Historic forced adoption - scoping study: final report

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

3. The needs of people affected by historic forced adoption: search and reunion


Research participants highlighted that people affected by historic forced adoption need support to find and reunite with family members they were separated from by adoption. This chapter summarises the importance of, and barriers to, search and reunion, the support services available, and improvements required.

The importance of search and reunion

Mothers whose babies were adopted spoke of a need to find their child. This was a dominant theme in this study. Reunification and establishing a relationship with the adopted person are the ultimate aims. However, even when reunification or contact is impossible, mothers expressed a need to confirm that the adopted person is happy and healthy, which can provide some peace of mind after years of worry.

“I can understand if he doesn't want to get in contact, but just to know that he's alright and everything’s fine with him, and he's had a good life… I was just looking for peace of mind.” – Mother

Finding and meeting their parents, siblings, and extended family members can improve adoptees’ sense of identity and understanding of who they are and where they come from. Where a meeting is impossible, simply finding information about their family can provide a sense of belonging. This was another recurring theme in the study.

“You'd like to have more of a sense of who you are… it's just natural. [Having made contact with family], it's like I've got two families. So it's all good. And that's something I didn't have before. I do feel a bit more complete now.” – Adoptee

“When I found out where my family came from, I had the feeling of, at long last, I belong somewhere. I felt like an alien… I didn’t look like anybody. I didn't act like anybody… At long last, I knew where I came from.” – Adoptee

However, looking for and reuniting with family members is not helpful for everyone affected by historic forced adoption. Some interviewees warned that reunions can be traumatic.

“People don't really understand what it's about, how it affects you, if you have an opportunity to meet your lost child, how that brings back everything, and it is a very traumatic experience as well.” – Mother

“Some, some women didn't, didn't want to look for their child, because they just didn't think they could accept knowing that their child belonged in another family.” – Mother

Barriers and challenges with search and reunion

Some research participants gave examples of positive experiences of finding and reconnecting with family members.

However, the practical and emotional challenges associated with this process include situations where:

  • One party does not want to meet.
  • The two parties do not get on.
  • One party is ill or has passed away.
  • The adoptive family is upset about the adoptee making contact with their family or where adoptees fear appearing disloyal to their adoptive family.
  • Records are unavailable or the other person cannot be found.

“I was just very, very upset and surprised when I was told the case is closed and I can't contact [my son].” – Mother

“If their birth parents are maybe no longer here, and they've missed that opportunity. That's happened a few times, and that's really, really sad.” – Stakeholder

“Mum and Dad had always said, we don't mind at all if you want to look up your birth, and they didn't feel threatened by that. But there was an element of… and this isn't an uncommon thought, in terms of loyalty to your adopted family.” – Adoptee

“His father and I both went to North Lanarkshire Council, the social work department, and asked if we could get any information on [our son]. If they could tell us anything, and a few days and they came back and what she told me there was no record of him in their department.” – Mother

Issues like this were raised repeatedly in interviews with people affected by historic forced adoption and stakeholders, and can arise whether or not the adoption was forced. However, there can be additional emotional challenges for adoptees who discover during search and reunion that their adoption was forced.

Search and reunion efforts can be further complicated when the adoptee or parents now live in a different country. Issues can include: the need to access records in a foreign country; language barriers; problems getting information from the authorities; and the ongoing stigma around unmarried mothers in some countries.

In addition, some mothers and adoptees believed they were not allowed to look for their family members and were not encouraged to do so.

“From the get go, very often, the language was once things were signed off, if you will, and the adoption had been approved, then really that was effectively the end of it. And so many, many, many women will have gone through life, believing that that was the end of it and there was nothing we could do.” – Stakeholder

“I think you weren't really encouraged to even try to make contact. That was a sense I got. So it was a bit more like right you've down in that family so don't shake the applecart or anything.” – Adoptee

What support is required?

Based on interview and survey responses, the following forms of support are important for mothers and adoptees when searching for and reuniting with the family members they have been separated from. For adoptees, these support needs are the same regardless of whether they know their adoption was forced or not.

1. Preparing to search

2. Searching for family

3. Preparing to make contact

4. Mediation and supporting first contact

5. Supporting

6. Building and maintining relationships

Preparing to search

People affected by historic forced adoption must be informed about the potential outcomes of any search they carry out. As noted above, they could find upsetting news, for example, if the person they are looking for has passed away, or the records are lost or unavailable.

Individuals may also need support to consider their aim: for instance, do they want to contact their child or family or simply find out if they are safe and well?

Searching for family members

Accessing the records required to trace a family member can be a complicated process involving liaison with multiple agencies, including National Records of Scotland (NRS), local authorities and post-adoption support services. People often require specialist support to access and understand the information they need. We discuss this theme further in Chapter 4.

Preparing to make contact

Individuals need assistance at this stage to help manage their expectations and prepare for disappointing outcomes, for example, if the other person does not want to contact them or they have had an unhappy life.

Mediation and initial contact

Having an organisation act as an intermediary in making initial contact between the two parties can be helpful. This ensures no personal details need to be divulged to the other party, allows for gentle and sensitive first contact, and provides an opportunity for emotional support if the other person does not want to contact them.

