Diversity, Ambiguity and Fragility: The Experiences of Post-Adoption Sibling Relationships

Diversity, Ambiguity and Fragility: The Experiences of Post-Adoption Sibling Relationships Abstract This paper explores findings from an exploratory study on the significant aspects of sibling relationships post adoption reunion. The qualitative data were drawn from in-depth interviews with thirty-three adopted people who had met birth siblings in adult life. The complex pathways of adopted people towards reunion are outlined. The findings demonstrate that, although most participants had maintained contact with the birth siblings they had met in adult life, these relationships were also fragile and ambiguous in nature. Important insights are gained from participants who made recommendations in relation to post-reunion social work support. Adoption/post-adoption, contact with birth relatives, siblings Introduction Research has provided many insights into the lives of families touched by adoption. However, until recently, research into the relationships that develop and the contact that may occur between siblings separated by adoption has been significantly under-represented in the research literature (Henney et al., 2008; Baden and Raible, 2011; O’Neill et al., 2014). Yet, the relationships that exist between brothers and sisters have been referred to as life’s ‘most influential bond’, being of longer duration than the ties to parents, spouses or children (Lukens and Thorning, 2011, p. 195). Moreover, Ottaway (2012) points out how exploring adopted people’s experience of birth sibling relationships over the life-span may help social workers today to understand more about the consequences of decisions in relation to siblings and to plan for the future in a more effective manner. Sibling relationships play an important role in the function and process of families (Sanders, 2011; Noller, 2005; Dunn, 2000) and the importance of this most lasting of human relationships is acknowledged at many levels in human society (Henney et al., 2008). The concept of sibling includes a large variety of relationships, in terms of their degree of relatedness, their shared upbringing, contact or legal status (Elgar and Head, 1999). In the case of children of the same biological parents who are raised together in the same household, all these factors may be held in common by the siblings, although age differences or life events may result in individual siblings experiencing and perceiving similar events in a different manner (Elgar and Head, 1999). Data for this qualitative study were collected within the Republic of Ireland. The findings are juxtaposed here with research from other English-speaking jurisdictions for comparison purposes. Yet, it is important to note there are differences between these countries in terms of their legal systems, kinship beliefs and history. In view of the importance of information on origins for adopted people, the legislative context has a significant influence. In the Republic of Ireland, the provisions of the recent Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2015, if enacted, will facilitate access to adoption information. The Bill provides that adopted persons, birth parents, relatives and persons who were placed in an informal adoption arrangement (or where a birth was incorrectly registered) can apply for information and tracing services (Department of Children and Youth Affairs (2015). Currently, there is no statutory right of access (as that which exists in the UK) to original birth certificates for adopted people in Ireland on reaching the age of eighteen. Since 1975, adopted people in England and Wales have had the right to apply for information to enable them to receive a copy of their original birth certificate. In Northern Ireland, this legal right was introduced in 1987. Adopted people in Scotland have always had the right to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate once they reach sixteen years of age. There is also no legal provision in the Republic of Ireland that permits the maintenance of contact and access of an adopted child to natural parents or named relatives (including siblings) even where this is deemed to be in the best interests of the child (Hamilton, 2011). In contrast, the importance of maintaining sibling relationships is recognised in UK policy and legislation (Saunders and Selwyn, 2011). International research in the area of adoption has focused on the area of post-adoption contact for children with members of their birth family (Logan and Smith, 2005; Neil, 2009), post-adoption family kinship relationships (Jones and Hackett, 2012) and sibling contact for children adopted from out-of-home care (Cossar and Neil, 2013; MacDonald and McSherry, 2013). More recently, Jones (2016) reviewed the international research on sibling relationships within adoptive and fostering families, pointing to the methodological challenges that may emerge in such research. While studies have indicated the importance of contact with siblings for children in care (Dance and Rushton, 1999; Harrison, 1999), research has also suggested that adolescents who are in foster-care may experience problems in terms of contact with birth relatives, including siblings (Moyers et al., 2006). For example, contact in some cases was viewed as posing risks of sexual abuse by siblings and the researchers found that such contact had been terminated by social services at least on a temporary basis (Moyers et al., 2006). During their lifetime, adoptees encounter unique questions about their biological origins and identity (Brodzinsky, 1990). Adoptees curiosity about their origins (Wrobel and Dillon, 2009) may result in the decision to search for biological family, whereas other adoptees choose not to do so. A few studies have indicated that adoptees’ desire to search may be linked to mental health issues (Tieman et al., 2008; Storsbergen et al., 2010; Dekker et al., 2016). For example, Storsbergen et al. (2010) found that non-searchers reported fewer mental health problems, higher self-esteem and a higher level of well-being than searchers. Similarly, Dekker et al. (2016), comparing the mental health problems of young adult domestic adoptees with their non-adopted peers in the general population, found small, yet significant differences favouring the non-adopted peers. Dekker and colleagues (2016) found that the majority of adopted adults were well adjusted in relation to mental health. However, a minority of the sample of domestic adoptees, particularly males, were at risk of emotional and behaviour problems. Interestingly, Tieman et al. (2008) found that, even in childhood, before beginning their search, future searchers had higher levels of problem behaviour than future non-searchers. This would suggest that the higher problem levels among adoptees who search are not caused by the search itself. It is possible that some searchers may experience more stress during childhood caused by the loss inherent in their adoption (Tieman et al., 2008). Studies on adopted adults who have searched for birth relatives demonstrate the complexity and variety of post-reunion relationships (Howe and Feast, 2000, 2001). Howe and Feast (2000) examined the area of post-reunion relationships with birth relatives in general; Triseliotis et al. (2005) incorporated the perspective of adopted people, birth parents and adoptive parents on adoption reunion. One earlier study (Humphrey and Humphrey, 1989) providing insight into the experience of reuniting with birth siblings found that a third of respondents referred spontaneously to their experience of contact with birth siblings and participants reported feelings of fairly widespread satisfaction, sometimes completely unexpected, in discovering long-lost siblings. The fact that such a significant minority of respondents referred spontaneously to positive aspects of their reunion with siblings may be linked with the more recent research by Owusu-Bempah (2006) in relation to socio-genealogical connectedness. Socio-genealogical connectedness theory suggests that information about birth parents is an essential factor in children’s overall adjustment (Owusu-Bampah and Howitt, 1997). This information may be gleaned from relatives and, if the information is favourable, it is likely to be incorporated into the young person’s sense of identity (Owusu-Bampah, 2006). In the context of the current research, knowledge about birth parents may be provided to adopted people by the birth siblings they meet in adult life. Alternatively, knowledge about birth parents may be shared by adopted people when both have been placed for adoption. We know from research that, even when reunion does not result in a long-term relationship, adopted adults can still view the experience of reunion in a positive light (O’Neill et al., 2014; March, 1995). When adopted people are unable to meet their birth mother or birth father, their need for genealogical connectedness is fulfilled to some degree as a result of meeting their birth siblings. This paper seeks to contribute to the debate in relation to post-adoption contact, particularly regarding adopted people and their birth siblings, by exploring findings from qualitative interviews with a sample of adopted people who met their birth siblings in adult life. This article will explore the diversity of experiences of sibling reunions. It will highlight the importance attributed to sibling connections as perceived by adopted adults, and it will consider the implications of these experiences for professionals seeking to support the sibling reunion process. The implications for post-adoption support services are also considered. Methodology The analysis presented in this paper draws on qualitative data generated through in-depth interviews with thirty-three adopted adults. The sample of adopted people was recruited through a voluntary adoption agency in the Republic of Ireland. The research included an element of snowball or chain sampling (Quinn Patton, 2002), as participants identified additional contacts for inclusion in the study. The Executive Committee of the agency gave permission for the research and ethical approval was granted by the Human Sciences Research Ethics Committee in University College Dublin. Findings from this research have been reported previously in (O’Neill et al., 2014). However, this paper reports the findings regarding the experiences of adopted people in relation to the qualities of the post-reunion sibling relationship. Social workers within the adoption agency assisted in compiling a sampling frame of adopted people known to the agency who had experienced a reunion with a sibling(s) between the years 2000 and 2007. The agency data on sibling reunions commenced in the year 2000 and it was envisaged that qualitative interviews with adopted people would begin in 2008. The sampling frame included