Historic forced adoption - scoping study: final report

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

4. The needs of people affected by historic forced adoption: access to records


This chapter explores experiences of accessing adoption papers, court records and other documents related to cases of historic forced adoption. The following themes are outlined: motivations for accessing records; barriers and challenges associated with accessing them; and gaps in support where improvements are needed.

Accessing records is a crucial part of the search and reunion process. Therefore, some findings about this topic (such as support available) are included in the previous chapter. The following sections focus on logistical matters related to accessing records, such as access rights, the language used in historical documents and missing or illegible files.

The importance of accessing records

Interviewees explained that people with experience of historic forced adoption often wish to access written records about the adoption, such as social work, NHS and court documents that contain case notes and descriptions of meetings from the time of the adoption.

While a common motivation for accessing records is search and reunion purposes, it is not the only reason. Some people affected by historic forced adoption explained they had previously accessed documents to help them recall or understand the circumstances and events which led to the adoption.

Barriers and challenges with accessing records

As noted in Chapter 3, accessing records related to adoptions that took place in the 1950s, 60s and 70s can be a complicated and emotional process. This is likely to be accentuated for those who experienced forced adoption due to the need for people, in many cases, to engage with agencies that were involved in arranging the forced adoption. Barriers and challenges faced by those accessing records are summarised in more detail below.

Restricted access rights

Adoptees and parents have different rights in terms of access to adoption records. For example, adoptees can access their original birth certificate, which includes their mother’s name and address at the time of the birth. This can be vital information in any search and reunion process. Parents, however, have no right to access any information about their child, including their adopted name.

“The biggest obstacle for birth mothers is that the rights are not the same as the adopted person. How can you search for somebody when you don't actually know what their name is?” – Stakeholder

“I feel the access to adoption records legislation needs to be updated to include mothers... Those records hold information about me and my son equally, so why am I excluded from viewing them?... There's a lot I don't remember about the time… Viewing these records would help me fill in the gaps and ultimately could help me towards closure about what happened.” – Mother

Parents can ask local authorities (using Freedom of Information requests if necessary) and post-adoption support services to access records on their behalf. However, challenges with this approach include lengthy timescales and variations in access protocols across different areas. Stakeholders reported, where requests are made for court papers, individual sheriffs can interpret the relevant legislation differently and this leads to variations in the information that they will or will not release.

Interviewees also discussed difficulties in accessing information about their family’s medical history. Adoptees highlighted being unable to gain access to their parents’ medical records because of data protection restrictions, meaning they are unaware of any hereditary or genetic health conditions or risks. Some found this lack of knowledge distressing.

“I don't know any medical history. I've actually got a rare illness and it took until age 14 to find that out. And sometimes that can be very upsetting when anyone with a medical background can ask, what's your medical history? And if you don't know… that question can be upsetting.” – Adoptee

Lost records

A common barrier to accessing records identified by participants was being unable to locate files related to the adoption. Again, this issue can affect people who experienced forced adoptions and those involved in consensual adoptions. It can be demoralising and frustrating, and a few said it felt like their search had ‘reached a dead end’ or ‘hit a brick wall’.

Participants shared different reasons for the loss of their records, such as:

  • Files going missing when adoption agencies or council buildings closed or moved premises.
  • Paperwork destroyed in a fire or flood; a claim met with scepticism by a few interviewees.

A few said they had been given no explanation for the missing documents; they were simply told their files could not be found.

“There were no records. That was it. That was what the chap said. And I said, ‘How have you got no record when I had him?’… He said ‘You know, we've moved offices that often that we've lost a lot of contact records’.” – Mother

“I was told all the records were apparently burnt in a fire. And I'm like, does nobody ever think to let us know?” – Adoptee

“I have been told about adult adoptees who have gone to where they were born, and being told, we don't have any records, they were all burnt down in a fire. And you just think this has turned into a bit of a cliche, you know? So I think that in the past that has been an obstacle for adopted people looking for information.” – Stakeholder

There's also the risk that people are going back to an agency where there's nobody there that remembers them, or anything to do with their particular experiences. And a number of times there's been fires or floods or things that have affected records. That was a surprise to me; how many people have not been able to access information.” - Stakeholder

Illegible records

Archived adoption records can be difficult to read; most were handwritten on paper decades ago and have degraded over time, affecting the text’s legibility. Digitally archived material can also be challenging; participants described some scanned or photographed documents as illegible.

“[A post-adoption support service] provided me with my birth certificate and [another agency] got my adoption records for me, but a lot of the information isn't readable. I'm not sure if it's the way it's been photocopied or created. So I don't have 100% of my information.” – Adoptee

“Quality of records is very poor. A lot of the information can't be made out. The handwriting is very poor and details of the writing seem like it's erased.” – Adoptee

Incomplete records and records with insufficient detail

Some participants said they gained access to their records but were disappointed or frustrated when the files did not reveal any new information, due to a lack of detail or incomplete fields.

