Historic forced adoption - scoping study: final report

Research to scope the support needs of people affected by historic forced adoption in Scotland.

2. Overview of the experiences of people affected by historic forced adoption


While this study focuses on the support needs of people affected by historic forced adoption, an awareness of people’s experiences is necessary to understand their support needs. In this chapter, we discuss mothers’ and adoptees’ experiences, and mental health conditions and other adverse outcomes. The findings presented here are based on interviews with people affected by historic forced adoption and other stakeholders including professionals working in post-adoption support, academics and campaign groups.

This chapter draws on interview data to provide an overview of the experiences of those affected by historic forced adoption; some include harrowing individual examples. We do not know how typical these are, but research participants were clear about their impact on them.

The lifelong emotional and psychological impacts of historic forced adoption are discussed further in Chapter 5.

Mothers’ experiences

Societal attitudes and norms

A few participants reflected on the difference between societal and religious attitudes and norms at the time compared to the present day. Adoptions of children born to unmarried mothers were described as standard practice, with women having fewer rights, choices, and support than today.

“The young ones nowadays, they've got more rights… we were just told this is something that had to happen… It was just after the war… It's a different time, and it's a different age… You didn't get anybody to help you with your choices. You just went through the pregnancy, and you knew that baby was getting taken away from you.” – Mother

“There was no social care system to help women in that position to be able to parent their children.” – Stakeholder

A common theme was the moral judgement and stigmatisation directed towards mothers who had a child outside of marriage. Participants explained this was seen as “sinful”, “immoral”, and “taboo”.

“(The) stigma of being an unmarried mother. And the shame that was seen to be placed on the family… was a really, really big factor.” – Stakeholder

“Mothers still feel the shame that was instilled in them.” – Adoptee

Gender inequalities

One mother described societal views of unmarried mothers as reflective of gender inequalities. A few others identified power imbalances between mothers and fathers. There were reports of mothers becoming pregnant through sexual violence and abuse, or being led to believe they were engaged to the father, only for the father to disappear.

“You were the bad one if you had a baby out of marriage... The man wasn't even blamed for it - it was always the lassie that was blamed for it.” – Mother

Family responses

Some participants recalled families reacting to the pregnancy with shame or judgement.

“My parents were Catholics. It was like the worst thing that ever happened in the world… They were absolutely ashamed that their daughter could do such a thing, and I think that's something that's lived with me ever since.” – Mother

While a few mothers indicated they had been able to resist their parents wishes to some extent, e.g. by refusing to have an abortion or their baby adopted outwith the family, these were unusual examples. Mothers often had little control, and their parents made the decisions. One adoptee also highlighted the lack of choice available to, and threats made towards, their father.

“Her parents shipped her through to a hospital… From being six weeks pregnant to six weeks after I was born. And she was only allowed back in the family house if I was never mentioned again. So, she had no say in the matter.” – Adoptee

“My mother and father had wanted to get married. And my grandfather had said ‘no way’… From what my cousin said, he probably went down to the house with a shotgun and told him to get down the road before he shot him.” – Adoptee

In interviews, some mothers described being: hidden to conceal the pregnancy, sent away to live with relatives until after the birth, admitted to mother and baby homes or learning disability hospitals, or “rejected” longer-term.

“I went to stay with this Auntie… who I had never seen since I was 5 - I didn't even know what she looked like. And then it was working… cleaning... She never had any kids. So she didn't really know what you were going through.” – Mother

“Her parents then surprised her with a one-way ticket to New Zealand and told her never to return to Scotland. Everyone reeled from the shame for decades… So many women were sent away overseas by their outraged families.” – Sibling of adoptee

A few interviewees also gave examples of families refusing to believe mothers about the father’s identity, denying the father’s abusive behaviours, or pressuring mothers to marry fathers.

Treatment by professionals

Some participants recalled experiences at mother and baby homes, often run by religious organisations. A few described mothers being separated from their babies suddenly and unexpectedly, having cared for them for up to three years in some instances.