“An intermediary would help because it would not be so shocking for them if I bowl up to their front door and knock and say hello, I'm your sister.” – Adoptee

Reuniting, meeting and building relationships

Interviewees indicated that reunions can be therapeutic for those affected by historic forced adoption. Still, they can also trigger complex emotions of guilt and rejection, especially if establishing a relationship with the person is difficult.

Support is required after a person has been identified and has agreed to contact. Research participants appreciate advice from organisations with arranging a meeting, ensuring they have realistic expectations for the reunion, and accessing advice if they encounter any difficulties as the relationship develops.

“Support is required to track and trace birth family members and to initiate contact in a supportive and sensitive manner. Individuals should also be supported to understand the possibility that the outcome may not be what they imagined or wished for. They need to be prepared for further hurt and loss.” – Stakeholder

“There wasn't any advice or support given for the meeting, I arranged that meeting, I went down on the train, I met my family by myself at the train station, in public. And thankfully, it all went really well. And we all really love each other and got on from the very first second, but it could have been a total disaster.” – Adoptee

Emotional support during search and reunion

A prevalent theme was the emotional impact of searching for and reuniting with children and family members. Feelings include excitement at the prospect of reunification, joy at successful meetings, but also anxiety, regret and shame. People may feel rejected if the other party does not want to meet or the relationship does not develop as hoped. Those with experience of historic forced adoption may already have severe emotional and psychological impacts associated with the adoption (as noted in Chapters 2 and 5), so further emotional distress at this stage can have a particularly profound effect.

For this reason, stakeholders and people affected by historic forced adoption felt that emotional and psychological support should be available throughout the search and reunion process and beyond as individuals attempt to build relationships with their child or family members.

“It would have been nice to have had a counsellor or somebody that I could have gone to talk to you because the range of emotions you go through is terrible.” – Mother

“How would you start building a relationship with somebody you don't know. They'll be a stranger, you know. So services that would help with that, I think would help.” – Stakeholder

“You have all these hurt people. It's a minefield, it's a minefield, my sister-in-law of my birth brother, she couldn't cope with it at the time.” – Adoptee

Support is also required when relationships deteriorate or breakdown after initial contact is made.

“I had that contact with my birth mum, and it just didn't work. You know, she just didn't want to talk about it. And I just felt so wounded by it all; I just felt rejected all over again. And it was really, really difficult, and I got absolutely hee-haw support at that point.” – Adoptee

“There should be more things set in place for when things go wrong. So a social worker, I would say, should be allocated to every person who's doing a search and needs help. I think it's imperative.” – Adoptee

What support is available?

Table 3.1 shows that support is available with search and reunion across Scotland from public, private and third sector services. However, more work is needed to ensure that people affected by historic forced adoption can access the help they need.

Table 3.1: Search and reunion support available
Preparing to search Search Preparing to contact Mediation & supporting initial contact Reuniting, meeting & building relationships Emotional support
Local authorities (services vary)
Post-adoption support services
Commercial websites
Social media
National Records of Scotland
Peer support groups
Genealogists/ private investigators

We provide more detail about the services offered below before discussing the gaps and improvements required.

Local authorities

Local authorities have a statutory obligation to provide post-adoption support. We heard examples where they had supported adoptees and mothers throughout the searching and reunion process. Some authorities outsource this work to specialist agencies like Barnardo’s Scotland Adoption Service.

However, interviewees highlighted inconsistent approaches across local authorities and among different officers within them.

Post-adoption support services

Various organisations provide post-adoption support. These include agencies that are involved in arranging adoptions (such as Barnardo’s, Scottish Adoption & Fostering, St Margaret’s and St Andrew’s), as well as other organisations that support people affected by adoption including Adoption UK Scotland and Birthlink.

Birthlink’s services include the Adoption Contact Register, funded by the Scottish Government, which allows adult adoptees, parents and other relatives the opportunity to register their willingness for contact with each other. If the person they are looking for is also registered, Birthlink acts as an intermediary between the two parties to determine if they want to share contact details.

Post-adoption support services can help people trace their relatives. The types of support they offer vary, but generally include sessions to help individuals consider the possible realities of searching and manage their expectations, outline the information that legislation allows people to access, and understand the potential outcomes of the search, including the risk of finding upsetting news. It also includes practical support to find and access the records that are required to find their relatives (for example, Birthlink has volunteer DNA analysts and genealogists and Barnardo’s also has volunteers with specialised skills in searching and navigating historic records).

While searching for records, agencies can access documents held by them about adoptions they arranged, and they liaise with other agencies and NRS to access records where held elsewhere. There is also support available to understand the records, support for contacted parties, mediation during the first stages of contact with relatives and support at any reunion meetings and as the relationship develops beyond the initial reunion.

Agencies also often provide emotional support to help people deal with the myriad of emotions involved with searching for and contacting relatives.

Some of these organisations used to charge a fee for some of these services but no longer do so. However, there may be administration fees associated with accessing certain records during the search and reunion process. For example, as noted below, Scotland’s People charges a small fee to access some records, and some agencies may ask for donations to support the work and cover administration costs.