data on the number of sibling reunions between the years 2000 and 2007. Data recorded whether the reunion had occurred with a birth sibling who had remained with a birth parent(s) or a birth sibling who had also been placed for adoption. In order to comply with ethical criteria, and avoid any individual feeling coerced to participant because they continued to require a service from the agency, only adopted adults whose cases were closed were invited to participate in the research. A semi-structured interview schedule was constructed, informed by the guidelines for descriptive interviews as outlined by Quinn Patton (2002) and by the literature review. The interviews with participants lasted approximately one to two hours. All the interviews were audio taped and transcribed. Data were then analysed within an interpretative phenomenological framework (Smith et al., 2013). Under this lens, the different possible variations of any given phenomenon are explored in order to establish what these variations have in common and, therefore, to reveal the core or essence of a particular phenomenon (Smith et al., 2013). This approach was chosen as it seemed particularly appropriate to the exploration of participants’ experiences in relation to the emotional complexity of sibling adoption reunion. An initial coding frame was developed with the assistance of Maxqda software analysis package (VERBI GmbH, Berlin, Germany). Themes were compared across the transcripts, focusing on what was common and shared by participants. Pseudonyms were used in reporting the study findings in order to maintain the anonymity of participants. The key themes that emerged from the analysis will be explored in the sections below. Sample The agency identified sixty-one possible participants whose cases were closed. These were sent a letter of invitation to participate and thirty-three people returned consent forms. This included three participants of ‘de facto’ adoptions where placement occurred prior to the introduction of legal adoption in the Republic of Ireland in 1952. Two birth siblings who were raised with birth parents also took part in the study as a result of snowball sampling (Quinn Patton, 2002). However, this paper focuses solely on the experiences of the adopted people. The sample comprised eight males and twenty-five females. A significant number of the study participants (n = 19/33) had met siblings who had been placed for adoption in a different adoptive family. Fourteen participants (n=14/33) had met sibling(s) who had been raised with a birth parent(s). It is important to note that five of the nineteen participants who had met siblings who were also placed for adoption met a combination of siblings who had been placed for adoption and siblings who were raised with a birth parent. The participants had all been placed for adoption/de facto adoption as infants, apart from one participant who had been placed under the age of four years. Participants ranged in age from twenty to seventy years. This broad age range was somewhat unexpected, as a criterion for inclusion was to have experienced a reunion in the relatively recent past. All participants had experienced reunions in the past two to nine years. This may be illustrative of the ongoing and timeless nature of the desire to search. Figure 1 illustrates the number of years that elapsed between the initial reunion with a birth sibling and the time of interview. Figure 1 View largeDownload slide Number of years from initial reunion Figure 1 View largeDownload slide Number of years from initial reunion While the number of years from the initial reunion with birth siblings to the time of interview ranged from two to nine years, it is important to note that, in some cases, adopted people had met several birth siblings and these reunions took place over a period of time. There was considerable diversity in regard to the number of siblings adopted people had met in adulthood. Figure 2 highlights this finding. Figure 2 View largeDownload slide Number of birth siblings adopted people met in adult life Figure 2 View largeDownload slide Number of birth siblings adopted people met in adult life Although a significant proportion (n=15/33) of adopted people had met only one birth sibling, two adopted people had met nine birth siblings and one adopted person had met ten birth siblings as illustrated in Figure 2. Findings A number of themes emerged from the data which help to further our understanding of adopted people’s experiences of sibling reunion. These include a more detailed picture of the diverse pathways to such reunions and the subsequent range of relationships that emerge. Participants also provided insight into the type of professional support that might be required. Diverse pathways The pathways of adopted people to meeting maternal, paternal or full birth siblings indicate that the majority (n=29/33) of participants initiated a search through the agency. Four adopted people had not been searchers, as their reunion resulted from an enquiry by either a birth mother or birth sibling. The search resulted in adopted people meeting maternal half-siblings (n=22/33), paternal half-siblings (n=2/33) or full birth siblings (n=9/33). The majority of adopted people had met maternal half-siblings as illustrated in Figure 3. This is probably due to the preponderance of searching for birth mothers rather than birth fathers. The experience of participants who had met full siblings was complex. Adopted people in four cases had met siblings who had been parented by both their birth parents and five adopted people had met full siblings who had also been placed for adoption. It was clear from the narratives of adopted people that there was not a clear division between those who had searched and those who did not. Some of the participants who were contacted by their birth mother or another member of their birth family had registered their interest in searching on the National Adoption Contact Preference Register or they had thought about searching themselves after the birth of their own child. Figure 3 View largeDownload slide Pathways of adopted people to reunion with birth siblings Figure 3 View largeDownload slide Pathways of adopted people to reunion with birth siblings Meeting birth siblings who were raised by birth family It is interesting to explore the differences in the findings between the experience of those adopted people reunited with birth siblings who had remained with a birth parent and those who had met birth siblings who had been placed for adoption. First, in relation to adopted people who had met birth siblings who were raised by their birth mother or father, the findings indicate that adopted people were in many cases curious about, in particular, their birth mother’s life and wished to know whether she had married and whether she had children from her marriage. For example, Aisling, when asked whether she had thought about the possibility that she could have birth siblings during her growing-up years, said: Oh yeah, of course, yeah, the first thing you want to know is that hopefully your birth mother is married and has moved on in her life, which mine had, so she did and (pause) she married a lovely man and they had four children. It is interesting to note how Aisling refers to how hopefully her birth mother had ‘moved on’ in her life. This finding was echoed in the narratives of other participants who were curious regarding their birth mother’s life since their placement for adoption. Yet, the theme of secrecy also emerged in the narratives of adopted people who discovered their birth mother had children from her subsequent marriage. So, for example, although Georgia was reunited with her birth sibling who had also been placed for adoption, she never met her birth siblings who had been raised by her birth mother. Her birth mother felt unable to meet her and as a consequence she did not meet the children of her birth mother’s marriage: ‘It’s hard to think I have four brothers and three sisters out there that I’ll never know and they will never know I existed.’ This theme of secrecy also extended to adopted people who were reunited with full birth siblings. For example, Martha was reunited with her full siblings, but nevertheless her existence had to be kept a secret outside the family. This secrecy impeded the development of their relationships: ‘It would be nice to have more of a relationship … this secrecy that continues on … as it was in the past’ (Martha). Four adopted people met full birth siblings of their birth parents’ subsequent marriage and three of these adopted people also met both their birth parents. It was clearly a very emotional experience for adopted people who met their birth parents and full birth siblings. Yet, it was an experience that resulted in different perspectives in the narratives of participants. One adopted person, Kelly, was reunited with her birth parents and her full birth siblings. She spoke of how, when she learned that her birth mother had married her birth father, she thought why had her birth mother placed her for adoption and then married her birth father a few years later? She felt this was information she had to accept and move on from. In contrast, Zoe, spoke of how she was happy her birth parents had stayed together. She described it as a ‘happy ending’. Overall, the experience of discovering birth siblings who remained with birth parents may involve multiple perspectives. Adopted people’s reaction to information about siblings who remained with birth parents can be deeply emotional and the outcome of any relationship developing with birth siblings of the birth mother’s marriage is influenced by whether or not a birth mother can tell her husband and the children of her marriage about the child she placed for adoption years previously. Even if she is able to tell the children of her marriage about the child she placed for adoption, she may not feel able to disclose the existence of her birth child outside the family. Siblings also placed for adoption A significant number (n=19/33) of participants met birth siblings who were also placed for adoption. The themes that emerged in regard to this experience included how the reactions of adopted people’s family members influenced in some cases whether or not these relationships were maintained. The adopted person’s level of motivation to sustain the post-reunion sibling relationship was also of significance and these relationships were influenced by whether or not a reunion had happened previously with a birth mother. In some cases (n=7/33), adopted people were reunited with their birth sibling who was also placed for adoption, but they did not meet their birth mother. The implications for adopted people in these instances are that the relationship with their birth sibling will not be part of an adoption triangle as would be the case if the adopted