“I was looking after him for six weeks, night and day. I do think that's why there is a bond because for six weeks, I never left him. I was just told to leave, and I was so young I just left, that was it.” – Mother

“We used to take them out in the pram and go for walks... Then, all of a sudden (it was) as if it was somebody else's bairn you were taking out for a walk… the Matron … came up to me and said, ‘Oh, I've just sold your baby’.” – Mother

While one mother recalled the kindness of a midwife in one of these homes, a few others recounted controlling and disingenuous practices of some other staff.

“My mother’s life was altered, and her mental health was ruined by her experiences in a Home for Mothers and Babies… My mother was pressured and tricked her into giving her baby up after six weeks of caring for her in the nursery.” – Sibling of adoptee

“It was obviously organised between the Mother and Baby Home (and hospital) because… after my son was taken by the social worker, another taxi arrived…Now I didn't order a taxi.” – Mother

Similar themes were evident in participants' descriptions of social workers’ behaviour. Examples included: excluding mothers from decision-making; acting against their wishes; failing to inform them of their legal rights or options; behaving coercively and threateningly; having personal relationships with the mother’s parents or adoptive parents; and lying to the mothers about the family that was adopting their child. We should stress that we do not know how widespread examples like these were.

“A social worker… didn't speak to me, actually. Spoke to my parents. And he kind of popped his head around the door and asked me if it was okay… I think back on it now - it was shocking.”– Mother

“There was a series of social workers... They were all asking me why I wouldn't sign the paper… And it was a year later, they kept threatening me and said, ‘You need to sign these forms’. And I was like, ‘I don't know what the forms are’… they kept saying, ‘We're going to put you in front of the board’. And I don't know what that meant.” – Mother

Some were told they would not be a good mother or made to feel guilty for wanting to keep their baby or trying to have them returned. A couple of mothers explained they received similar treatment and messages from their GP.

“[The social worker said] the baby was in a well-to-do home and… what could I do for him? And I would break that lady’s heart... to be coerced like that into a decision… it's not until you get older you realise she was putting me off taking my baby back…it's emotional blackmail.” – Mother

“I said, ‘I'm going to be married now. And I really would like... to have my child back’. And (social worker) said, ‘You're being extremely selfish... you will ruin the couple's lives who have her, and you will traumatise the child... and you know you can have (another) child with this man’.” – Mother

“I was set on the path to adoption from the first appointment with the GP… it was like a juggernaut. I wasn't given information about other options. I was led to understand that keeping my own child would be selfish, that my child would stand a much better chance in life with a married couple… I was told I wasn't good enough.” – Mother

Experiences of labour and post-natal care

Interviewees shared examples of disempowering, coercive, cruel, punitive, and abusive treatment during and after birth. Some mothers described being verbally abused, sexually assaulted, denied pain relief, left with health issues after inadequate medical treatment, and prevented from having contact with their babies. We do not know how widespread these experiences were, but mothers highlighted their significant impact on them.

“I never saw [my son]. I never held him. I never heard him. They took him right away… one even called me ‘the scum of the earth’.” – Mother

“[A mother was having] a very difficult delivery and somebody was saying to her… ‘You deserve it…you should be full of shame and you’re a bad person’. And all that’s going on at a time when you’re very vulnerable and distressed.” – Stakeholder

Silence, secrecy and unacknowledged pain

After the birth and removal of their child, some explained mothers were encouraged to “forget about it”, see themselves as “lucky”, or move on. Their experiences were “a taboo subject” not mentioned by others, and their grief and pain went unacknowledged.

“I was really upset and cried quite a lot... I was told I was upsetting my parents, that my father had a heart condition, and that it was all over now… And I thought, but it’s not all over. His life is just beginning, and he doesn’t even know who I am.” – Mother

"In the home, you were lambasted all the time, ‘you don't tell anybody! We took you in here and we're hiding you away from society to save you from the sin that you’ve caused, so you don't tell anybody about that sin and you take that secret to the grave.’” – Mother

In this context, some, but not all, mothers “locked” their experiences and feelings up and did not discuss them with their families, friends, partners, or subsequent children, sometimes for fear of the consequences for their family.

