From care, to adoption, to parenting: a two generation study of identity, risk and resilience in adoptive families

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: School of Social Work


For 20 years UK policy has encouraged the adoption of children from care, and tens of thousands are now of an age where they could become a parent. This compulsory form of adoption is controversial at home and abroad and it is vital to fully research the lifespan effects - including what happens when adoptees become parents to the next generation. A child's birth is a key event in any family, bringing joys and challenges. This study will provide a new understanding of the lived experiences and needs of people adopted from care who are now parents, and of adoptive parents who are now grandparents. It will inform support to help adopted young people to prepare for parenthood, promote their resilience, and support them as parents.
The majority of children adopted from care will have experienced early adversities such as loss, abuse and neglect. Adoption offers permanence in a new family, but even so about half of adopted young people are likely to have psychological problems which carry on into adulthood. Studies of vulnerable parents (e.g. care leavers) show they are at risk of early parenthood, parenting difficulties, even their own children going into care. But for some, having a child is a positive choice and a healing experience. This study will explore the positives and the challenges of becoming a parent from the perspective of people adopted from care. The concept of 'resilience' (healthy development after exposure to risk) is key and the risk and protective factors that can affect resilience in the context of parenting will be a central focus.
This study will also shine a light on the lifelong identity issues for adopted people. For adoptees, building identity can be hampered by gaps in their known life history, feelings of being different or stigmatised, and a lack of connection with birth relatives. Becoming a parent can stir up identity concerns and trigger a search for birth family, but these issues are unexplored for people adopted from care, many of whom will have retained some form of contact with birth relatives. We will explore how adopted people make meaning of their whole life history, including being adopted and being a parent, adding to our understanding of narrative identity development for adoptees in adulthood.
The research will also include the perspective of parents who adopted a child from care and who are now grandparents. Adoption has lifelong implications for adopters too, but there is no research on the grandparenting stage of family life in 'from care' adoptions. Because of the ongoing vulnerability of many young people adopted from care, it is important to include grandparents because they may be providing vital support to their child and grandchild.
In-depth interview data from 40 adopted people who are now parents (20 men, 20 women), and 40 adoptive parents who are now grandparents will be collected and the sample will include a mixture of linked parent/grandparent cases and non-linked cases. Narrative and thematic analysis methods will be used to answer the research questions. The involvement of stakeholders (professionals, adoptees and adoptive parents) will inform the recruitment of participants, the data collection and analysis will help generate a sound understanding of practice and policy implications.
Adoption from care is an extreme intervention in family life and a major focus of policy and investment in the UK. There is a moral responsibility to understand its impact across the lifespan; this project will generate insights about longer term outcomes. It will benefit society though building understanding of a particularly complex and challenging family form with a mixture of biological, legal and relational ties. It will benefit academics interested in narrative identity, adoption, vulnerable parents, grand-parenting, and resilience. Maximum impact on practice will be achieved through working with stakeholders to disseminate findings in a range of formats to different audiences.

Planned Impact

The most important beneficiaries are adopted young people/adults, and their children. A key goal is to help service providers understand the support needs of these individuals and families in order to promote positive outcomes for adoptees parenting their own children. This is an important, but currently overlooked, aspect of promoting resilience in children exposed to adversity, and preventing intergenerational cycles of poor parenting occurring.
The study will focus particularly on children adopted from care. However becoming a parent is something that most adoptees are likely to experience but has rarely been studied. Hence, the findings will also be of interest and relevance to the much wider group of adopted people in the UK and abroad - this group including people "relinquished" for adoption (of whom there have been over 850,000 in England) and intercounty adoptees. Through giving voice to adoptees as parents the project may benefit these members of the public.
The research may also potentially benefit other vulnerable young parents such as care leavers, as they share many similarities with adoptees such as experiences of early adversity, separation from their birth family, and a stigmatised identity. Again this is a much larger group than adoptees as about 70,000 children are in care in England.
Adoptive parents also stand to benefit from the research. As above, the main group of interest are those who have adopted children from care, many of whom may be supporting their vulnerable children to parent the next generation. The experience of adoptive parents becoming grandparents will be widespread and those who have adopted children in other circumstances may benefit from the research, as may foster parents and special guardians who support young people currently or formerly in their care.
Although the birth relatives of adopted children are not included directly in this study, they too are potential beneficiaries. Birth parents may be separated legally from their children, but the subsequent welfare of their child (and grandchildren) remains of enormous concern to most (Neil, 2017; Neil et al, 2010). Birth relatives increasingly may play an ongoing role in the lives of children after adoption, they are the biological grandparents, and how adoptees and adoptive parents perceive and manage these complex relationships will be explored in the study. Our previous research on post adoption contact (Neil et al, 2011; Neil et al, 2015) shows that where birth relatives remain involved in the lives of adoptees it is important to consider their support needs to enable this participation to be positive. The study will therefore also develop implications regarding the support of birth families.
Alongside those directly affected by the issues, there are a range of professionals who have responsibilities in supporting children and vulnerable parents, and those affected by adoption - these service providers being in both adoption specific settings (adoption agencies and adoption support agencies primarily) but also more universal services. A range of professionals may be working with these groups including social workers, assistant social workers, counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, health visitors, midwives, and nursery nurses.
The ultimate beneficiaries-adopted people and their children and parents-will benefit in two main ways. Firstly the project will give voice to their experiences and raise the profile of their needs. Secondly the project will encourage and enable support providers to develop services to meet these needs.
Policy makers in the UK and abroad will benefit from the research as the study will provide important information about the impact of adoption of children from care into adulthood. This will enable policy makers to make nuanced decisions about the value of adoption from care alongside other permanence options, and to plan for the resources needed to effectively support families.


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Description Podcast interview about the research project with recognised adoption and fostering blogger 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Patients, carers and/or patient groups
Results and Impact An interview/podcast between the study PI and prominent blogger on Adoption and fostering in the UK. Project PI talked about the study (funders, institutions), why research is needed, who we are looking for as participants and what would be involved for those taking part.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019
Description Presentation about our project at an international conference - part of a symposium about adopted people as parents 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation to international conference delegates of a paper about this funded research project. Part of a wider symposium (4 papers) about adoptees as parents in different international contexts. Main audience is other adoption researchers (including postgraduates) and users of this research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Presentation about our project to Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies at their annual meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This presentation was invited by the CVAA who are interested in our research and the later lives of adoptive families. The purpose of the talk was to share information about our research project and some initial findings, and to get some feedback on the types of outputs from the research that might be useful to practitioners. We were also interested in attendees knowledge of any adopted dads, and how we might recruit more to our study.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019