“In the early 90s, I was able to go to Edinburgh's Register House where I was given access to court records regarding my adoption, but learned nothing new.” – Adoptee

“All of the accounts of different meetings that I had with the social worker, there are items missing from it, significant items. For example, the social worker came to visit me on the first day after my son was born. There was no record in there of that conversation. And that was the conversation where I said, ‘Well, you know, I was considering adoption, and now I don't want it’.” – Mother

“At times we cannot access information or there is very little information held.” – Stakeholder

“One of the challenges is the quality of information available. While records are kept for up to 100 years, the content may not be what is expected or hoped for. Some records will be excellent, while others may be quite limited with no photos etc. Managing expectations is challenging.” – Stakeholder

A few interviewees attributed this to less rigorous record-keeping processes at the time.

“There just weren't the same recording practices at that time. Very little recorded, and then even the retention? I mean, the responsibility was there to retain at that point, but there just is such little information when you go back into historical files… they’re tiny compared to the huge files that people would have now where everything's recorded… But reading some of the really old ones, it's quite an eye-opener. Different practice, different time, different standards.” – Stakeholder

Potentially inaccurate records

A handful of participants shared concerns that records about the adoption were inaccurate. For example, a few had seen records of meetings they believe did not happen and documents with incorrect dates, names and information and participants identified this as a barrier to finding information about their past.

Language used

The language used in historical records can pose challenges for two main reasons: there is often legal jargon that laypeople struggle to understand; and some files contain language or comments which can upset readers. A few interviewees recounted incidences of derogatory, stigmatising and judgemental language in their records.

“Sometimes there are phrases that will be really judgemental. What they've written… it's a sign of the times back then, you know, she was ‘an unmarried mother’… So that's quite hard to read and see that in black and white for people.” – Stakeholder

“I saw a snippet a GP had written, that… the adoptive parents, he was concerned about how they would cope if the ‘teenager’ [i.e. the mother] changed her mind. It was really upsetting to read that… it validated that I hadn't mattered.” – Mother

Other challenges

A few stakeholders said that responding to requests and tracking down records can be difficult and time-consuming; some noted that a lack of staff and resources to support this process can be a barrier to helping people access records. A small number also encountered delays in sourcing documents due to restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What needs to be improved?

Interviewees identified gaps in services and areas for improvement around the provision of support available for accessing records related to historic forced adoption.

Support to access records

A common request from participants was for more practical help and guidance about accessing records, including information about what records people can access, which services can help, and what type of documents may be available.

“Information about how to search national records offices made more available, in local library, care hubs, general media, etc would have sped up my search.” – Adoptee

Enhanced emotional support

Accessing records related to historic forced adoption can be a distressing and emotional process. Files may contain shocking or upsetting information (for example news of a family member who has passed away). In other cases, people may be frustrated and disappointed by the limited information available. A recurring theme among some interviewees was a lack of emotional support available for those accessing records. They advocated for more help for individuals to process any distressing discoveries or come to terms with there being minimal information.

“And then the records, sometimes there are some really horrible things. Sometimes people come across, you know, maybe they've been a product of rape… You don't want to just read that without anybody being there, you know?” – Stakeholder

“Automatic counselling should be there for after they have seen the birth records because it's quite a big thing, it's quite traumatic to read." – Adoptee

Help to understand information

As noted above, records are often written in formal or legal language, which is difficult to understand, and therefore people may require support to interpret their contents.

“I suppose it's not just information, it's about the ability or help interpreting that information. Because often there's initials, there's ways of putting things that the lawyers have, you know, guardian ad litem, and what have you. And all of those things need somebody to hold your hand, really.” – Stakeholder

Time constraints

A few participants said they were given a limited time frame to consult their records and would have appreciated an extended period to review the files. Some inconsistencies were also noted in rules around photographing or copying the records; interviewees argued for greater consistency in such protocols, advising that those affected by historic forced adoption should be entitled to a copy of all paperwork about the adoption.

Chapter summary

People affected by historic forced adoption often wish to access written records, such as social work, NHS and court documents with case notes and descriptions of meetings that occurred during the adoption. While many access these records in the search and reunion process, others do so to help remember or understand the circumstances around the adoption.

Several challenges can make it difficult to access and understand records related to historic forced adoption, including: restrictions in place around who can access different documents; records which have been lost over time; and documents which are difficult to read because of their condition or the language used.

Interviewees suggested how this process could be improved, including: improved support to access and understand records; emotional support to help people process any upsetting information that emerges as part of their search; and removing any monetary costs associated with accessing records.


Email: Joanna.Harrold@gov.scot

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