Comment: The Adoption Contact Register

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Adoption Contact Register for Scotland (ACR).
The ACR is a caring, professional and ethical answer to a widely expressed need. Picture: ContributedThe ACR is a caring, professional and ethical answer to a widely expressed need. Picture: Contributed
The ACR is a caring, professional and ethical answer to a widely expressed need. Picture: Contributed

The register was set up in 1984 as a card index providing a place where adults separated by adoption could register a mutual wish to have contact with each other.

The ACR now contains almost 11,000 names and addresses of adopted people, birth mothers, and other birth relatives such as fathers, siblings, aunts and uncles and grandparents.

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However, in these days of the internet and on-line search services, why would anyone bother with a register such as this?

What is the value of the ACR?

The ACR is a caring, professional and ethical answer to a widely expressed need and has two key values in particular.

Firstly, registration indicates a willingness to have contact. Once a match has taken place on the ACR’s data base, both parties can be secure in the knowledge that a wish for contact is mutual. Whilst internet searches may bring instant gratification over tracing a birth mother for instance, how do you know that she will welcome a quick email or even being doorstepped?

The pitfalls of using social media such as Facebook to trace and contact relatives without the help of mediation include unwelcome or rash approaches, sometimes to the wrong person, and inappropriate relationships developing after contact.

In other cases considerable amounts of cash have been spent on hiring private detection or profit-making services, sometimes to no avail. The consequences of searching and contacting relatives where there is no mutual indication of a wish for contact are often seen when those who have done just this come to Birthlink seeking professional counselling help as a consequence of rejection or the breakdown of a relationship hastily formed. Unwished-for contact can often be distressing and harmful for all concerned when there is surprise, confusion and rejection.

The point then is that people put in contact with each other via the Adoption Contact Register can be assured that the wish to meet is felt by both parties.

The second advantage of the meeting via the ACR is that the process of contact is monitored and supported by professionals and highly skilled mediation staff and counselling is available to both parties until people are up and running with their new-found relationships.

How does it work?

A registration on the ACR is logged on computer and, should there be a match on the data base (ie, someone else has already registered with a connection to the registrant), then the two parties are put in touch with each other. Although some people ask for an exchange of mobile numbers, most are cannier and take their time. Here Birthlink helps with an exchange of information, sometimes via us, while at other times by letter, with us as go-between – but always in negotiation with each person.

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About 200 people register every year and there has been an annual average of 24 matches (links) – two a month.

While initially involving two registrants, the term “link” fails to reflect the effect on the wider families that can follow. For instance, in the process after a link has been established many more people are potentially linked with each other. Sons are introduced to sisters they never knew they had, fathers meet grandchildren that they have never seen and half-siblings strive to make accommodations with new-found knowledge of each other’s existence.

The number of blood relatives drawn into potential contact with each other as a result of a link between two people can conceivably be very high.

Take the, not unusual, scenario of a birth mother whose parents are both alive and who has two subsequent children (siblings of the adopted person) and has four grandchildren. When the birth mother is linked with her adopted daughter who has two children of her own – grandchildren of the birth mother – this makes for contact between 12 people as a result of just one link.

The future

Despite the thousands registered, the ACR is relatively unknown even amongst health and social services professionals. An adoption contact register operated by the Republic of Ireland was established with the help of Birthlink in 2005 and is entitled the National Adoption Contact Preference Register.

Hundreds have met since then, mostly because of the decision by the RoI Government to fund a mail-drop to every household advertising the existence of the Contact Register. A leaflet through everyone’s letter box in Scotland might stir many to think about registering.

And, if so, this in turn could lead to someone who’s been waiting for 30 years and would welcome that knock on the door or a phone call from out of the blue.

• Gary Clapton is a university lecturer in social work and a consultant with Birthlink