Section 26 of the Children Act 1975

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 21 November 2001.

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Because of many representations made by Adoption Agencies and adopted people, one of the tasks the Houghton Committee set up for itself was to find out more about the subject of access to birth records and whether adopted people in England and Wales should have a right of access similar to that in Scotland. To this effect the Committee commissioned me to carry out research to evaluate the use made in Scotland of access to birth records.

The study In Search of Origins (Routledge, 1973) was made available to the Committee and among other things not only it highlighted the negative impact on adopted people of secrecy, but also made direct links between the impact of secrecy on the adopted person 's identity, feelings of self worth and overall mental health. Many of those searching had not been told about their adoption by their parents but found out accidentally or from outside sources. Sometimes disclosure had been delayed till adult life which was experienced as most traumatic in some cases leading to an identity crisis for the adopted person. Even where the adopters disclosed the adoption early-on, they had not been given background information to pass on to the child or the information was either not collected by Adoption Agencies or locked up in files. Unlike adopted people in Scotland who could pursue a search, adopted people in England would speak of their ``frustration'', ``anger'' and ``sense of desolation'' at being denied fundamental information crucial to their well-being.

The study In Search of Origins reported also how important it was to many adopted people to meet with members of their birth family to establish more directly their roots and genealogy and find out why their parent(s)parted with them and more indirectly learn whether they were wanted and loved before being 'given' up. Besides the publication of the study members of the Houghton Committee were also shown a video film based on the research which appeared to be equally influential in changing members' attitudes in favour of greater openness. The final Houghton report which was published in 1972 commented that the kind of information sought by adopted people

``helps the proper development of a sense of identity''

and urged that

``adopters be provided with relevant background information''

(para 28, p. 8).

Later on, the report added:

``The weight of the evidence as a whole was in favour of free access to background information, and this accords with our wish to encourage greater openness about adoption. We take the view that on reaching the age of majority an adopted person should not be denied access to his original birth records.''

(para 303, p. 85).

In the ensuing years Section 26 was to be replicated in many other countries around the World.

The requirement for counselling which was inserted in the Children Act 1975 was meant to calm the anxieties of sections of the press and of some MPs who viewed access as the equivalent to opening a Pandora's box. They were suggesting that this step would lead to ``vindictiveness'' and ``blackmail'' on the part of adopted people towards birth parents. Neither my original study, nor subsequent ones, found evidence of ``vindictiveness'' or of the use of ``blackmail'' in this or other countries. (Haimes and Timms, 1985; Howe and Feast, 2000). Had there been evidence of abuse of the facility over this period the press would have been quick to spot it. Instead, both the press and the TV channels with their documentaries and fictional plays have been highlighting the pleasure, joy and happiness that access to records could bring to adopted people and birth family members alike.

I am not saying that cases of vindictiveness may not surface. However, this is not a valid argument for depriving the vast majority of adopted people of a facility which has brought so much comfort, pleasure, and contentment to some 400,000 of them so far.