“I put [my feelings] in a box, and I closed the lid and put it on the shelf in my mind. [It was] very rarely spoken about… [Name] [who was the mother’s husband and the baby’s father] wouldn’t speak about it. I think I mentioned it twice in decades of marriage.” – Mother

“I’ve got three half-brothers. They didn’t know anything about me at all.” – Adoptee

“The family situation is complex. The consequences of the full story coming out would be damaging to a number of family members.” – Mother

“You just knew that you couldn’t go there. My mother would never talk about it. Even in the later years. And certainly, my father would never have spoken of it.” – Sister of mother

Psychological impacts on mothers

A dominant theme in our study was the emotional and mental health impact of historic forced adoption on mothers. This includes grief, loss, trauma, depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, addictions and post-traumatic stress disorder. Participants also raised themes of regret, shame, guilt, self-criticism, and low self-worth.

“You never get over the heartache; part of you is broke for life.” – Mother

“Her relationships with her subsequent children, her sisters, and with her parents were ruined. Fallout from the trauma included my mother becoming afraid to mix, to leave the house, she attempted suicide, she was emotionally unstable.” – Sibling of adoptee

“Enormous trauma, which leads to… post-traumatic stress… bereavement issues… they have shame, they have lack of self-worth, they have anxiety… because their experience was that life was not safe… their decisions were not valued... People were untrustworthy. So that leaves them with anxiety and depression.” – Stakeholder

“I find it quite hard to explain, it, I mean, it’s in my head 24 hours, you know, and for a long time, I was really bad with alcohol.” – Mother

One account concerned a mother who received electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to treat her depression. She now struggles to remember events surrounding the adoption, acting as a barrier to tracing her child. Mothers also described ongoing thoughts about their children, worry about their wellbeing, or concern their child might think they were unwanted.

“Always wondering everyday, feeling preoccupied.”– Stakeholder

“I was told this was the best thing for him... but what if he's not alright?” - Mother

Participants recounted several negative impacts on subsequent family life, such as mothers struggling with relationships and siblings’ feelings of loss and grief.

“[It] impacts on the wider family… I had a son and a daughter, and they didn’t get to grow up with their older brother. And it affects your relationships with others because you have a lack of trust. It’s so destructive.” – Mother

“The emotional fall-out from adoption created a dysfunctional environment for the family unit. It led to lack of bonding, lack of trust, insecurity, lack of self-worth etc and there was no emotional support either inside or outside of the family home to deal with this, both at the time of adoption and throughout the following years – still affected by it over 50 years later.” – Sibling of adoptee

“I think my mother was so traumatised by having to give up her first born son for adoption, that she could not bond properly with me and my other siblings – certainly it took until my youngest sibling for her to display any real sign of affection and joy in their relationship.” – Sibling of adoptee

Adoptees’ experiences

Many adoptees described a happy upbringing and loving relationships with their adoptive families

“I've been extremely lucky, both in my experience with my adoptive parents who love me to bits, and I love them. And I had a really great childhood.” - Adoptee

"I was adopted into a great family, which was good.” - Adoptee

“I was adopted by a nice family and a nice home.” - Adoptee

However, many also detailed grief, loss, and trauma linked to the separation from their parents. While it is important to remember that this study is not representative of all adoptees’ experiences, either historically or now, these interviewees commented that bonds built up in the womb and the period immediately after birth are important, and separation from their mother can result in lifelong emotional and psychological impacts.