person first meets their birth mother. The relationship may therefore hinge on the direct contact between the adopted person and their birth sibling. Eithne described her feelings that her situation was different to the circumstances of someone who first meets their birth mother before meeting their birth sibling: For [her birth sibling] and I, as well, it’s unusual in that we haven’t met our birth mother, which is the common thing between us, we don’t have the same birth father, so we don’t have that sort of triangle. I would imagine most people meet their birth mother and then they might find out about siblings through the birth mother, whether they be adopted or ones she brought up … . So, I think that is a little different, [participant pauses] and we are both in the same boat, I suppose. If adopted people meet birth siblings who were also placed for adoption, they could form a strong connection if shared values and commonalities existed between them. This factor also emerged in the cases of adopted people who met siblings who remained with a birth parent. However, relationships also emerged even where participants did not feel they had commonalities other than a shared genealogical makeup. In Eithne’s perspective, she and her birth sibling were in an unusual situation of forming a brother-and-sister relationship based only on their genetic connection. The need for support from family members appeared to be influential in post-reunion birth sibling relationships. Gemma referred to how her birth sibling’s husband was not in favour of the relationship she had formed with her birth sister who was also placed for adoption. This was one of the factors she believed had resulted in her relationship with her birth sister coming to an end. In contrast, Molly, with the support of her husband, developed a close relationship with a birth sibling who had also been placed for adoption. She spoke of how in her view the support of a partner for the new birth sibling relationship ‘has to be there’. The motivation to maintain the relationship was also a critical factor. In the case of two participants who were both placed for adoption in different adoptive families, issues relating to their birth mother’s original adoption decision hindered the maintenance of their post-reunion sibling relationship. Georgia, for example, spoke of how she had positive feelings about her placement for adoption but her birth sibling had negative feelings. Her birth sibling appeared to be uninterested in maintaining contact. It is notable that participants who had been raised as only children appeared to particularly value the ‘new’ sibling relationship(s) they had formed in later life and they appeared to be motivated towards maintaining these relationships. Only children One interesting pathway to emerge in the research was the experience of participants raised as only children who had been reunited with birth siblings. Six adopted people who had been raised as only children had met birth siblings in adult life. These participants were all reunited with maternal half birth siblings. At the time of research interview, they had all maintained contact with the birth siblings they met in adult life. Although all the participants who were raised as only children spoke of a range of happy experiences during their growing-up years, there appeared to be an extra dimension to the experience of these people on discovering the existence of birth siblings in adult life. Three adopted people who had been raised as only children discovered multiple birth siblings in adult life. The impact of learning about the existence of several birth siblings is illustrated in the narrative of Taragh, who had been raised by her adoptive parents as an only child. She had been reunited with birth siblings who had remained with her birth mother: ‘It was very overwhelming to think that I was always on my own and I always felt a missing link, that I wanted to be a part of a big family.’ This discovery can involve a significant change in identity from being an only child to having one or possibly several birth siblings. Adoptees who grew up as only children experienced exclusivity of care during their growing-up years. Meeting birth siblings in adult life provided these adults with opportunities for connectedness to genealogical origins and to experience a sibling relationship. These adoptees simultaneously remain an only child in their adoptive families and they become a sibling in their birth families. The clear message emerging from the narratives of participants who were raised as only children was that they found the experience of meeting birth siblings in adult life particularly rewarding and worthwhile. Liam, for example, had been raised as an only child by his adoptive parents. He was reunited with one birth sibling who had been raised in a different adoptive family. Liam spoke of how he forged a connection almost immediately with his birth sibling. He had maintained contact with his birth sibling and he recalled their reunion experiences as follows: Even though we were only allocated a certain time initially, to talk to each other, we could have talked for hours. We gelled straight away and it was funny we could both see resemblances in each other and that, and it has been fantastic ever since. I was only talking to her today. It’s been really good you know. There appeared to be an extra dimension to the experiences of adoptees who were raised as only children as a consequence of discovering a connection to a family of origin and the discovery of siblings that they did not know existed. Continuity of relationships Overall, twenty-six of the total number of participants (n=26/33) suggested that their post-reunion relationships with their birth siblings were a positive dimension in their lives and they wanted those relationships to continue. This positive dimension was linked to how meeting birth siblings had enabled adopted people to develop a more complete sense of their own identity by providing them with genealogical information and connections. In addition, the accounts of adopted people who had met birth siblings in adult life indicated that participants experienced meeting birth siblings in positive terms whether or not contact was maintained between them. For example, Aisling, who was the only participant to describe how she ended the contact with her birth family after a number of years, stated: ‘So yeah, it was like there was a big hole in my life that I needed to fill and now I have, I’ve moved on.’ She described how she had stopped all contact with her birth mother and her birth siblings, as their relationship had become complicated due to the difference in their social background. The lack of social commonality made it difficult to sustain their relationship. Yet, her curiosity about her origins was fulfilled as a consequence of her search. Fragility and ambiguity of post-reunion sibling relationships Adopted people who were in contact post reunion with their birth siblings referred to how these relationships were of significance to them, while frequently recognising their fragile nature. For example, Jennifer referred to her birth sibling and their relationship as follows: ‘Like a dear friend that I have only met, and I am hoping that God will keep him on my side and his family.’ It is interesting to note that, where adopted people had not remained in contact with their birth sibling, they sometimes used the model of a stranger relationship to describe the relationship they had with their birth sibling. For example, Yvonne, who did not remain in contact with her birth sibling, spoke of how she felt they were like strangers because she and her birth sister had not been placed in the same adoptive family. It is notable how very similar sentiments in regard to the ambiguity of post-reunion sibling relationships were expressed by participants who remained in contact with birth siblings. For example, Emily remained in contact with the birth sisters and birth brothers she had met in adult life. She stated: Well, you can’t be sisters in the sense that you haven’t grown up together but it is more like being friends than being sisters, you know it’s kind of funny to describe because I certainly feel very comfortable with them and we all seem to get on and you’d wonder is that because it is genetic or is it just a coincidence or you know particularly with [naming her birth sisters] now I feel I want to be with them and I feel totally comfortable with them and I almost feel like a sister, but I think because you haven’t grown up together it can’t be quite the same, you know, it’s just that connection you can’t bring that back. Reflecting on her experiences, Emily described how she and her birth sisters were not raised in the same family, so she did not completely feel like a sister. Their relationship was in some sense fragile and yet they got on well together. She ruminated on whether that was a coincidence or whether it was a consequence of their genetic relationship. Impact of professional support The narratives of some participants (n=7) highlighted the importance of professional support and counselling during the time leading up to their reunion. Six participants suggested that it is preferable for adopted people to go through an adoption agency when they want to search for birth siblings. The narratives of other (n=5) adopted people highlighted the importance of receiving information from agency records and a third of participants (n=11) recommended the need for adoption agencies to provide more follow-up support and counselling after the initial reunion. A third of participants (n=11/33) recommended the need for more post-reunion counselling and support. As an example, Ciara spoke of how she would have liked a follow-up meeting, six months to a year after her reunion: I would have liked, I suppose we had our initial meeting in the adoption agency and I think it was lovely to have it there and everything. But I suppose I would have liked maybe a follow-up meeting, maybe six months or a year after we were in contact. In addition, a small number (n=4/33) of participants highlighted how they would have liked to have attended a support group either pre or post reunion. On the other hand, one participant, Zoe, put forward a different perspective. She had the option to receive counselling from her social worker post reunion, but the support she received from family and friends was enough for her. It is notable how participants who did recommend the need for post-reunion support linked their recommendation to how they perceived a need for support for themselves (e.g. Yvonne, Molly and Andy) or they believed their birth sibling required additional support. For example, Yvonne suggested the need for follow-up stages in order to help adopted people to process the complex emotions that emerge post sibling reunion. Discussion