Adoption : salient experiences of a sample of adult adoptees

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This investigation into adoption began in January 1986 in the Republic of South Africa. The aim was to understand adoption from the subjective viewpoint of adults who were adopted as infants or children. It was based on the working hypothesis that although adoption has universal qualities, there would also be regional, cultural and time-related differences affecting both the practice and experience of adoption. Appeals were made for respondents through three popular magazines, private welfare organisations, the Registrar of Adoption and by means of "snowball sampling". Questionnaires were subsequently posted country-wide between April and October 1986. The questionnaire contained 209 open- and closed-ended questions covering the period from adoption placement to adulthood. An eighty-eight percent response rate was obtained. The material was analysed with emphasis on the qualitative interpretation of the content of the data in the open-ended responses. The sample comprised eighty-two adult adoptees between the ages of eighteen and seventy, of whom seventy-one percent were female, twenty-nine percent male, 58,5 percent Afrikaans speaking and 41,5 percent English- speaking. Cultural differences were found in the responses of the two language groups. Variables that have been considered relevant or insufficiently explored in the literature on adoption were examined. These were: age of placement; attachment in the adoptive home; manner and timing of revelation of adoptive status and adoptee reactions to this; adoptee thoughts and fears concerning birth parents, the school experience; identity problems in adolescence and adulthood manifested as insecurity or behaviour problems; the adoptee's need to know more about his or her origins and the concomitant consequences. Notable findings were: the paucity of information given to these adoptees about their origins; thoughts and fears about birth parents that occurred as early as the pre-school period; childhood fears arising from the adoptive status; sensitivity about being adopted; peer group cruelty in pre-puberty and a seventeen percent parasuicide incidence among the members of this sample. Another finding related to the adult adoptee's need for a bio-genealogical history, especially in view of the high risk of certain genetic disorders, particularly among the Afrikaner population. The majority of the adoptees in this sample entertained the possibility of meeting birth parents one day; for many this began in pre-puberty. This was contingent on the quality of the relationship with their adoptive parents in only a minority of cases. Few adoptees could share their thoughts about adoption and birth parents with their adoptive parents. Adoptees who were 'searching' or who had 'found' birth parents were motivated more by a need to know who they were and why they had been given up for adoption, than by a need to replace the 'lost parent'. Where the relationship with the adoptive parents was warm and satisfying, the finding of birth parent(s) did not affect the adoptive relationship deleteriously. These findings point to a need for more research on adoption following changes in South African adoption laws allowing adult adoptees access to court records of their adoption. Adoptees and their parents need informed assistance from those who counsel them.

Bibliography: pages 235-252.