When Adoptive Parents don’t come clean, is that abuse?

This is a copy of  my first article for Adoption Arena –  the first of many I hope!

Interesting question raised by another adult adoptee that posted a piece in a private forum on social media.

It got me thinking. Here in the good old U of K we’re introducing reforms to the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. The Cinderella Law.

Would failure to disclose by the adoptive parents to the child, that they have adopted, could that ever be considered abuse?
Abuse takes on many forms and there are many interpretations and definitions of abuse. Getting back to basics the word abuse is comprised of two parts ab the Latin prefix meaning “away” and use the word that means to employ. As a word it is derived from the Latin abūsus, meaning, “misuse,” or “use wrongly”. If someone is abused, we take it to mean that the person committing the abuse is hurting another person, mentally, emotionally or physically. If you are being harmed or hurt by another person, then you are said to be suffering from abuse.

So if we take use the above definition, an adult, a person over the age of sixteen who is responsible for another person under the age of sixteen; is the withholding of such information, or the denial of access to said information

constitute abuse? If the adoptive parent(s) deliberately withholds, denies, prevents the child from being able to access information on their adoption thus causing emotional distress, mental torment or psychological harm, could that be considered abuse under the proposed changes to the 1933 act?

In 2010, 2,172[1] people in England and Wales were found guilty or cautioned for the specific offence of ‘cruelty to or neglect of children’. We get to hear of the extreme and fatal cases of physical child abuse, Victoria Climbie, Baby P (Baby Peter) and Daniel Pelka. The Victoria Climbie case caused public outcry and sent the social services into a spiral. We heard phrases such as “never again” and “we have failed”.

That was 2000; in 2007 Baby Peter is found dead in his cot. Outrage again. In March 2012, Daniel Pelka is rushed to hospital having suffered a cardiac arrest from which medical staff were unable to resuscitate him. More public outrage, more reviews and another child the victim of systematic physical abuse.
My point is, if physical abuse can so easily be missed or go “unreported” by Childcare professionals, Teachers and the Police, how are we going to register and identify those that are suffering emotional and mental abuse?

Moving onto the question of Adoptive Parents who willfully, withhold, or deny the child that they adopted access to or knowledge of their own adoption – could this act be considered a form of child abuse?

Yes it could be. However I see a few “challenges”. In many cases the fact that knowledge of a child’s adoption is withheld or denied does not impact in many cases upon the adoptee until they have reached adulthood. Secondly how would one prove that withholding information was deliberate or was done with malice?

As I said if this was to be considered a form of child abuse, would not many of these allegations, if deemed to have a case to answer, many of these would be historical prosecutions? By that I mean an adult adoptee bringing a case after the alleged offence had occurred. In some instances, many years prior to the court action. After the adoptee has grown up, they find out, that had they been told of their adoption they could have received quicker and more effective medical treatment for a serious condition. Or that they have been denied a familial relationship because they were not told of their adoption.

But would it not be the case, that in most such prosecutions one would have to prove that the Adoptive parent(s) took such a step deliberately to cause emotional and psychological hurt, distress or harm? As we see in battered wife cases it can be extremely difficult to prove.
So what are you thoughts on this?


[1]Ministry of Justice (2011a) Tables A4.4 and A4.5. In: Conviction tables: Criminal Justice Statistics Quarterly Update to December 2010: Ministry of Justice Statistics bulletin (Excel). London: Ministry of Justice.

13 thoughts on “When Adoptive Parents don’t come clean, is that abuse?

  1. Lucy, this is important. I do know LDAs (late discovery adoptees). Yes, some were astonished to find out as adults (a few were in their 30s-40s.) One LDA in Boston was 70 when he learned the truth. One LDA friend does need their medical history to treat a condition that is definitely inherited. So yes, I do think it constitutes abuse. I think adoption is abusive if the child’s medical history doesn’t go with them to their new homes. (My medical history was the reason I went to a judge in Wisconsin to open my sealed adoption file in 1979.)
    It’s apparent in some adoptees that they were adopted since they do not resemble their parents. One LDA friend Diane didn’t know she was Lakota until she was 38! Can you imagine? She suspected it but until she saw a photo of her adoptive mom (not pregnant) at the time she was born did she realize the truth (or the lie.)
    Some call this our genetic bewilderment. We are not with the people who share our DNA or ancestry and feel the tremendous strain on us.
    How do we take care of our health if we do not know anything?

  2. Hi Lara thanks for taking the time to read the post and respond. So true. I cannot begin to imagine what you must have had to go through. I think I have more than a vague idea, but . . . For me it’s obvious as I’m transracially adopted, but then for the first what four years I actually believed that I was white, partly because my APs never talked about the adoption they refused to talk about the subject and also I was raised in a very white, conservative area of southern England. I have no doubt in my mind that this refusal to allow me to ask questions or to talk to me about adoption was partially responsible for the mental breakdown I had much later on when I was in my mid to late teens. Was that a case of abuse or was that just the day and age that I was raised in; pre multicultural 60s UK? Was that done with ‘malice aforethought’ or was that just the accepted way in those days dealing with adoption – the clean break?