The findings of this study suggest that the experience of adopted people who meet birth siblings in adult life is emotionally complex. There were different pathways through the search-and-reunion process to meeting birth siblings in adulthood. Although most participants met maternal half birth siblings, other participants had met full birth siblings or paternal half-siblings. Yet, depending on the response to contact by a birth mother, it was not always possible to meet half-siblings raised by a birth mother. The findings in this regard corroborate practice wisdom and advice for adopted people in the Council of Irish Adoption Agencies’ Post Adoption Information Leaflets (2012). The participants in the research were from a large age range of twenty to seventy years and it must be acknowledged that this wide age range may have impacted on the study findings in terms of their experience of adoption. For example, there was some evidence of a higher level of secrecy in regard to their adoption in the narratives of the older cohort of adopted adults. A limitation of the research is the possibility that adopted adults who participated in the study were more likely to have had a positive, rather than a negative, experience of reunion. This in-built bias in research findings towards an overall positive reunion outcome experience is acknowledged by Pacheco and Eme (1993) in their study on adoption reunion between adopted people and their birth parents. They surmised that, if their entire sample were interviewed, the results may not have been so positive as a result of the information they received regarding non-respondents (Pacheco and Eme, 1993). A significant number of adopted people in this study had met birth siblings who were also placed for adoption. In some cases, adopted people did not meet their birth mother and therefore the post-reunion relationship between these individuals hinged on whether or not they felt they had a common bond. One interesting pathway to emerge in the research is the experience of the participants who had been raised as only children who were reunited with siblings in adult life. This discovery may involve a significant change in identity from being an only child to having one or possibly several birth siblings. Yet, the clear message from the narratives of participants who had been raised as only children was that they had found the experience of meeting birth siblings in adult life particularly rewarding and worthwhile. It is notable that most participants had maintained a post-reunion relationship with their birth siblings. Participants who maintained contact with their birth siblings referred to these relationships as adding a positive dimension in their lives and they wanted those relationships to continue. Owusu-Bempah and Howitt (1997) suggest that socio-genealogical connectedness theory illuminates the needs of children to have information about their genealogical origins in order to have a complete sense of identity. For some participants in this research, a reunion with a birth parent was not possible and meeting birth siblings had provided an opportunity for genealogical connections. These relationships contained elements of fragility and ambiguity. Similar findings were noted by Jones and Hackett (2012) in their research in relation to adoptive parents who had adopted children in the UK over a twenty-four-year period. The adopters in their study frequently characterised relationships between their adopted children and birth relatives as tenuous. Relationships between adopted people and their birth siblings are built from a genetic connection rather than the shared history that normally exists in sibling relationships. This means that their development can take many routes, often involving complex feelings. A significant number of participants in this research highlighted the importance of social work support at different phases in the reunion process. Most participants in the study had remained in contact with the birth siblings they had met through an adoption reunion. Those participants who had not remained in contact with their birth siblings recommended that, even though their own personal relationship with their birth siblings had not continued, nevertheless, they found the search and reunion to be worthwhile, as it helped them to fill in aspects of their identity that were previously unknown. Therefore, social work policy may support adopted adults with the knowledge that, even if relationships post reunion were not sustained, there are potential benefits to be gained from engaging in a process of search for birth siblings. Although almost two-thirds of participants did not suggest a need for post-reunion support services, it is possible that this aspect of the findings could be influenced by the in-built bias in adoption reunion research (Pacheco and Eme, 1993), as adopted people who had a positive reunion experience would be more likely to agree to participate. As a result, these participants would be less likely to feel the need for post-reunion social work support. Adopted adults who recommended a need for post-reunion support services were participants who would have liked to have received more social work support for themselves. In addition, it also reflected their awareness of some issues that had emerged for a family member that would have merited social work support. Trinder et al. (2004) suggest that, although feelings of anger, loss or rejection are less likely to be present in sibling adoption reunions, there can be challenges to overcome. For example, as the relationship develops, it can be difficult for an adopted person to work out where they fit in within the wider birth family. However, the intrinsic value of sibling relationships is in terms of their potential to be, in many cases, lifelong relationships is well highlighted in the sibling relationship literature (Lukens and Thorning, 2011). The interpretative phenomenological framework used in the analysis of the data sought to uncover the core or essence of post-reunion sibling relationships. This essence points to the diversity inherent in these relationships, the challenges based on building a relationship founded on a genetic connection discovered only in adult life and the potential value they may hold for the people involved. Social work practitioners may have an important contribution in preparing adopted people for reunion and in supporting the complex and emotional relationships likely to emerge post reunion. Acknowledgements The first author would like to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dr Valerie Richardson, who supervised this research prior to her retirement. References Baden A. L. , Raible J. W. ( 2011 ) ‘Sibling relationships in transracial adoptive families’, in Caspi J. (ed.), Sibling Development: Implications for Mental Health Practitioners , New York , Springer . Brodzinsky D. M. ( 1990 ) ‘A stress and coping model of adoption adjustment’, in Brodzinsky D. M. , Schechter M. D. (eds), The Psychology of Adoption , Oxford , Oxford University Press . Cossar J. , Neil B. ( 2013 ) ‘Making sense of siblings: Connections and severances in post-adoption contact’ , Child and Family Social Work , 18 , pp. 67 – 76 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Council of Irish Adoption Agencies ( 2012 ) ‘Post adoption information leaflet: Adopted people’, Dublin, Council of Irish Adoption Agencies, No. 11. Dance C. , Rushton A. ( 1999 ) ‘Sibling separation and contact in permanent placement’, in Mullender A. (ed.), We Are Family: Sibling Relationships in Placement and Beyond , London , British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering . Dekker M. C. , Tieman W. , Vinke A. G. , van der Ende J. , Verhulst F. C. , Juffer F. ( 2016 ) ‘Mental health problems of Dutch young adult domestic adoptees compared to non-adopted peers and international adoptees’ , International Social Work , pp. 1 – 17 . DOI: 10.1177/0020872816651699. Department of Children and Youth Affairs ( 2015 ) ‘Overview of Provisions of Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill’, available online at www.dcya.gov.ie (accessed 8 August 2017). Dunn J. ( 2000 ) ‘State of the art: Siblings’ , The Psychologist , 13 , pp. 244 – 8 . Elgar M. , Head A. ( 1999 ) ‘An overview of siblings’, in Mullender A. (ed.), We Are Family: Sibling Relationships in Placement and Beyond , London , British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering . Hamilton C. ( 2011 ) Irish Social Work and Social Care Law , Dublin , Gill and Macmillan . Harrison C. ( 1999 ) ‘Children being looked after and their sibling relationships: The experiences of children in the working in partnership with “lost” parents research project’, in Mullender A. (ed.), We Are Family: Sibling Relationships in Placement and Beyond , London , British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering . Henney S. M. , Ayers-Lopez S. , Mack J. M. , Mc Roy R. G. , Grotevant H. D. ( 2008 ) ‘Birth mothers’ perceptions of their parented children’s knowledge of and involvement in adoption’ , Adoption Quarterly , 10 ( 3 ), pp. 103 – 29 . Howe D. , Feast J. ( 2000 ) Adoption, Search and Reunion , London , The Children’s Society . Howe D. , Feast J. ( 2001 ) ‘The long-term outcome of reunions between adult adopted people and their birth mothers’ , British Journal of Social Work , 31 , pp. 351 – 68 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Humphrey H. , Humphrey M. ( 1989 ) ‘Damaged identity and the search for kinship in adult adoptees’ , British Journal of Medical Psychology , 62 , pp. 301 – 9 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed Jones C. ( 2016 ) ‘Sibling relationships in adoptive and fostering families: A review of the international literature’ , Children and Society , 30 , pp. 324 – 34 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Jones C. , Hackett S. ( 2012 ) ‘Re-defining family relationships following adoption: Adoptive parents’ perspectives on the changing nature of kinship between adoptees and birth relatives’ , British Journal of Social Work , 42 , pp. 283 – 99 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Logan J. , Smith C. ( 2005 ) ‘Face-to-face contact post adoption’ , British Journal of Social Work , 35 , pp. 3 – 35 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Lukens E , Thorning H. ( 2011 ) ‘Siblings in families with mental illness’, in Caspi J. (ed.), Sibling Development: Implications for Mental Health Practitioners , New York , Springer . MacDonald M. , McSherry D. ( 2013 ) ‘Constrained adoptive parenthood and family transition: Adopters’ experience of unplanned birth family contact in adolescence’ , Child and Family Social Work , 18 , pp. 87 – 96 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS March K. ( 1995 ) ‘Perception of adoption as a social stigma: Motivation for search and reunion’ , Journal of