What happens when children adopted from foreign countries grow up?

‘Orphan’ is a sad word. Growing up without one’s parents must throw a real shadow over the childhoods of such children. But imagine facing the challenges of life as an orphan and adopted child whilst living in a foreign country, thousands of miles from whatever roots you have left.

That was precisely the fate which befell a little over 100 girls adopted from orphanages in Hong Kong back in the 1960s. The majority had been abandoned in early infancy and spent anything up to six years in orphanages before being sent to the UK for adoption. They came from relatively comfortable and well-equipped orphanages compared to those found in other countries – most infamously, perhaps, Romania – but the children  typically lacked consistent one-to-one care.

The British Association for Adoption and Fostering has now published an intriguing study of just what happened to these children. Adversity, Adoption and Afterwards explores the life experiences of these women as they grew up in the UK. It asks, amongst other questions, what happened when they first came here, what life is like for them now, what distinguished the most successful adoptions and how the women see their ethnic background in relation to their lives in the UK.

Pleasingly, the findings are largely positive ones. Despite their sad starts in life, few suffered significant problems with mental health, self esteem or social relationships as they grew older, provided their early experiences in the orphanages were relatively positive ones. Unsurprising perhaps, a successful adoption in the UK made a big difference to the women’s wellbeing as adults.

However, it is interesting to see that half the women still thought of themselves as Chinese and only 19 per cent thought of themselves as British.

Sadly, almost all of the women had experienced varying degrees of prejudice in their lives, from name-calling in the school playground right through to serious assaults.

Co-author Julia Feast believes the report highlights the difficulties which can accompany adoption from one country into another.

“This study clearly identifies the adaptability, resilience and strength of human beings when faced with significant early adversity. It attests to the importance of family life in providing nurture, care, stimulation and opportunity even when children have had a poor start in life. Whilst the findings are in the main very positive…. the challenges and complexities of inter-country adoption should not be underestimated.”

Adoption from abroad is almost always done with the best of intentions. Couples look to motherless children living in difficult circumstances abroad and think they can do some real good by giving such children loving homes in the UK. And of course in most instances they can! But, if this report is anything to go by, such adoptions will never  be an entirely straight forward process.

Photo of Hong Kong from the air by thewamphyri via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

Marilyn Stowe

The senior partner at Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in Europe, the Far East and the USA.

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