“When people are adopted… They’ve been in their mother’s womb for nine months. They know their mother. They know her voice, they know her, what she’s like – although they’ve not been born, they still know.” – Adoptee

“It’s quite a few traumas on top of each other. First, there’s the trauma of separation with the primary carers, a lot of people think that this is not a trauma, but it is, you know, just imagine a baby separated from their mother and father and the family and their environment suddenly you know, so that’s the first trauma.” – Adoptee

“This is my struggle that has been inflicted on me by a society which treats babies and children as if they’re blank slates.” – Adoptee

Again, some interviewees suggested this often went unacknowledged and there was little understanding about babies’ and children’s emotional and attachment needs. They also raised the inadequate consideration of adoptees’ wellbeing within some adoptive placements.

“There was no acknowledgement of any of the kind of trauma or loss attached to adoption… there was this kind of concept… it’s a happy life, it’s a new life.” – Stakeholder

“My birth mum left at five days. My adoptive parents came for me at day 14. I had nine days. Who was nurturing and caring for me? Who was swaddling and loving me? I think there’s something in that time. And my gran always said, see when you came home, you just screamed! You were the most greety wean ever. And see now, I understand why.” – Adoptee

“Social work washed their hands of me. They were required to find a home and then dump you there. Matching the adoptee to the adopter wasn't a priority… It was more about making sure that you had three square meals a day, a bed to sleep on, a school, community of friends, a roof over your head and a family that portrayed financial stability... It was about my basic needs and practical goals being met, not my emotional development.” - Adoptee

Experiences with adoptive families

Participants recounted positive and negative experiences with adoptive parents. As noted above, while some adoptees emphasised they felt loved and supported by their adoptive parents, some others shared experiences of cruel and abusive treatment.

“I grew up being told I was an imbecile. I grew up being told that I was the biggest disappointment in [my adoptive mother’s] life. My adopted dad died when I was six… my life was absolute hell from that day on – I got beaten every day.” – Adoptee

“I had to go to another family… It was really difficult between myself and my mother… I hated her, and she hated me… even in the second family... it was really difficult. So after three years, I left. I was 19 at that time… lived by myself.” – Adoptee

“I had a particularly drastic and dreadful adoption. There’s abuse, mental and emotional abuse involved, not just at home, but also from grandparents, my grandmother and my cousins as well.” – Adoptee

“If I said anything it was like I was being ungrateful: ‘Are you not grateful for all we've done for you over the years?’ and so on. You just feel totally isolated, I always felt the odd one out. I felt really miserable throughout my teenage years.” – Adoptee

Some highlighted that being an adoptee can have psychological impacts regardless of the relationship with their adoptive parents. Others, however, did not report this.

“It’s baggage in a certain way… although I was happy as a child… being adopted as an adult is very difficult.” – Adoptee

“I’ve missed my mother all my life… I had a mother – but I missed my blood mother.” – Adoptee

“I struggle to know where I fit in – in my adoptive family, in [the country where I was born], in Scotland, and even with other adopted people. I have low points when I think everyone else is happier and more solid than me… I think I can be hard work and push people away and self-sabotage. I know I’m hard on myself.” – Adoptee

Sense of identity

Interviewees also described their experience of growing up as an adopted child. Some reported feelings of rejection and a sense of being different from their adoptive family, even if their adoptive families were loving. This affected their sense of identity and belonging.

“It was a good adoption. I've not had any problems with my parents, but I did sometimes, strangely, even when I became aware of it, I did feel, I wouldn't call it a distance but I sometimes did feel almost like a slight remove from them to some degree. But that was just how it was.” – Adoptee

“People that we have supported have stated their need to find the 'missing piece of their jigsaw' and that they need to know who they are and where they come from. They have required support to make sense of their story and to navigate their way through the information that we are able to provide.” – Stakeholder

Access to information

Adoptees’ awareness of being adopted as they were growing up differed. For some, “it was never a secret”. For others, their adoptive parents told them in childhood, teenage years, or not at all, as happened to the participant below.

“I started to do some family research... and I thought, I'll do a DNA test. There's nothing in the way that I was treated... nothing that gave me any inkling that I was adopted. So, to discover this at the age of 67 was a shock.” – Adoptee

Participants suggested the initial impact of finding out they were adopted could vary according to the relationship between adoptees and their adoptive parents, the intent behind being informed, and their age at the time.