Marriage and the Family , 57 , pp. 653 – 60 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Moyers S. , Farmer E. , Lipscombe J. ( 2006 ) ‘Contact with family members and its impact on adolescents and their foster placements’ , British Journal of Social Work , 36 , pp. 541 – 99 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Neil E. ( 2009 ) ‘Post-adoption contact and openness in adoptive parents’ minds: Consequences for children’s development’ , British Journal of Social Work , 39 , pp. 5 – 23 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Noller P. ( 2005 ) ‘Sibling relationships in adolescence: Learning and growing together’ , Personal Relationships , 12 , pp. 1 – 22 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS O’Neill D. , McAuley C. , Loughran H. ( 2014 ) ‘Post-adoption reunion sibling relationships: Factors facilitating and hindering the development of sensitive relationships following reunion in adulthood’ , Child and Family Social Work , 21 ( 2 ), pp. 218 – 27 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Ottaway H. C. ( 2012 ) ‘Sibling connections: An exploration of adopted people’s birth and adoptive sibling relationships across the life-span’, Ph.D. thesis submitted to the University of East Anglia. Owusu-Bempah K. ( 2006 ) ‘Socio-genealogical connectedness: Knowledge and identity’, in Aldgate J. , Jones D. , Rose W. , Jeffrey C. (eds), The Developing World of the Child , London , Jessica Kingsley . Owusu-Bempah K. , Howitt D. ( 1997 ) ‘Socio-genealogical connectedness, attachment theory and childcare practice’ , Child and Family Social Work , 2 , pp. 199 – 207 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Pacheco F. , Eme R. ( 1993 ) ‘An outcome study of the reunion between adoptees and biological parents’ , Child Welfare , 72 , pp. 53 – 64 . Quinn Patton M. ( 2002 ) Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods , London , Sage . Sanders R. M. ( 2011 ) ‘Siblings in practice’, in Caspi J. (ed.), Sibling Development: Implications for Mental Health Practitioners , New York , Springer . Saunders H. , Selwyn J. ( 2011 ) Adopting Large Sibling Groups: The Experiences of Adopters and Adoption Agencies , London , British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering . Smith J. A. , Flowers P. , Larkin M. ( 2013 ) Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method and Research , London , Sage . Storsbergen H. E. , Juffer F. , van Son M. J. M. , Hart H. ( 2010 ) ‘International adopted adults who did not suffer severe early deprivation: The role of appraisal of adoption’ , Children and Youth Services Review , 32 , pp. 191 – 7 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Tieman W. , van der Ende J. , Verhulst F. ( 2008 ) ‘Young adult international adoptees search for birth parents’ , Journal of Family Psychology , 22 ( 5 ), pp. 678 – 87 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed Trinder L. , Feast J. , Howe D. ( 2004 ) The Adoption Reunion Handbook , Chichester , Wiley and Sons Ltd. Triseliotis J. , Feast J. , Kyle F. ( 2005 ) The Adoption Triangle Revisited: A Study of Adoption, Search and Reunion Experiences , London , British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering . Wrobel G. M. , Dillon K. ( 2009 ) ‘Adopted adolescents: Who and what are they curious about?’, in Wrobel G. M. , Neil E. (eds), International Advances in Adoption Research for Practice , London , John Wiley and Sons . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

Diversity, Ambiguity and Fragility: The Experiences of Post-Adoption Sibling Relationships

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0045-3102
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Abstract

Abstract This paper explores findings from an exploratory study on the significant aspects of sibling relationships post adoption reunion. The qualitative data were drawn from in-depth interviews with thirty-three adopted people who had met birth siblings in adult life. The complex pathways of adopted people towards reunion are outlined. The findings demonstrate that, although most participants had maintained contact with the birth siblings they had met in adult life, these relationships were also fragile and ambiguous in nature. Important insights are gained from participants who made recommendations in relation to post-reunion social work support. Adoption/post-adoption, contact with birth relatives, siblings Introduction Research has provided many insights into the lives of families touched by adoption. However, until recently, research into the relationships that develop and the contact that may occur between siblings separated by adoption has been significantly under-represented in the research literature (Henney et al., 2008; Baden and Raible, 2011; O’Neill et al., 2014). Yet, the relationships that exist between brothers and sisters have been referred to as life’s ‘most influential bond’, being of longer duration than the ties to parents, spouses or children (Lukens and Thorning, 2011, p. 195). Moreover, Ottaway (2012) points out how exploring adopted people’s experience of birth sibling relationships over the life-span may help social workers today to understand more about the consequences of decisions in relation to siblings and to plan for the future in a more effective manner. Sibling relationships play an important role in the function and process of families (Sanders, 2011; Noller, 2005; Dunn, 2000) and the importance of this most lasting of human relationships is acknowledged at many levels in human society (Henney et al., 2008). The concept of sibling includes a large variety of relationships, in terms of their degree of relatedness, their shared upbringing, contact or legal status (Elgar and Head, 1999). In the case of children of the same biological parents who are raised together in the same household, all these factors may be held in common by the siblings, although age differences or life events may result in individual siblings experiencing and perceiving similar events in a different manner (Elgar and Head, 1999). Data for this qualitative study were collected within the Republic of Ireland. The findings are juxtaposed here with research from other English-speaking jurisdictions for comparison purposes. Yet, it is important to note there are differences between these countries in terms of their legal systems, kinship beliefs and history. In view of the importance of information on origins for adopted people, the legislative context has a significant influence. In the Republic of Ireland, the provisions of the recent Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2015, if enacted, will facilitate access to adoption information. The Bill provides that adopted persons, birth parents, relatives and persons who were placed in an informal adoption arrangement (or where a birth was incorrectly registered) can apply for information and tracing services (Department of Children and Youth Affairs (2015). Currently, there is no statutory right of access (as that which exists in the UK) to original birth certificates for adopted people in Ireland on reaching the age of eighteen. Since 1975, adopted people in England and Wales have had the right to apply for information to enable them to receive a copy of their original birth certificate. In Northern Ireland, this legal right was introduced in 1987. Adopted people in Scotland have always had the right to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate once they reach sixteen years of age. There is also no legal provision in the Republic of Ireland that permits the maintenance of contact and access of an adopted child to natural parents or named relatives (including siblings) even where this is deemed to be in the best interests of the child (Hamilton, 2011). In contrast, the importance of maintaining sibling relationships is recognised in UK policy and legislation (Saunders and Selwyn, 2011). International research in the area of adoption has focused on the area of post-adoption contact for children with members of their birth family (Logan and Smith, 2005; Neil, 2009), post-adoption family kinship relationships (Jones and Hackett, 2012) and sibling contact for children adopted from out-of-home care (Cossar and Neil, 2013; MacDonald and McSherry, 2013). More recently, Jones (2016) reviewed the international research on sibling relationships within adoptive and fostering families, pointing to the methodological challenges that may emerge in such research. While studies have indicated the importance of contact with siblings for children in care (Dance and Rushton, 1999; Harrison, 1999), research has also suggested that adolescents who are in foster-care may experience problems in terms of contact with birth relatives, including siblings (Moyers et al., 2006). For example, contact in some cases was viewed as posing risks of sexual abuse by siblings and the researchers found that such contact had been terminated by social services at least on a temporary basis (Moyers et al., 2006). During their lifetime, adoptees encounter unique questions about their biological origins and identity (Brodzinsky, 1990). Adoptees curiosity about their origins (Wrobel and Dillon, 2009) may result in the decision to search for biological family, whereas other adoptees choose not to do so. A few studies have indicated that adoptees’ desire to search may be linked to mental health issues (Tieman et al., 2008; Storsbergen et al., 2010; Dekker et al., 2016). For example, Storsbergen et al. (2010) found that non-searchers reported fewer mental health problems, higher self-esteem and a higher level of well-being than searchers. Similarly, Dekker et al. (2016), comparing the mental health problems of young adult domestic adoptees with their non-adopted peers in the general population, found small, yet significant differences favouring the non-adopted peers. Dekker and colleagues (2016) found that the majority of adopted adults were well adjusted in relation to mental health. However, a minority of the sample of domestic adoptees, particularly males, were at risk of emotional and behaviour problems. Interestingly, Tieman et al. (2008) found that, even in childhood, before beginning their search, future searchers had higher levels of problem behaviour than future non-searchers. This would suggest that the higher problem levels among adoptees who search are not caused by the search itself. It is possible that some searchers may experience more stress during childhood caused by the loss inherent in their adoption (Tieman et al., 2008). Studies on adopted adults who have searched for birth relatives demonstrate the complexity and variety of post-reunion relationships (Howe and Feast, 2000, 2001). Howe and Feast (2000) examined the area of post-reunion relationships with birth relatives in general; Triseliotis et al. (2005) incorporated the perspective of adopted people, birth