  3. I would support a law that would have the prevailing court or state office automatically send to every every adult adoptee a notice with details of their adoptive status. AP’s who are honest all along will have nothing to worry about. Those who have lied, will not get away with it after the adoptee’s 18th birthday. This would offer strong incentives for all of them to be honest.

  4. @julie j says: thanks for commenting – yes very interesting idea. I’ve long thought that there should be some legal requirement that not only ensure that the adoptee is fully appraised of their status but also for transracially adopted children something that legal requires the APs to ensure that the child is educated in the culture, history and language of their birth until they are say 18 at which time being an adult it is then up to them adult adoptee to decide whether they wish to maintain such a connection. At least they will have the skills and tools to communicate in the language of their birth heritage. (I feel it’s always easier to choose to discontinue something or discard the use of a skill you already have than to try and gain a skill especially languages at an older age)

  5. My upbringing may have been different from that of others, but I had smoke blown up my tuckus for years. Rather than jump to “abuse”, particularly as may regard legal issues, what about considering lying as malum en se?

  6. Hello @Brent Snavely says: thanks for taking the time to respond to the article sorry to hear that you went through such abuse, Yes indeed malum en se especially in the legal formation, ‘innately immoral act whether it is forbidden by law or not.’

  7. Pingback: Guilty as charged: Aiding and abetting adoption | Transracialeyes

  8. I’m usually of a mind which simply places what we are discussing in a category of “malum en se” without imagining there is recourse from within the system that gave us this particular “malum”. It seems to me that it should be pretty easy to find similar circumstances if not legal precedent in which willful withholding of information we might deem as “belonging” to someone caused that someone harm of some kind. I’m thinking of how much work goes into “notification” within Anglo-Saxon law, for example, in terms of divorce, or title clearance. If the legal system demands of my family to track down the men named in the title for a property in upstate New York given the right to collect shale from that land in order to prove that they are no longer around, how hard to demand that information valuable to our sense of self, our health, and our physical and mental well-being be forthcoming from those who of knowledge aforethought conspired to withhold that information from us?

  9. I have two strands here I want to remark on, so here’s the first.

    As regards requirements for notification, notification generally goes only to those who have an interest in the transaction. The “land” itself receives no notification, only the owners of the land; the “shale” receives no letter, only the owners of the shale. So the orphan, as the property, is entitled to no notification, only the owners are.

    This applies not just to orphans but to all children, who are not (in legal terms) full human beings until adulthood. A problem of human society that is as old as human society.

    I find something distressingly distracting in the orphan’s argument that “health history” constitutes a valid reason for unsealing an adoption. It is telling that the legal history of the matter has found that argument, at times, compelling enough to warrant action (unsealing). Perhaps it is only because the State is too busy, but if I were an autocrat and an orphan demanded to know her history “on health grounds”, I’d hire a medical specialist to look into the matter and provide a report. In Washington state, for genetic contributors who “opt out” they precisely are required to fill out a “health history”.

    I will leave aside that a self-reported health history that has no quality control as to its accuracy or, adequacy, or veracity hardly constitutes at all meeting any requirement of providing a “health history”. Such a “history” only gives me some theoretical basis for guessing if and when (assuming I can afford it) I venture to a doctor to look into possible risk factors, &c.

    My point is that just because “health history” has been found an actionable issue as far as getting some adoptions unsealed in the past should not persuade anyone that (1) the mechanisms that exist to answer that issue are adequate, (2) that “health issues” should be deemed the best or an only form of petition for unsealing, or (3) that “knowledge of familial origins itself” is not, itself, a “health issue”. It is by no means clear or obvious whether knowing “my mother contracted lung cancer from smoking” is more of a health issue than “knowing my mother”.

    I should stop there–something of a rhetorical high point–but I suspect that in the past many of the successful cases of unsealing due to “health issues” likely arose because the orphan was having some weird health issue, and that access to familial history really did constitute a likely source of information. I doubt that any vague “curiosity” by an orphan about her health history prompted the courts to unseal. Maybe I’m wrong.

    But if not, then this only shows the dead-end that “health issues” proposes, unless the courts start recognizing “mental health issues”, i.e., issues specifically and psychologically present due to one’s history of adoption. If we have to play the “health issue” card to get traction with the courts, then we should insist on the various mental effects, because (for those who are “desperately” searching) surely these effects are demonstrable (i.e., look at all this time at the shrink I’ve spent).