“I didn't find out until I was 18… and I don't know how many adoptive parents or even the general population know how damaging that can be. And luckily, I was told out of love, but… some people are told out of spite… It really messed me up. I kept my adoption a secret from everyone else in my life for another 12 years.” – Adoptee

“Those that find out later in life… either post death of their adoptive parent or well into adulthood... it's extremely traumatic and has a significant impact on understanding [their] own identity.”– Stakeholder

A handful explained that their adoptive parents withheld further information about their adoption or, in one case, had deliberately destroyed the adoption documents so they could not trace their family.

“I didn’t know anything about it, why or anything. And they didn’t tell me anything, even though I asked. So that was a negative point.” – Adoptee

“Some adoptees, because they don’t know the circumstances of their adoption, feel that their mother perhaps abandoned them and didn’t want them, which leaves them with particular issues.” – Stakeholder

Discovering the forced nature of adoption

Some of the adoptees commented on the impact of discovering their adoption was forced, describing their sadness that their mother had gone through such an experience. In cases where adoptees had not met their mothers, uncertainty about the impact on their mothers caused concern.

“The only thing I am sad about is my mum's difficulties. She didn't have a very happy marriage… Somebody told me she had some alcohol problems and I think that probably contributed to her early death as well... It must be a horrible thing to have to go through... There nothing I could have done about that but It still makes you sad that somebody had to have such pain... I just feel sorry for my mum.” - Adoptee

“It was a forced adoption. She was underage… The way that she was treated by parents, by social workers, by nurses in the hospital when she gave birth, she was denied pain relief, she was told she didn’t deserve pain relief, and quite how anybody could do that to another human being is quite extraordinary. On a human to human basis, it’s just unnecessarily cruel.” - Adoptee

“I was born in a nursing home for unmarried mothers… so I dare say it's been a traumatic event for my birth mother.” - Adoptee

As noted in Chapter 1, it is important to acknowledge that much of adoptees’ feedback is not related to whether their adoption was forced or not, but rather relates more to their experience of being adopted. We emphasise that this study’s research sample was self-selecting and this feedback is not intended to be representative of all adoptees’ experiences either historically or now.

International adoptions

The added complexity and grief surrounding international adoptions was highlighted by a small number of adoptees, who described the impact of being separated from their language and cultural identity.

“I love Scotland, but I was taken away from my roots.” – Adoptee

“They had a very strange understanding that... it was best for [international adoptees] to forget about their native land to integrate… as an adult, I realise how traumatising it is for a ten-year-old child to just forget about their... past life, their culture, the food, everything.” – Adoptee

Adoptive families

While this study did not involve adoptive families, a few stakeholders suggested that adoptive parents might feel guilty if they found out or suspected their adoption took place under forced or coercive circumstances.

“Adoptive families may, as a result of the apology, have felt very uncomfortable and guilty that the children they reared and loved who are now adults had been stolen and that they were, not party to that, but part of that.” – Stakeholder

Mental health conditions and other adverse outcomes

Some mothers and adoptees attributed mental health conditions to their adoption experience, including anxiety, depression, addictions and complex post-traumatic stress disorder and a small number mentioned suicide and experiences with criminal justice agencies.

“My story is not unique in terms of, you know, ending up with mental health issues and addiction issues.” – Adoptee

“How society kind of impedes adult adoptees from achievement, that adult status, the amount of hurdles that are put in our way… hence we come back to the statistics on the amount of adoptees who take their own lives.” – Adoptee

“[I was having panic attacks]… I felt I was going to die.” – Adoptee

“I suffered a deep depression.” – Mother

“The symptoms that people experience, the PTSD, the loss, the depression, anxiety.” – Mother

Chapter summary

Many interviewees recounted traumatic experiences of historic forced adoption. We cannot comment on how widespread these experiences were, but this information provides an insight into the effect of historic forced adoption on people and the need to provide adequate support.


Email: Joanna.Harrold@gov.scot

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