Commercial websites

Several mothers and adoptees mentioned using online commercial family-finding services to search for relatives. These fee-paying websites include access to online records such as birth, marriage and death certificates, as well as DNA testing. Individuals can submit DNA samples to reveal information, such as the region or country their ancestors came from. It can also identify potential relatives where DNA matches other people who have used the service, and contact can be facilitated afterwards. Some also offer information about genetic health conditions based on DNA analysis.

Social media

Interviewees and survey respondents gave examples of individuals, including adoptees and families where babies were removed, searching for their relatives online on social media sites.

National Records of Scotland

Adoptees can access their original birth certificate through NRS. This includes their mother's name and address at the time of the birth, and this can help adoptees to find their family. Parents, however, rely on support from the organisations noted above to trace their children.

NRS also offers the Scotland’s People website, which charges a small fee to access a range of records, including census data, birth, marriage and death certificates, church records and other information. Intended primarily for people undertaking family history research, a few interviewees found it was a useful tool when looking for information about relatives.

Peer support groups

Several mothers and adoptees described peer groups as important sources of emotional support during search and reunion activities. Mothers mentioned groups such as the Movement for Adoption Apology in Scotland (MAA Scotland), while adoptees talked about the Scottish Adult Adoptee Movement (SAAM) and the Group for Adopted People (GAP) Scotland.


A handful of interviewees said they had approached genealogists to help with their search.

Private investigators

One interviewee reported using a private investigator to search for a relative.

How can the support be improved?

Feedback from research participants indicates that various forms of support exist for people affected by historic forced adoption. Many individuals were positive about the support they had received in their search and reunion activities from local authorities and post-adoption support services. People mentioned benefitting from effective assistance to find and contact their relatives, delivered sensitively.

However, this was not the case for all, and other research participants identified several gaps and areas in which support for people with experience of historic forced adoption could be improved. Many issues focused on a lack of capacity and funding, a need for greater consistency across services, and improved awareness of available services. These are relevant to other types of help required and detailed in Chapter 7.

Some interviewees also called for assistance with the cost of search and reunion activities. This is explored further, along with other considerations around financial assistance, in Chapter 6.

Information and guidance on searching

Some interviewees, both mothers and adoptees, felt confused and uncertain about how to search for their relatives, and called for clear guidance on searching and which organisations to contact for support.

The Scottish Government, NRS, and some post-adoption support services’ websites contain details about how to search, but some participants felt there is a need to review the information to ensure it meets the needs of people affected by historic forced adoption, and then raise awareness of it.

“There should be some, a clear format that you can try, this is your first port of call, and this is what you do next. This is what you can then expect. And then if this doesn't work, then you could do this. And here are the voluntary organisations that can help you.” – Adoptee

“[I’d like an] option to talk about adoption and the process about accessing records.” – Adoptee

People may need additional support where they or the family member they are searching for lives in or comes from a different country.

“I cannot find [my sister’s] details without the enormous cost and effort of coming to Scotland [from overseas].” – Sibling of adoptee

Enhanced emotional support during search and reunion

Many people affected by historic forced adoption who had accessed services to support search and reunion activity provided positive feedback about the services’ sensitive and emotionally supportive approach.

However, others have not been able to access this support. There is recognition, among people affected and the services themselves, that more in-depth emotional support is needed to help people during search and reunion, especially after any reunion. We cover this issue in greater detail in Chapter 5.

“The kind of counselling they do is at pre-reunion… but after reunion… what they don't have is they don't have anybody there on the premises, who's a qualified counsellor, [accredited by the] British Transpersonal Association or [Counselling and Psychotherapy in Scotland (COSCA)].” – Adoptee

Challenges around commercial services

A few participants felt people who use online commercial family-finding services need more support. Individuals can access information through these sites but often need help to understand and decide what to do with it. These services signpost people to support, but stakeholders highlighted the need to provide information about the Scottish context and services.

“With these sites and home DNA testing kits, you can suddenly get so much information without any preparation, any support around it, and it's overwhelming to go from one day where you don't know anything about your biological makeup to finding out that you've got 33,000 relatives across the world… your brain just explodes at that point.” – Adoptee

Using social media to search for relatives

A few stakeholders warned of the dangers of social media enabling people to contact relatives without third-party mediation, support or advice.

“Another big challenge at the moment… is social media. People go trawling, Facebook and all the rest of it... We actually proactively tell people don't use social media… frequently, people phone me, and they're crying, they're upset, they can't take it in, you know, hyperventilating, all this kind of thing.” – Stakeholder

Chapter summary

Searching for and reuniting with family members they have been separated from is an important process for people affected by historic forced adoption.

However, the process can be long, complicated and emotionally draining. Local authorities and post-adoption support services offer support with finding family members, contact and reunions, and provide emotional help throughout the process.

There is a need to ensure that people are informed about search tools and techniques and the organisations that can support the process. Interviewees emphasised the need to enhance emotional support available for people throughout the process.

Some interviewees expressed concerns about those who find their relatives via commercial websites and social media making contact without guidance. They call for more help and advice for people using these tools.


Email: Joanna.Harrold@gov.scot

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