parents and adoptive parents on adoption reunion. One earlier study (Humphrey and Humphrey, 1989) providing insight into the experience of reuniting with birth siblings found that a third of respondents referred spontaneously to their experience of contact with birth siblings and participants reported feelings of fairly widespread satisfaction, sometimes completely unexpected, in discovering long-lost siblings. The fact that such a significant minority of respondents referred spontaneously to positive aspects of their reunion with siblings may be linked with the more recent research by Owusu-Bempah (2006) in relation to socio-genealogical connectedness. Socio-genealogical connectedness theory suggests that information about birth parents is an essential factor in children’s overall adjustment (Owusu-Bampah and Howitt, 1997). This information may be gleaned from relatives and, if the information is favourable, it is likely to be incorporated into the young person’s sense of identity (Owusu-Bampah, 2006). In the context of the current research, knowledge about birth parents may be provided to adopted people by the birth siblings they meet in adult life. Alternatively, knowledge about birth parents may be shared by adopted people when both have been placed for adoption. We know from research that, even when reunion does not result in a long-term relationship, adopted adults can still view the experience of reunion in a positive light (O’Neill et al., 2014; March, 1995). When adopted people are unable to meet their birth mother or birth father, their need for genealogical connectedness is fulfilled to some degree as a result of meeting their birth siblings. This paper seeks to contribute to the debate in relation to post-adoption contact, particularly regarding adopted people and their birth siblings, by exploring findings from qualitative interviews with a sample of adopted people who met their birth siblings in adult life. This article will explore the diversity of experiences of sibling reunions. It will highlight the importance attributed to sibling connections as perceived by adopted adults, and it will consider the implications of these experiences for professionals seeking to support the sibling reunion process. The implications for post-adoption support services are also considered. Methodology The analysis presented in this paper draws on qualitative data generated through in-depth interviews with thirty-three adopted adults. The sample of adopted people was recruited through a voluntary adoption agency in the Republic of Ireland. The research included an element of snowball or chain sampling (Quinn Patton, 2002), as participants identified additional contacts for inclusion in the study. The Executive Committee of the agency gave permission for the research and ethical approval was granted by the Human Sciences Research Ethics Committee in University College Dublin. Findings from this research have been reported previously in (O’Neill et al., 2014). However, this paper reports the findings regarding the experiences of adopted people in relation to the qualities of the post-reunion sibling relationship. Social workers within the adoption agency assisted in compiling a sampling frame of adopted people known to the agency who had experienced a reunion with a sibling(s) between the years 2000 and 2007. The agency data on sibling reunions commenced in the year 2000 and it was envisaged that qualitative interviews with adopted people would begin in 2008. The sampling frame included data on the number of sibling reunions between the years 2000 and 2007. Data recorded whether the reunion had occurred with a birth sibling who had remained with a birth parent(s) or a birth sibling who had also been placed for adoption. In order to comply with ethical criteria, and avoid any individual feeling coerced to participant because they continued to require a service from the agency, only adopted adults whose cases were closed were invited to participate in the research. A semi-structured interview schedule was constructed, informed by the guidelines for descriptive interviews as outlined by Quinn Patton (2002) and by the literature review. The interviews with participants lasted approximately one to two hours. All the interviews were audio taped and transcribed. Data were then analysed within an interpretative phenomenological framework (Smith et al., 2013). Under this lens, the different possible variations of any given phenomenon are explored in order to establish what these variations have in common and, therefore, to reveal the core or essence of a particular phenomenon (Smith et al., 2013). This approach was chosen as it seemed particularly appropriate to the exploration of participants’ experiences in relation to the emotional complexity of sibling adoption reunion. An initial coding frame was developed with the assistance of Maxqda software analysis package (VERBI GmbH, Berlin, Germany). Themes were compared across the transcripts, focusing on what was common and shared by participants. Pseudonyms were used in reporting the study findings in order to maintain the anonymity of participants. The key themes that emerged from the analysis will be explored in the sections below. Sample The agency identified sixty-one possible participants whose cases were closed. These were sent a letter of invitation to participate and thirty-three people returned consent forms. This included three participants of ‘de facto’ adoptions where placement occurred prior to the introduction of legal adoption in the Republic of Ireland in 1952. Two birth siblings who were raised with birth parents also took part in the study as a result of snowball sampling (Quinn Patton, 2002). However, this paper focuses solely on the experiences of the adopted people. The sample comprised eight males and twenty-five females. A significant number of the study participants (n = 19/33) had met siblings who had been placed for adoption in a different adoptive family. Fourteen participants (n=14/33) had met sibling(s) who had been raised with a birth parent(s). It is important to note that five of the nineteen participants who had met siblings who were also placed for adoption met a combination of siblings who had been placed for adoption and siblings who were raised with a birth parent. The participants had all been placed for adoption/de facto adoption as infants, apart from one participant who had been placed under the age of four years. Participants ranged in age from twenty to seventy years. This broad age range was somewhat unexpected, as a criterion for inclusion was to have experienced a reunion in the relatively recent past. All participants had experienced reunions in the past two to nine years. This may be illustrative of the ongoing and timeless nature of the desire to search. Figure 1 illustrates the number of years that elapsed between the initial reunion with a birth sibling and the time of interview. Figure 1 View largeDownload slide Number of years from initial reunion Figure 1 View largeDownload slide Number of years from initial reunion While the number of years from the initial reunion with birth siblings to the time of interview ranged from two to nine years, it is important to note that, in some cases, adopted people had met several birth siblings and these reunions took place over a period of time. There was considerable diversity in regard to the number of siblings adopted people had met in adulthood. Figure 2 highlights this finding. Figure 2 View largeDownload slide Number of birth siblings adopted people met in adult life Figure 2 View largeDownload slide Number of birth siblings adopted people met in adult life Although a significant proportion (n=15/33) of adopted people had met only one birth sibling, two adopted people had met nine birth siblings and one adopted person had met ten birth siblings as illustrated in Figure 2. Findings A number of themes emerged from the data which help to further our understanding of adopted people’s experiences of sibling reunion. These include a more detailed picture of the diverse pathways to such reunions and the subsequent range of relationships that emerge. Participants also provided insight into the type of professional support that might be required. Diverse pathways The pathways of adopted people to meeting maternal, paternal or full birth siblings indicate that the majority (n=29/33) of participants initiated a search through the agency. Four adopted people had not been searchers, as their reunion resulted from an enquiry by either a birth mother or birth sibling. The search resulted in adopted people meeting maternal half-siblings (n=22/33), paternal half-siblings (n=2/33) or full birth siblings (n=9/33). The majority of adopted people had met maternal half-siblings as illustrated in Figure 3. This is probably due to the preponderance of searching for birth mothers rather than birth fathers. The experience of participants who had met full siblings was complex. Adopted people in four cases had met siblings who had been parented by both their birth parents and five adopted people had met full siblings who had also been placed for adoption. It was clear from the narratives of adopted people that there was not a clear division between those who had searched and those who did not. Some of the participants who were contacted by their birth mother or another member of their birth family had registered their interest in searching on the National Adoption Contact Preference Register or they had thought about searching themselves after the birth of their own child. Figure 3 View largeDownload slide Pathways of adopted people to reunion with birth siblings Figure 3 View largeDownload slide Pathways of adopted people to reunion with birth siblings Meeting birth siblings who were raised by birth family It is interesting to explore the differences in the findings between the experience of those adopted people reunited with birth siblings who had remained with a birth parent and those who had met birth siblings who had been placed for adoption. First, in relation to adopted people who had met birth siblings who were raised by their birth mother or father, the findings indicate that adopted people were in many cases curious about, in particular, their birth mother’s life and wished to know whether she had married and whether she had children from her marriage. For example, Aisling, when asked whether she had thought about the possibility that she could have birth siblings during her growing-up years, said: Oh yeah, of course, yeah, the first thing you want to know is that hopefully your birth mother is married and has moved on in her life, which mine had, so she did and (pause) she married a lovely man and they had four children. It is interesting to note how Aisling refers to how hopefully her birth mother had ‘moved on’ in her life. This finding was echoed in the narratives of other participants who were curious regarding their birth mother’s life since their placement for adoption. Yet, the theme of secrecy also emerged in the narratives of adopted people who discovered their birth mother had children from her subsequent marriage. So, for example, although Georgia was reunited with her birth sibling who had also been placed for adoption, she never met her birth siblings who had been raised by her birth mother. Her birth mother felt unable to meet her and as a consequence she did not meet the children of her birth mother’s marriage: ‘It’s hard to think I have four brothers and three sisters out there that I’ll never know and they will never know I existed.’ This theme of secrecy also extended to adopted people who were reunited with full birth siblings. For example, Martha was reunited with her full siblings, but nevertheless her existence had to be kept a secret outside the family. This secrecy impeded the development of their relationships: ‘It would be nice to have more of a relationship … this secrecy that continues on … as it was in the past’ (Martha). Four adopted people met full birth siblings of their birth parents’ subsequent marriage and three of these adopted people also met both their birth parents. It was clearly a very emotional experience for adopted people who met their birth parents and full birth siblings. Yet, it was an experience that resulted in different perspectives in the narratives of participants. One adopted person, Kelly, was reunited with her birth parents and her full birth siblings. She spoke of how, when she learned that her birth mother had married her birth father, she thought why had her birth mother placed her for adoption and then married her birth father a few years later? She felt this was information she had to accept and move on from. In contrast, Zoe, spoke of how she was happy her birth parents had stayed together. She described it as a ‘happy ending’. Overall, the experience of discovering birth siblings who remained with birth parents may involve multiple perspectives. Adopted people’s reaction to information about siblings who remained with birth parents can be deeply emotional and the outcome of any relationship developing with birth siblings of the birth mother’s marriage is influenced by whether or not a birth mother can tell her husband and the children of her marriage about the child she placed for adoption years previously. Even if she is able to tell the children of her marriage about the child she placed for adoption, she may not feel able to disclose the existence of her birth child outside the family. Siblings also placed for adoption A significant number (n=19/33) of participants met birth siblings who were also placed for adoption. The themes that emerged in regard to this experience included how the reactions of adopted people’s family members influenced in some cases whether or not these relationships were maintained. The adopted person’s level of motivation to sustain the post-reunion sibling relationship was also of significance and these relationships were influenced by whether or not a reunion had happened previously with a birth mother. In some cases (n=7/33), adopted people were reunited with their birth sibling who was also placed for adoption, but they did not meet their birth mother. The implications for adopted people in these instances are that the relationship with their birth sibling will not be part of an adoption triangle as would be the case if the adopted person first meets their birth mother. The relationship may therefore hinge on the direct contact between the adopted person and their birth sibling. Eithne described her feelings that her situation was different to the circumstances of someone who first meets their birth mother before meeting their birth sibling: For [her birth sibling] and I, as well, it’s unusual in that we haven’t met our birth mother, which is the common thing between us, we don’t have the same birth father, so we don’t have that sort of triangle. I would imagine most people meet their birth mother and then they might find out about siblings through the birth mother, whether they be adopted or ones she brought up … . So, I think that is a little different, [participant pauses] and we are both in the same boat, I suppose. If adopted people meet birth siblings who were also placed for adoption, they could form a strong connection if shared values and commonalities existed between them. This factor also emerged in the cases of adopted people who met siblings who remained with a birth parent. However, relationships also emerged even where participants did not feel they had commonalities other than a shared genealogical makeup. In Eithne’s perspective, she and her birth sibling were in an unusual situation of forming a brother-and-sister relationship based only on their genetic connection. The need for support from family members appeared to be influential in post-reunion birth sibling relationships. Gemma referred to how her birth sibling’s husband was not in favour of the relationship she had formed with her birth sister who was also placed for adoption. This was one of the factors she believed had resulted in her relationship with her birth sister coming to an end. In contrast, Molly, with the support of her husband, developed a close relationship with a birth sibling who had also been placed for adoption. She spoke of how in her view the support of a partner for the new birth sibling relationship ‘has to be there’. The motivation to maintain the relationship was also a critical factor. In the case of two participants who were both placed for adoption in different adoptive families, issues relating to their birth mother’s original adoption decision hindered the maintenance of their post-reunion sibling relationship. Georgia, for example, spoke of how she had positive feelings about her placement for adoption but her birth sibling had negative feelings. Her birth sibling appeared to be uninterested in maintaining contact. It is notable that participants who had been raised as only children appeared to particularly value the ‘new’ sibling relationship(s) they had formed in later life and they appeared to be motivated towards maintaining these relationships. Only children One interesting pathway to emerge in the research was the experience of participants raised as only children who had been reunited with birth siblings. Six adopted people who had been raised as only children had met birth siblings in adult life. These participants were all reunited with maternal half birth siblings. At the time of research interview, they had all maintained contact with the birth siblings they met in adult life. Although all the participants who were raised as only children spoke of a range of happy experiences during their growing-up years, there appeared to be an extra dimension to the experience of these people on discovering the existence of birth siblings in adult life. Three adopted people who had been raised as only children discovered multiple birth siblings in adult life. The impact of learning about the existence of several birth siblings is illustrated in the narrative of Taragh, who had been raised by her adoptive parents as an only child. She had been reunited with birth siblings who had remained with her birth mother: ‘It was very overwhelming to think that I was always on my own and I always felt a missing link, that I wanted to be a part of a big family.’ This discovery can involve a significant change in identity from being an only child to having one or possibly several birth siblings. Adoptees who grew up as only children experienced exclusivity of care during their growing-up years. Meeting birth siblings in adult life provided these adults with opportunities for connectedness to genealogical origins and to experience a sibling relationship. These adoptees simultaneously remain an only child in their adoptive families and they become a sibling in their birth families. The clear message emerging from the narratives of participants who were raised as only children was that they found the experience of meeting birth siblings in adult life particularly rewarding and worthwhile. Liam, for example, had been raised as an only child by his adoptive parents. He was reunited with one birth sibling who had been raised in a different adoptive family. Liam spoke of how he forged a connection almost immediately with his birth sibling. He had maintained contact with his birth sibling and he recalled their reunion experiences as follows: Even though we were only allocated a certain time initially, to talk to each other, we could have talked for hours. We gelled straight away and it was funny we could both see resemblances in each other and that, and it has been fantastic ever since. I was only talking to her today. It’s been really good you know. There appeared to be an extra dimension to the experiences of adoptees who were raised as only children as a consequence of discovering a connection to a family of origin and the discovery of siblings that they did not know existed. Continuity of relationships Overall, twenty-six of the total number of participants (n=26/33) suggested that their post-reunion relationships with their birth siblings were a positive dimension in their lives and they wanted those relationships to continue. This positive dimension was linked to how meeting birth siblings had enabled adopted people to develop a more complete sense of their own identity by providing them with genealogical information and connections. In addition, the accounts of adopted people who had met birth siblings in adult life indicated that participants experienced meeting birth siblings in positive terms whether or not contact was maintained between them. For example, Aisling, who was the only participant to describe how she ended the contact with her birth family after a number of years, stated: ‘So yeah, it was like there was a big hole in my life that I needed to fill and now I have, I’ve moved on.’ She described how she had stopped all contact with her birth mother and her birth siblings, as their relationship had become complicated due to the difference in their social background. The lack of social commonality made it difficult to sustain their relationship. Yet, her curiosity about her origins was fulfilled as a consequence of her search. Fragility and ambiguity of post-reunion sibling relationships Adopted people who were in contact post reunion with their birth siblings referred to how these relationships were of significance to them, while frequently recognising their fragile nature. For example, Jennifer referred to her birth sibling and their relationship as follows: ‘Like a dear friend that I have only met, and I am hoping that God will keep him on my side and his family.’ It is interesting to note that, where adopted people had not remained in contact with their birth sibling, they sometimes used the model of a stranger relationship to describe the relationship they had with their birth sibling. For example, Yvonne, who did not remain in contact with her birth sibling, spoke of how she felt they were like strangers because she and her birth sister had not been placed in the same adoptive family. It is notable how very similar sentiments in regard to the ambiguity of post-reunion sibling relationships were expressed by participants who remained in contact with birth siblings. For example, Emily remained in contact with the birth sisters and birth brothers she had met in adult life. She stated: Well, you can’t be sisters in the sense that you haven’t grown up together but it is more like being friends than being sisters, you know it’s kind of funny to describe because I certainly feel very comfortable with them and we all seem to get on and you’d wonder is that because it is genetic or is it just a coincidence or you know particularly with [naming her birth sisters] now I feel I want to be with them and I feel totally comfortable with them and I almost feel like a sister, but I think because you haven’t grown up together it can’t be quite the same, you know, it’s just that connection you can’t bring that back. Reflecting on her experiences, Emily described how she and her birth sisters were not raised in the same family, so she did not completely feel like a sister. Their relationship was in some sense fragile and yet they got on well together. She ruminated on whether that was a coincidence or whether it was a consequence of their genetic relationship. Impact of professional support The narratives of some participants (n=7) highlighted the importance of professional support and counselling during the time leading up to their reunion. Six participants suggested that it is preferable for adopted people to go through an adoption agency when they want to search for birth siblings. The narratives of other (n=5) adopted people highlighted the importance of receiving information from agency records and a third of participants (n=11) recommended the need for adoption agencies to provide more follow-up support and counselling after the initial reunion. A third of participants (n=11/33) recommended the need for more post-reunion counselling and support. As an example, Ciara spoke of how she would have liked a follow-up meeting, six months to a year after her reunion: I would have liked, I suppose we had our initial meeting in the adoption agency and I think it was lovely to have it there and everything. But I suppose I would have liked maybe a follow-up meeting, maybe six months or a year after we were in contact. In addition, a small number (n=4/33) of participants highlighted how they would have liked to have attended a support group either pre or post reunion. On the other hand, one participant, Zoe, put forward a different perspective. She had the option to receive counselling from her social worker post reunion, but the support she received from family and friends was enough for her. It is notable how participants who did recommend the need for post-reunion support linked their recommendation to how they perceived a need for support for themselves (e.g. Yvonne, Molly and Andy) or they believed their birth sibling required additional support. For example, Yvonne suggested the need for follow-up stages in order to help adopted people to process the complex emotions that emerge post sibling reunion. Discussion The findings of this study suggest that the experience of adopted people who meet birth siblings in adult life is emotionally complex. There were different pathways through the search-and-reunion process to meeting birth siblings in adulthood. Although most participants met maternal half birth siblings, other participants had met full birth siblings or paternal half-siblings. Yet, depending on the response to contact by a birth mother, it was not always possible to meet half-siblings raised by a birth mother. The findings in this regard corroborate practice wisdom and advice for adopted people in the Council of Irish Adoption Agencies’ Post Adoption Information Leaflets (2012). The participants in the research were from a large age range of twenty to seventy years and it must be acknowledged that this wide age range may have impacted on the study findings in terms of their experience of adoption. For example, there was some evidence of a higher level of secrecy in regard to their adoption in the narratives of the older cohort of adopted adults. A limitation of the research is the possibility that adopted adults who participated in the study were more likely to have had a positive, rather than a negative, experience of reunion. This in-built bias in research findings towards an overall positive reunion outcome experience is acknowledged by Pacheco and Eme (1993) in their study on adoption reunion between adopted people and their birth parents. They surmised that, if their entire sample were interviewed, the results may not have been so positive as a result of the information they received regarding non-respondents (Pacheco and Eme, 1993). A significant number of adopted people in this study had met birth siblings who were also placed for adoption. In some cases, adopted people did not meet their birth mother and therefore the post-reunion relationship between these individuals hinged on whether or not they felt they had a common bond. One interesting pathway to emerge in the research is the experience of the participants who had been raised as only children who were reunited with siblings in adult life. This discovery may involve a significant change in identity from being an only child to having one or possibly several birth siblings. Yet, the clear message from the narratives of participants who had been raised as only children was that they had found the experience of meeting birth siblings in adult life particularly rewarding and worthwhile. It is notable that most participants had maintained a post-reunion relationship with their birth siblings. Participants who maintained contact with their birth siblings referred to these relationships as adding a positive dimension in their lives and they wanted those relationships to continue. Owusu-Bempah and Howitt (1997) suggest that socio-genealogical connectedness theory illuminates the needs of children to have information about their genealogical origins in order to have a complete sense of identity. For some participants in this research, a reunion with a birth parent was not possible and meeting birth siblings had provided an opportunity for genealogical connections. These relationships contained elements of fragility and ambiguity. Similar findings were noted by Jones and Hackett (2012) in their research in relation to adoptive parents who had adopted children in the UK over a twenty-four-year period. The adopters in their study frequently characterised relationships between their adopted children and birth relatives as tenuous. Relationships between adopted people and their birth siblings are built from a genetic connection rather than the shared history that normally exists in sibling relationships. This means that their development can take many routes, often involving complex feelings. A significant number of participants in this research highlighted the importance of social work support at different phases in the reunion process. Most participants in the study had remained in contact with the birth siblings they had met through an adoption reunion. Those participants who had not remained in contact with their birth siblings recommended that, even though their own personal relationship with their birth siblings had not continued, nevertheless, they found the search and reunion to be worthwhile, as it helped them to fill in aspects of their identity that were previously unknown. Therefore, social work policy may support adopted adults with the knowledge that, even if relationships post reunion were not sustained, there are potential benefits to be gained from engaging in a process of search for birth siblings. Although almost two-thirds of participants did not suggest a need for post-reunion support services, it is possible that this aspect of the findings could be influenced by the in-built bias in adoption reunion research (Pacheco and Eme, 1993), as adopted people who had a positive reunion experience would be more likely to agree to participate. As a result, these participants would be less likely to feel the need for post-reunion social work support. Adopted adults who recommended a need for post-reunion support services were participants who would have liked to have received more social work support for themselves. In addition, it also reflected their awareness of some issues that had emerged for a family member that would have merited social work support. Trinder et al. (2004) suggest that, although feelings of anger, loss or rejection are less likely to be present in sibling adoption reunions, there can be challenges to overcome. For example, as the relationship develops, it can be difficult for an adopted person to work out where they fit in within the wider birth family. However, the intrinsic value of sibling relationships is in terms of their potential to be, in many cases, lifelong relationships is well highlighted in the sibling relationship literature (Lukens and Thorning, 2011). The interpretative phenomenological framework used in the analysis of the data sought to uncover the core or essence of post-reunion sibling relationships. This essence points to the diversity inherent in these relationships, the challenges based on building a relationship founded on a genetic connection discovered only in adult life and the potential value they may hold for the people involved. Social work practitioners may have an important contribution in preparing adopted people for reunion and in supporting the complex and emotional relationships likely to emerge post reunion. Acknowledgements The first author would like to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dr Valerie Richardson, who supervised this research prior to her retirement. References Baden A. L. , Raible J. W. ( 2011 ) ‘Sibling relationships in transracial adoptive families’, in Caspi J. (ed.), Sibling Development: Implications for Mental Health Practitioners , New York , Springer . Brodzinsky D. M. ( 1990 ) ‘A stress and coping model of adoption adjustment’, in Brodzinsky D. M. , Schechter M. D. (eds), The Psychology of Adoption , Oxford , Oxford University Press . 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This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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The British Journal of Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Jul 1, 2018

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