some basis for predicting that birth parents are somewhat less likely to be rejected than adoptees.


          * The experiences of the men may be different from the experience of women in the general population, but there were no significant differences among those who

          participated in this study. We expected to see the phenomenon we’re so familiar with in our clinical work – that of the waiting birth mother and her son who takes no initiative – but this didn’t show up in our research. We think that the men willing to participate in our research were probably a bit different from the broader population.


          * We might have predicted that older parents approached would be far more likely to reject contact than younger parents. There was a trend in this direction but it was not as strong as we thought. 38% of adopted people over 50 were rejected  compared to 22% of adoptees under 50. Certainly the difference would not be enough to predict outcomes based on the age of the parent.


          So what is associated with more positive outcomes? There were some trends.


          * There was strong support for the importance of less direct kinds of approaches in the first instance. Of those participants who approached their birth relative by letter 16% were rejected, compared to 26% who made their first contact by phone and 50% who showed up in person.


          * Clients whose approach was mediated through an intermediary were rejected in 13% of cases. (A worker in New Zealand has advised that contact through an intermediary could decrease the chances of securing ongoing contact – our research suggests using an intermediary usually slightly increases the chances.)


          * The use of an intermediary left people somewhat more inclined to view the outcomes positively, when compared to the results of making the approach directly. On the seven-point worthwhile-not worthwhile scale, 79% of people who used an intermediary rated their experience in the two most positive categories, compared to 68% of people who didn’t use an intermediary. At the not-worthwhile end of the scale, people who made direct contact were three times more likely to say their effort was definitely not worthwhile.


          * There was quite strong support for not “rushing things” in the first six months of contact. More specifically, daily contact in the first six months leaves people about ten times more likely to see the whole effort as not worthwhile at the end of the day, than if they have weekly or monthly contact. People who had daily contact were significantly more likely than people who had no contact to rate their experience in the two most negative categories on a seven-point worthwhile – not worthwhile scale ( 25% compared to 16%)!


         Some of the difference in how positively people assess outcomes can be explained by the values they bring to the effort in the first place. At PARC we’ve often wondered about how two clients can have very similar outcomes yet each of them winds up taking quite a different view on it. Our theory was that people’s values have a significant impact on whether or not they see their experience as worthwhile. The research supported this view. The values which made the difference were, in order of importance:


          - “resolving issues from the past” more than “living in the present”

          - “self-reliance in working out personal problems” more than “getting help” with these

          - “biological connections” more than “adoptive family relationships”

          - “being open with people” more than “the need for privacy”

          - “sensitivity to others’ needs” more than “assertiveness about own needs”


   * Of those people who had been in contact for more than five years, a little over half were still in touch in some way. The question is: What stood out most in these arrangements which seem to be more sustainable?


         Longer term reunions were not especially different in their characteristics from more recently initiated reunions except in the following:


          - they were more likely to describe the frequency of contact as being “on special occasions”

   - they were more even in terms of who took the initiative – it happened less often that the initiative was taken  by just one side


Overall, we were surprised the trends were not more definitive, eg, we would have thought that longer-term reunions would have had a longer list of characteristics which would make them stand out, that the experience of men and women would have been more different and  we thought that using an intermediary would be more consistently helpful.


Instead we are unable, as a result of the research, to predict for clients how they can secure for themselves a more positive outcome. There are a few rules of thumb, but no guarantees. The rules of thumb are:


- approach through an intermediary or by a discreet letter, rather than by phone or in person

- it is better to take things slowly in the first six months; especially avoid daily contact

- where possible, keep fairly even with the other person in the matter of who takes the initiative, even if this means quite infrequent contact.

Yet, a person can do all the right things and still come off second best.


At the end of the day we can say that overall, even among those who have sought the help of a counselling agency, three quarters of people say search and contact was a worthwhile course of action; a relatively small minority regret pursuing it. Implied in this is the conclusion that there is significant potential for healing, despite some risks.

Papers presented at the 1st National Conference on the Mental Health Aspects of Persons Affected by Family Separation

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