  10. Here’s the second point, this time about “abuse” specifically.

    I remember once reading, while working on abuse issues from my childhood, that “neglect” was one of the worst; it was certainly the one I most felt as abuse. I mean: my father was physical violent, my mother was emotionally absent (and thus “violent”; have to put that in quotation marks), but the most profound sense of isolation, alienation, and desperation arose from ABSENCES. Things were missing in my life, most of which (of course) I couldn’t have even identified, for not knowing them. I didn’t have a loving AND non-violent father, but I didn’t know any different. I didn’t have a loving and emotionally present mother, but I didn’t know any different. The most glaring absence, from puberty (or age 10) forward: there was no one else who wanted to have sex with males like I did. (I managed to remain clueless or oblivious to the fact that “gay” or “fag”–the term I mean–applied to those who wanted to have same-sex sex. I thought “gay” meant “drag queen” which I wasn’t.) The most glaring and painful absence for me was the lack of any evidence that other males had sex with other males. If I had ever stumbled across even one single picture of two guys fucking, that would have filled in (in perhaps a tiny way) the vast, echoing absence in my life.

    Neglect is legally very difficult to prove because it specifically involves not providing something, it points to an absence. My parents did not do anything to support my homosexuality, most of all because they didn’t know, primarily because I didn’t tell them, but also because even I didn’t know I was “gay”. They provided a lot of material advantages, but much of it I would have traded in for more of what I “really wanted”; and I didn’t tell them what I really wanted because I was the only one who felt like I did (i.e., wanting to have physical intimacy with other males).

    Lots of families have family secrets. My father’s mother was actually older than her husband, and this fact didn’t come out until after she died. My mother’s mother’s husband did not die in an accident (as reported) but was abandoned by my mother’s mother because he would get drunk and hit her–a fact that my mother might still not actually know (but I do). Does it constitute an act of abuse that these secrets were withheld?

    In legal terms, an actionable offense requires the perception of an injury. Can one establish that an injury was done to any in the family who thought grandma was younger than grandpa (on my dad’s side) or that anyone on my mother’s side had an incorrect notion of the family history? If my mother was lied to, it was certainly on the (probably sound) notion at the time that it would be disadvantageous if folks generally knew she was someone else’s step-child by divorce than the child of her mother’s new husband. In that lie, we may easily detect the desire to avoid a potential injury, but if the story is true that my mother ran away (temporarily) when she discovered her “father” was really her “step-father” then we would ask to what degree that avoidance of injury actually inflicted one–but one that my mother didn’t experience as such until she was 16.

    On legal grounds, I would think the “clock” should start from the moment of the realisation of the wound. My mother’s parents lied to her early on, but the “date” of the beginning of her lawsuit should start from age 16. There are tricky legal points in this: statutes of limitations run out on child sex abuse cases all of the time, but the difference here is that child sex abuse victims generally already know, but the adults around them (for whatever reason) did nothing about it. In the case of my mother, her injury was not apparent until she was 16; the commission of the offense against her (sixteen years previous) does not seem an argument to me. But then what of anyone in the family experiencing an injury that grandma turned out older than grandpa?

    It would be said that grandma’s case is “trivial” compared to the offense of neglectful omissions about adoption; that my mother’s case of belated injury awareness more matches the adopted orphan’s circumstance.

    Just by the by, most of these things get settled out of court anyway. Trying to fold the actionability of these cases into a legal context points (1) to difficulties and barriers that prevent such recourse, and (2) the possibly unnecessary or gratuitous “folding” that such a case would require at all.

    All of this insists that the “sin of omission” is actually a positive injury, and not a piece of :”neglect” (non-action) at all. In general, cases of child neglect point to the “consequences of kinds of non-action”–failure to provide sufficient food or water to a child, so he or she starves to death, &c. Even here, however, things get dicey. The parent says, “I did feed him” but obviously it wasn’t enough. And so the adopting parent will say, “But I did inform her” though obviously not enough.

  11. Like many cases of neglect, I don’t know that a court case could be won, especially at this point in time, on the abusive practice of not sharing information about an adoption. I do think that withholding and hiding information especially the fact that someone was adopted is abusive and harmful to that person.

    For me personally, I think that the step parent adoption is often in and of itself a form of abuse even though often the child knows it happens. The fact that in the 70s ,my mom could deny me access to my dad and his family and that he had no real recourse feels abusive to me. She stole from me, time that my grandparents and my dad and I can never get back. In a divorce, there’s no reason at all for an adoption to occur. To do so is an attempt to erase a “mistake” one parent feels they made. There may be a few cases where changing a child’s identity protects them from violence but that would be rare and mainly domestic violence situations where both mom and child really should change their identity. In my case, the adoption is what led to the abuse I suffered. I agree with snow leopard that the physical abuse while painful wasn’t what had the biggest impact on me. It was the emotional abuse. And it was stealing people I still remembered that cared for me and wanted to be in my life.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my piece – I agree to that whilst physical abuse is dreadful and should not be allowed to happen. Mental and emotional abuse is equally as harmful some might say more so as broken bones (hopefully will mend).

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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