A recent Daily Mail online article entitled 'Scandal of the babies parents won't adopt because they're called Chrystal and Chardonnay . . . and the social workers who won't let them change their names' has raised a predictable storm of comments on all sides of the debate.
Basically, this is a whistleblowing article from a serving social worker claiming that there are babies who are not being adopted because their names don't fit the middle-class ideals of prospective adopting parents. Suitably inflammatory for the Daily Mail, one might think. But then the article goes on to talk about the thorny issue of how many rights the birth families continue to have once their children have been put up for adoption.
Did you know that these days adoptive parents are usually required to maintain some sort of contact with the birth families on behalf of the child? This could take the form of an annual letter describing what the child has been up to that year, perhaps accompanied by a photograph. When the child is older, they are encouraged to participate in this letter writing to help them maintain links with their birth families. The idea is that it helps them to maintain a sense of their identity by not losing touch with where they came from.
The concept of adoption as a completely 'fresh start' for a child seems to have fallen by the wayside. I have been told that once a child has been adopted, they are 'always on social service's radar'. Name changing is frowned upon as a child's name is another important link with their roots (and I have spoken to adoptees whose names were changed who did indeed feel that this was to their detriment). Closed adoptions are practically unheard of now - gone are the days when an older child could accidentally find out that they were adopted at birth, with all the accompanying anguish that such a discovery would cause.
Personally I'm a little bit on the fence about this issue. I think we do need to listen to the experiences of adopted children who have experienced a complete loss of their identity. But from the point of view of an adoptive parent I can completely understand why someone would want to change the name of a child that they have adopted. Adoptive families want to be families. They want their children to feel absolutely part of the family and not to always be reminded that they were adopted. This is particularly important when there are existing birth children in the family. There is something to be said for minimising that feeling of 'otherness' that might make it more difficult for an adopted child to truly become part of the fabric of the family and the community that they have been brought into.
In many communities and cultures, names are significant and laden with layers of meaning. Couples that have struggled with infertility for years will have named and re-named hoped-for babies so many times. Naming a new child is an important part of welcoming that child into the family, of making them belong, but adoptive parents are denied that opportunity when the children come ready-named.
But, surely it's about what's best for the child, not what's best for the adoptive parents, right? Well, we might sniff self-righteously at snobby middle-class parents who don't want a child of theirs to be called Chardonnay or Chrystal, but the truth is that names do matter. I can't imagine a child having an easy time in any of the schools near me if they are burdened with a name like Tarquin or Penelope.
I recently heard a radio programme about trans-cultural adoption. Two women, one black and the other asian, were speaking about their experiences of being adopted into white families. One of the comments that really stayed with me was when one woman said that she could never have a moment's privacy about her adoption all through her childhood. Everywhere they went, on holidays, day-trips, even to the corner shop, the difference between her and her siblings and parents was noted and commented on. Time and time again she had to explain to perfect strangers that she was, indeed, adopted. She felt like she never had the opportunity to just put her past down and get on with her life. Although she loved her adoptive parents and was glad to have found a loving family, this sense of being different blighted her whole childhood.
Might this be the case for trans-class adoptions (for want of a better phrase!)? Would an Emmarald or a Chianti forever feel slightly outcast in classes full of Emilys and Sophies? I don't know, but perhaps it's worth looking into before we rush to judgement on those who want their kids to have names like all the other kids they know.
And there are other, more serious reasons for wanting to change a child's name. I have honestly considered whether it would be possible to change OB's name once I adopt him. This is not for reasons of vanity - he has a perfectly nice name - but for reasons of anonymity. If the local social services are so concerned for his safety that they want me to move out of the borough, then why not a name change to go with the move? OB's birth family all know my last name, so protecting his new identity will be out of the question unless some part of his name can be changed.
And this brings me to the second point of the article - the rights of birth families. In my case, social services are apparently so worried about OB's safety that, in order to protect him from his birth family, I have to move to a different borough. And yet I will be required to keep in contact with this same, apparently dangerous, birth family through annual letters describing all of OB's latest adventures. I can't say I'm thrilled at the prospect. Part of me completely resents the idea that these people should have any further influence in OB's life. I would never hide the fact of his adoption, and would give him all the information he wants if he asks for it, but I think the decision about whether to have contact with his birth family should be left entirely to him, and not written into some care plan that he has had no say about. All the 'rights' here should be the child's, not the birth family's in my opinion.
The message coming from social services about identity and links with the birth family seems to be confused. I was even told that moving away was for our own good because if OB has a row with me when he's older and threatens to run away to his birth family, it will be harder for him to do that if we live farther away! They rush to get OB's court decision so that he's still too young to have any memory of his adoption, and then they insist that I push the fact of his adoption in his face every single year all through his childhood. I have to move as far away from his family as possible, but at the same time I am discouraged from changing his name to make him more difficult to find.
Surely a sensible compromise could be found to enable an adopted child to become fully integrated with their adoptive family, while at the same time maintaining enough of a link with the past that a child could choose to explore this further in their own time. He could have his current name as his middle name. I could keep photographs and other mementoes of OB's birth family for him to see if he asks. Having spent a fair bit of time with his birth family, I could tell him about them if he wanted to know. But surely it should be up to him whether his birth family know anything about him? And surely we should be able to make a completely fresh start and give him the chance to grow up in a stable family where I am the Mummy and he is the son without the tragedies of his past hanging over us at every turn?