Historic forced adoption - scoping study: service delivery paper

Research report identifying critical factors to consider when designing services for people affected by historic forced adoption in Scotland.

2. Needs and expectations of people affected by historic forced adoption


The scoping study report provides full details of the support needs and expectations of people affected by historic forced adoption who participated in our study. Below we summarise the three main categories of support identified in the scoping study: search and reunion, accessing records, and emotional and psychological support.

Search and reunion

People affected by historic forced adoption described the importance of searching for and reuniting with family members separated by forced adoption. For parents, meeting their child and establishing a relationship with them is often the aim. However, even if they do not meet them, it can be important to know the adopted person is happy and healthy.

Adoptees told us that finding and meeting their parents, siblings and extended family members can improve their sense of identity and understanding of their origins. Again, even if a meeting does not happen, finding information about their family can enhance their sense of belonging.

Some interviewees, however, warned that looking for and reuniting with family members is not helpful for everyone and can lead to further trauma. This is particularly true if the other party does not want to meet, has passed away, the relationship does not develop as hoped after the initial reunion, or it is not possible to trace the person.

Research participants identified support required to help people prepare to search for and contact their relatives:

  • Advice and guidance to help individuals manage their expectations, outline the information that legislation allows individuals to access, understand the potential outcomes of the search – including the risk of finding upsetting news – and consider what they aim to achieve, for example whether they want to meet their child or family members, or just to find out if they are safe and well.
  • Support to ensure they are mentally prepared for search and reunion[ii].
  • Help to access and understand the records necessary to find their family.
  • Mediation and initial contact: for an organisation to act as an intermediary in making initial contact so neither party needs to divulge personal details.
  • Supporting people with reunions and as relationships are being developed with their family members.
  • Search and reunion can involve many contrasting emotions, so emotional and moral support is essential.

Different aspects of support are available from various sources, but research participants identified some inconsistencies, gaps and areas for improvement. They wish to have access to:

  • Clear guidance about searching for family members and the support available for this.
  • Enhanced emotional support during search and reunion activity, especially where the search is unsuccessful, one party does not want to make contact, or there are difficulties establishing the relationship. This is available from organisations that provide search and reunion assistance, but some interviewees felt they, or people they knew, needed more support like this.
  • Support for people who access information through social media platforms and online commercial family-finding services to understand the information they find and decide what to do with it.

Access to records

Some interviewees explained that another motivation for accessing documents, besides search and reunion activity, is to help them understand the circumstances and events that led to the adoption. These include written records about the adoption, such as social work, NHS and court documents containing case notes and descriptions of meetings from the time of the adoption.

However, research participants identified various challenges in accessing records:

  • Restricted access rights: for example, parents have no right to access any information about their child, including their adopted name, and adoptees described difficulties around having no access to their family medical history.
  • Records that have been lost.
  • Illegible records.
  • Incomplete records and those lacking detail.
  • Potentially inaccurate records.
  • Difficulties around the language used, including legal jargon that laypeople struggle to understand, and derogatory and stigmatising language that can be upsetting to read.

Research participants identified gaps and improvements needed, including:

  • Practical help and guidance to find and understand records.
  • Enhanced emotional support to help individuals process any upsetting information they find, and to deal with disappointment when records are unavailable or lacking detail.
  • More time to consult records.
  • Ensuring people can photograph or photocopy records related to them.

Emotional and psychological support

The severe emotional and psychological impact of historic forced adoption was emphasised by research participants.

For mothers, feelings of loss, guilt and shame have stayed with them throughout their lives. In some cases, their mental health has suffered with examples of anxiety, depression and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Themes in interviews with adoptees included difficulties with their sense of identity and belonging, and a profound emotional and psychological impact stemming from the experience of separation from their mother early in life. Some adoptees reported mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. It is important to note, though, that interviewees in our study were self-selecting and their views and experiences do not necessarily represent those of all adopteees, either now or historically.

Research participants highlighted the need for emotional advice, support and guidance, peer support, and creative and alternative therapies to help people deal with the emotional and psychological impact of historic forced adoption.

Emotional support, advice and guidance

Stakeholders identified a range of support needed to address the emotional and psychological impact of historic forced adoption, including:

  • advice and guidance on the emotional impact of historic forced adoption; and
  • intensive mental health treatments (such as talking therapies like counselling and psychotherapy) that deliver specialist treatment to support individuals with psychological or mental health issues. These services are delivered by counsellors, psychotherapists, psychiatrists or psychologists registered with a professional counselling body, such as COSCA (Counselling and Psychotherapy in Scotland), the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) or the British Psychological Society.

People with lived experience and stakeholders felt that both advice and guidance, and counselling and other therapies delivered by registered counsellors or therapists are important for people affected by historic forced adoption.

Emotional support, advice and guidance is provided by post-adoption support services and local authorities. Interviewees who had accessed this gave positive feedback, but some said they needed more intensive therapy or treatment.

While intensive counselling and therapies are available via NHS Scotland and private services, and some research participants had accessed this, there were mixed reports about therapy experiences. Participants noted that the quality of support depends on the understanding of historic forced adoption among GPs, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and counsellors. The consensus was that, in general, these professionals would benefit from greater awareness of the impact of historic forced adoption.

Some used private therapy services, but noted the cost of these services can be prohibitive. Suggestions to address this included providing financial assistance for people affected by historic forced adoption to help them access support privately. Participants, however, acknowledged this would strain central and local government funding. Similarly, SAAM recommends establishing government funding for free-to-access adoption- and trauma-aware counselling and therapy. [iii]

Peer support

Peer support helps people build connections among those who are also dealing with the long-term impact of historic forced adoption and the emotional complexities of search and reunion attempts. It also provides vital advice, validation and acceptance. However, some interviewees preferred one-to-one support and were reluctant to attend a peer support group.

During our fieldwork, we found no evidence of formal peer support groups in Scotland for parents and only a few formal groups for adoptees. However, the Scottish Government commissioned Health in Mind to develop a peer support service, recently launched in September 2023.

While few research participants had experience of formal peer support groups, many had joined or established informal groups and found these networks crucial. For example, mothers who met other mothers through the Movement for an Adoption Apology in Scotland (MAA Scotland) indicated the group’s support was invaluable. Similarly, adoptees mentioned groups including the Scottish Adult Adoptee Movement (SAAM) and Group for Adopted People (GAP) Scotland. Research participants spoke positively about the value of these groups, particularly in emotional support and validating their experiences.

Creative and alternative therapies

A few research participants advocated for access to creative and alternative therapies, including art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy and hypnotherapy, to help mothers and adoptees address the emotional and psychological impact of historic forced adoption. These interviewees explained that trauma can be challenging to express in words, but creative and alternative therapies offer a different method for people to process their experiences and communicate their needs.

Research participants were unaware of creative or alternative therapies specifically for people affected by historic forced adoption, but a few said they accessed effective support through private therapists.

Some people with experience of historic forced adoption were aware of creative therapies delivered by post-adoption support services for children and young people, but none were aware of similar services for parents or adoptees affected by historic forced adoption.


Email: Joanna.Harrold@gov.scot

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